JOHN W. PORTER has no illusions about the difficulties ahead. As the newly appointed superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools, he faces: A high-school dropout rate of roughly 50 percent.
Kindergartens where half the entering children come from single-parent homes with unwed mothers.
Absenteeism that averages almost 20 percent.
Academic achievement well below the national average.
A $160 million budget deficit, accumulated over the past 17 years.
A state-mandated cut of $50.7 million in this year's $800 million budget, which, if carried out, would eliminate all interscholastic athletics and instrumental music, trim 455 custodial positions and a number of bus routes, and shorten the high-school day by one hour.
``The youngsters just are not coming through the schools able to compete in the 21st century,'' Dr. Porter says, acknowledging that ``it's worse than I really thought it was.''
His friend and fellow educator Alonzo A. Crim, the highly regarded former superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, describes the Detroit system as second only to Chicago's in the enormity of the problems it faces.
``I would say that's pretty accurate,'' agrees Porter with something like a sigh.
Then why, in the weeks since Porter's July 1 appointment, are Detroiters beginning to sense a slightly upbeat tone in discussions about the schools?
The first reason seems to be Porter himself. By all accounts, he comes to the job well equipped: 10 years as state superintendent for public instruction in Michigan (the first black in the nation to hold such a post), followed by 10 years as president of Eastern Michigan University, which he left last January to take up a position as vice-president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. A trustee of the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation, he also chaired the select panel appointed by Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard to assess the financial and educational situation of the Detroit schools last year.
``He's very creative, he's a person of integrity, and he's concerned about people and education,'' says Russell Mawby, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich. Mr. Mawby gives Porter high marks for his ``very effective'' work as state superintendent and for ``an absolutely superb job'' as president of the once-struggling Eastern Michigan University.
``He has hit the ground running,'' says James W. Vollman, executive director of the Detroit Compact (see related story). ``He's in a high-risk venture, but I think his odds are pretty good, partly because he has caught the pulse of a number of key community groups, and he is setting standards that they have come to believe are necessary.''
``He's a leader through demonstration,'' says Dr. Crim. ``Not only does he care about kids, but he's willing to give of himself as the drum major in the overall community in gaining the support and involvement of other people.''
THE second reason may be a groundswell of community support - including a turnaround by the Chamber of Commerce, which has come out in favor of a Sept. 12 ballot question seeking a tax increase to help fund the school system.
This summer, too, a campaign to restore athletics to the schools, spearheaded by former Detroit Piston basketball star Dave Bing, raised $600,000 in private funds - enough to keep the athletic program afloat through the fall. A similar program is under way to restore instrumental music.
Even the city's teachers are lining up behind what's become known as the ``Porter Plan'' - a five-sided attack designed to improve management, tighten fiscal integrity, restore discipline, upgrade academics, and win community confidence. In July, for the first time since 1977, the teachers union tentatively agreed to a contract without third-party arbitration and before Labor Day.
There are still plenty of doubts, however. The city's 16-year-veteran mayor, Coleman A. Young, is reportedly among the chief skeptics. Despite Detroit's reputation as one of the nation's most heavily taxed cities, Mr. Young supports the ``millage campaign'' for a 6.5-mil tax increase (a mil equals a $1 tax per $1,000 of property value). But he sees little likelihood of fundamental change. An editorial in the Detroit News called for no new money without ``meaningful and lasting'' reforms in the system.
On that point, Porter agrees. ``There is a perception, and it's reflected in newspaper accounts, that the system is mismanaged and bloated and too big a bureaucracy,'' he said during a recent interview in his office. With 19,000 employees, he notes, ``it ranks as one of the bigger operations in the state of Michigan.''
Over the years, the weight of this bureaucracy has become its ``central weakness,'' he says. ``The pronouncements are centralized,'' he notes, ``but the communication from this building to the field has a severance in the line - it's like picking up the phone and the line's dead.''
To meet that challenge, Porter has proposed a sequential approach. His first task: Create management effectiveness, which he says ``you've got to have before you can talk about fiscal integrity.''
``Second, we're going to try to create fiscal integrity, because you've got to have fiscal integrity before you can talk about educational quality. Third, we're going to pursue educational quality, which is the most important goal.''
How can management be improved? Porter is calling for more ``school-based management - shifting accountability to the teachers and the principal, and clearing out the red tape and bureaucracy for them to do their job.'' One example: move all 1,600 custodians off the central office budget and put them on the budgets of the individual principals.
Porter is equally strong on fiscal integrity. Earlier this year, the district had to borrow $42 million from the state - which, he says, ``the state had to get from the Japanese, because American banks weren't willing to loan it to the Detroit schools.'' Porter's belt-tightening plans are designed to eliminate such deficits.
Finally, for educational effectiveness, Porter lists five ingredients. ``You've got to have concerned parents. You've got to have motivated youngsters who are willing to come to school. You've got to have dedicated teachers who are willing to stay after school and to work with the individual youngsters. You've got to have enthusiastic support personnel, beginning with the principal. And you've got to have a supportive community that's willing to raise the money for the schools to be safe and attractive.
``We can talk all we want to about white folks and middle-class blacks moving to the suburbs, and about people wanting to put their kids in private schools,'' says Porter, whose 175,000-student system is 95 percent black. ``But it's not because they're racist necessarily - it's because they know what the desirable conditions are for effective outcomes.''
Why, given the enormity of the task, does he want to take it on?
``This is not something I really wanted to do,'' he laughs, noting that he would be happy simply being a retired university president. But he sees Detroit as a proving ground for inner-city education. ``If we do not come up with some insightful suggestions, as far as I'm concerned the urban centers might as well fold up.''
Can he succeed? ``Failure is not an alternative,'' says Mawby, ``because those kids are there, and they've got to have a better tomorrow.''
``I don't think he can do all of those things that he wants to do,'' concludes fellow educator Crim. ``But I do feel that, like the old Western gunfighter, he will put a number of notches on his pistol.''