Houston's new school `boss'. Support of teachers is the primary goal for Joan Raymond

IN the Houston public schools, they don't ask, ``Who's the boss?'' Since taking over as the 232-school district's superintendent in September, Joan Raymond has made it clear that she's running the show. And as far as she's concerned, the goal of her office is simple: Support Houston's 10,000 teachers so they can instruct the city's 194,000 students as they were hired to do. In replacing Houston's 12-year superintendent, Billy Reagan, at the helm of the nation's sixth-largest school district, the former superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y., had a tough act to follow. Mr. Reagan had achieved a national reputation for innovation, after winning local respect for returning stability to the sprawling district's administration.

But Dr. Raymond wasted no time in asserting her own brand of management, her own philosophy of education. It's a no-nonsense, deal-with-today's-realities approach that has signaled a refocusing of attention on the basics - for her, teachers and what they teach - and won her quick admiration among teachers and fellow administrators.

``Her emphasis was clear the first time she visited the [district's] finance office,'' says Houston schools Board of Trustees President Cathy Mincberg. ``Joan asked the people in the office, `What's your purpose?,''' she says, the answers to which were various renditions of handling the budget or dispensing the district's funds. ``But she told them, `No, you're here to support instruction,''' recalls Dr. Mincberg, ```and if you can't explain something in terms of supporting instruction, you don't need it.'''

Raymond's matter-of-fact, businesslike style, and what some have called an unwillingness to delegate authority, have earned her such nicknames as ``J.R.,'' after the well-known TV character, and ``iron maiden.'' Some have even described her as cold. But there is little coldness evident in the office of the native Chicagoan, who began her education career with eight years in elementary and secondary school classrooms. Flower arrangements and Hummel figurines cover a coffee table placed between couches, while photographs of famous American sites decorate the walls. On a cart next to windows is a silver tea set.

``When a woman gets into a position like this, certain adjectives tend to flow,'' says Raymond, responding to her reputation for being tough and in control. ``A woman will be called `aggressive' where a man would be called `knowledgeable.'''

Raymond does not apologize for her style but believes that some of the criticism may subside as the district completes a ``massive'' reorganization following a plan Raymond unveiled to the board of trustees last month. The centralized administration will be dispersed among 14 geographical districts, making not only for a greater delegation of authority, she says, but a system that is ``more responsive to the community. Instead of sitting in this one building, the administration will be out and in the schools.''

Although she describes the reorganization as the ``major undertaking'' of her short tenure in Houston, Raymond has not been silent on other education issues during that time.

Texas students - and teachers - have wrestled with new testing requirements born of the state's 2-year-old education reform. But Raymond says students are being tested too much, and that it's taking too much time away from instruction.

``Our students are tested on four levels,'' she says, ``which means that, for our high school students, there are something like 34 days of testing out of a 180-day school year.''

As for the reform movement, she is critical of the tendency, in most states including Texas, to determine more education policy at the state level. ``More and more of the decisionmaking is leaving the local school board rooms and entering the state capitols,'' she says, a tendency that doesn't always allow flexibility to meet specific local needs.

Yet concerning both these issues, as with others, she remains pragmatic, insisting that more long-term good will be done by ``working today's realities to our advantage'' than by railing against them.

``That [reform] battle is over,'' she says. ``This is the age of accountability.'' What school districts must do now is work to ``keep the state close to us,'' she says, ``and become more the political activists ourselves.'' Following that philosophy, she has recommended that Houston create the post of assistant superintendent for governmental relations. ``We have to be lobbyists,'' she adds, ``and not just for money, but for our programs as well.''

She says schools can also profit from this ``phase of reform'' by using the spotlight that has been shining on schools. ``There is more attention on public education right now than there has ever been,'' she says. ``That's a plus.''

In the case of Houston, she says it means a special opportunity to help ``turn the city around,'' referring to the energy capital's current economic doldrums. ``People can't afford to send their children to private school, and they really don't want to.'' She says public schools can match the quality of private schools, ``especially at the secondary level.''

The keen interest that Houstonians have shown in every comment made by their superintendent, on everything from a lead paint controversy to policy on AIDS carriers in the classroom (unlike some medical specialists she believes parents should be informed when an AIDS-carrying child is in their child's class), has at times surprised her.

Recently some parents who from the beginning of Raymond's duty adopted a wait-and-see attitude towards her say that stance may be wearing thin. ``I realize she's had a lot on her shoulders in her first few months, but so far we have not witnessed the commitment to parents that we've had in the past in Houston,'' says Ginia Wray Wright, president of the Houston City Council of Parent-Teacher Associations. ``I hope that changes.''

Raymond would be the first to attest to the amount of time involved in assuming the highest post in a major urban school system. But she also emphasizes the importance of encouraging parental interest and involvement in the schools.

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