What does it take to make good schools? That's the question I put last week to the person who knows the answers as well as anyone else in America today: Alonzo A. Crim, the dean of urban school superintendents, who steps down Aug. 1 after 15 years as head of the Atlanta school system.
Dr. Crim knows a good school when he sees one. His 68,000-student system, 92 percent black, sends about 70 percent of its graduates on to post-secondary education - well above the national average. Six months after graduation, only a remarkably low 4 percent of its graduates are neither employed nor in further schooling. Moreover, new teachers are drawn to the system from all around the country - more than half of them white.
What makes it work? Crim cites a number of factors. Atlanta, with what he thinks is the nation's largest black middle class community, funds the school budget reasonably well. In addition, hundreds of local businesses, and 90 churches, mosques, and synagogues, are actively involved with individual schools.
But the one ingredient that matters most to Crim is leadership. That's the reason he's moving over to Georgia State University, where he'll take up the newly established Benjamin Elijah Mays chair in urban educational leadership. ``Our leaders, from top to bottom,'' he says, ``are going to have to rediscover that kids are important to the nation.''
That sounds so obvious that one might almost overlook it. But the sad fact is that educational leadership is sometimes driven by less high-minded goals. At the top levels, where urban superintendents jockey with school boards and city councils for cash and clout, it can be a hardball game of power, prestige, and political intrigue - where the kids themselves are almost forgotten.
So it's a pleasure to listen to this soft-spoken, gracious man - the epitome, in many ways, of the gentleman scholar - reflect on his 35 years in public education. What does he look for, for instance, in teachers?
``We need to assure that they've had a good, liberal education - that they have been stimulated as individuals, that they are alive and attuned to the new ideas, that they possess self-confidence,'' he says. They don't have to know everything, but they have to exemplify to the students that they themselves are learners.''
Then, with a chuckle, he adds, ``I like to say, `When you're green you grow, and when you're ripe you rot.'''
What about principals? Are they doomed to be pawns in a bureaucratic struggle? ``You can overcome a whole lot of bureaucracy if you have the movers and shakers in a given institution provide inspiration,'' he says. ``When the bureaucracy recognizes an inspired leader, they get out and run defense for him.''
But what about families - often seen as the missing link, the vacuum where the caring used to be? Crim doesn't ignore the vast changes of recent decades. ``We have a dreadful statistic in America,'' he says, ``that more than 50 percent of all kids by age 18 will have lived with one parent.'' But he notes that, in all his years in education, ``it's been a rare instance when parents really didn't care about kids.''
And what about the kids themselves? Crim admits to the problems - drugs on the playground, weapons in the hallways, and a challenging dropout rate. Yet he sees what he calls ``a new awareness among kids. Kids are more serious today than they've been in recent years,'' he adds, and are ``accepting their adult responsibilities earlier.''
Little wonder, then, that Crim has had enough faith in the students to require every student to do 75 hours of community service volunteer work in order to graduate - the only school district in the country to do so. ``They learn in that experience,'' he notes, ``that there is indeed greater pleasure in giving than receiving.''
Little wonder, too, that he finds that same attitude writ large in the adult community. ``There never has been a time, in my opinion, when volunteerism has been more available than now,'' he says. His favorite source for volunteers: church groups. ``If you want good folk, and you want people to model for kids, where better could you look than to the religious community?''
In an hour and a half of probing discussion, Crim said very little about himself. Yet if this is what he means by leadership - upbeat instead of disheartened, modest instead of assertive, affectionate but not charismatic, eyeing outcomes instead of procedures - it's little wonder that Atlanta has succeeded. The educational leader's job, as he says, is simply ``to rekindle the trust of persons who historically have supported public education.''
For the benefit of us all, he's proved it can be done.
A Monday column