BOSTON — As he hurried through the brightly painted halls of Oliver Wendell Holmes elementary school in Boston, Thomas Payzant kept stopping. Each time, the city's new school superintendent introduced himself to someone new - a student, a teacher, a parent.
"I just don't want to miss anybody," he explained, stooping down to welcome a kindergartner enrolling midterm.
Dr. Payzant has built his reputation on the idea that the people in the schoolhouse - not central office administrators or officials at city hall - are the key to improving public education. It seems a straightforward, even simple, philosophy, but by adhering to it for 30 years in the public schools, Payzant has been hailed as one of the top education reformers in the nation.
So it is that Payzant, on his first day as Boston's superintendent last October, pledged to visit each of the city's 123 schools before the academic year ends, a promise he is now close to fulfilling. Even in one trip, such as his recent stop at Holmes elementary in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, Payzant says he can tell a lot about how well a school is functioning.
Once known for excellence, Boston's public schools have slipped since the 1960s to the point where less than 10 percent of fourth-graders can read and compute math at their grade level, test scores show. Five of the city's 15 high schools are in danger of losing their accreditation from a regional board, jeopardizing their students' chances of going to college.
Payzant's plan for restoring public education is to develop strict, clear standards for student performance and to provide the resources needed to achieve them: high-caliber principals, teacher training, and an organized plan for involving the community.
"Tom Payzant's got all the skills. He's been around the block enough times in enough tough settings [that] if anyone is able to thread his way through the minefields [of being an urban superintendent], it is he," says Michael Casserly, director of the Council of Great City Schools, a Washington-based association of the country's 47 largest school districts.
Boston's infamous school-desegregation fight in the 1960s produced one of the most politicized school boards in the nation - a board that presided over the schools' decline. Then, six years ago, city residents voted to replace the School Committee with a board appointed by the mayor, in hopes of turning the board's focus to education rather than politics.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino also recently staked his political future on school improvement. "A lot of politicians talk about jails, but if we don't invest in the kids, we don't invest in the future," he says. "When you're putting people in jail, you're destroying our future."
The alignment of key education players - the mayor, the School Committee, and the teachers union - in support of Payzant and school reform has prompted some education observers to herald the transformation as nothing less than historic.
"What's happening in Boston is, in a lot of ways, the last, best hope for urban education," says Jerome Murphy, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
But Payzant's skills as a mediator and consensus-builder will not go untested. A lawsuit challenging the state's desegregation laws, scheduled to go to trial this year, may divide the system over its progress in providing quality education to minorities. And Payzant has already raised eyebrows with his plans to replace several school principals and to carve 55 jobs from the system's central office.
Still, Payzant insists his school-based approach to reform can bring up test scores and graduate more college-bound students. The key, he says, lies in flexibility and accountability. Payzant sees himself and the central office as the support team - not the command center - for the schools, allowing them the freedom to implement their own policies. But educational control at the school level - an innovation for which Payzant received national attention when he was San Diego's superintendent - is effective only if school principals are held accountable.
Thus, one of Payzant's first moves was to evaluate all school principals by asking each to write a 500-word statement outlining how to improve his or her school, gathering feedback from parents, and looking at data such as attendance rates and test scores. Last month he announced that six principals will be transferred next year, causing an outcry by some students and parents.
Another of Payzant's top priorities: devising the first citywide academic standards the district has seen in a quarter-century. After a months-long process of drafting curriculum targets and taking parent and teacher feedback, Payzant plans to unveil his standards this month.
No stranger to the perils of running a school system, Payzant can also draw on his New England upbringing as he weathers Boston's educational winds. He grew up in Quincy, Mass., a middle-class suburb of Boston, spent his undergrad years at Williams College in western Massachusetts, and received his advanced teaching degrees from Harvard.
He was still a young man when he became superintendent of a suburban Pennsylvania district. He used that position as a springboard to the school superintendent's job in Eugene, Ore., then Oklahoma City, then San Diego. Payzant served 11 years as head of the San Diego district, a tenure that made him one of the longest-serving superintendents in the country. He spent the two years before coming to Boston at the US Department of Education as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.
Along the way, he learned the power of politics, the art of balancing special-interest groups, and the value of listening. In Eugene, Payzant was unsuccessfully sued by four well-connected principals that he transferred without public hearings. In Oklahoma City, the end of Payzant's tenure was spent in messy contract negotiations with the teachers union. And in San Diego, a strong-arm style of imposing standards and mandating a citywide plan for meeting them soon gave way to a school system where participation by all was the norm. "He grew considerably during the time that he was here," says Bill Crane of the San Diego Teacher's Association.
Despite the struggles during Payzant's superintendency in San Diego, Mr. Crane says the school district benefited from his push to hire women and minorities, his emphasis on attracting grant money, and his calming influence. "He had almost a Zen-like quality of being rational and rather dispassionate when surrounded by emotionality," Mr. Crane says.
Payzant's educational philosophy is an outgrowth of his 30 years in the classroom, principal's office, and halls of local and federal power. He says he knows it's hard for people to believe in change unless they trust their reformer to stick around. But he says the public longs for a successful school system and is willing to help out if a superintendent articulates how.
"People are interested and eager to see it happen and get some answers," Payzant says. "You've got to start by making sure that people don't give up hope."
* Previous articles in this series ran April 30 and June 11.