Urban superintendent on the perils of the job

Diana Lam was superintendent of the San Antonio School District in Texas from 1994 until last November, when a new hostile school board bought out the last four years of her contract.

At the beginning of her term, 42 of 95 schools in this poor, largely Hispanic district were classified as low-performing by the state. As she leaves, only two remain on the list. Her reforms include a new curriculum focused on reading and math, required uniforms and smaller schools.

But the pace of change alarmed some teachers and a new majority on the school board - a pattern that is becoming a way of life for superintendents in big urban school districts.

She spoke with the Monitor this month. The following are excerpts.

Why results improved in the district:

"We are more focused on instruction. That has not happened in the past for all children, especially children of color. Ninety-five percent of the battle is making sure the students are readers and comfortable with math. It's not that the kids got any smarter. What changed is what adults are doing in the classroom."

Teaching poor kids:

"Your life should not be determined by your zip code. I do not buy this. Sometimes I'd hear from my staff that we can't do any better with these kids. I'd say, 'Wait ... I was one of these kids.' Education was what allowed me to get out of poverty and forge a better future. Do they provide challenges? Yes, but I know that education can make a difference and poor kids can learn."

What went wrong:

"If you want to continue to make progress in student achievement, you get singled out for alienating different groups.... There is a lot of pressure on district staff to hire some people and a great resistance to fire anybody. Superintendents here can only recommend, yet we are responsible for the results."

School boards:

"A very small number of people elect a school-board member. You can elect a school-board member with 326 votes in San Antonio. It's a very poor example of democracy.

"Any program in a school district has a constituency. We had a program in our district for children to pet animals. It was small and cute, and cost about $80,000, but I thought it was not the best way to spend money. Better to just take them to the zoo. But it always survived the budget process because it was a school-board member's pet project."

Relations with teachers' unions:

"I don't know where this broke down. Nothing we've done was anti-teacher. But some of the changes required extra work or extra training for teachers. We tried to provide this within the school day.... Teachers might think, 'She's expecting us to do a whole lot.' But I thought, 'My kid is only going to be in the third grade once.' It's a tricky balance that needs to be talked about openly."

Advice to other superintendents:

"Be very focused. Don't have a large number of goals. Be more communicative with your board than you even thought you should be. Work the public: Some functions you are expected to attend, but also do those that mean so much to people but no one expects you to do, such as a house meeting with 10 parents."

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