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'Power to the Schools' Is Credo of Boston's New Chief

By Christina NifongStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 1996


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.

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"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.