Big-City School Chiefs

The job of school superintendent is a tough one for anyone. That's doubly true in big cities.

Many large school districts present a collage of challenges. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, has 725,000 students speaking some 83 languages and an $8.8 billion budget. The loss of a superintendent, in many cases hastened by school boards, mayors, and city councils too eager for immediate results, can wreak havoc on the very schools that most need help.

Consider this all-too-familiar scenario: A school board looks for someone, usually from outside the district, to come in with a solution for a district's problems. When it finds a good candidate, the board surrenders control to the superintendent, who by dint of the job, has to make tough choices - for example, getting rid of bad principals and teachers. Such moves create opposition, then controversy. The superintendent soon is hindered from pursuing a solution strategy, if there is one, and is eventually forced out.

Despite that pattern, some superintendents have found tactics that seem to be working in big cities:

* In Chicago, Superintendent Paul Vallas is resigning after serving for six years (citing too many 15-hour days and working weekends). But he is an example of a trend toward hiring professional managers, not just educators, for big city school districts. He left the district with a balanced budget, and promoted the development of about 200 new, smaller, elementary schools called "in-system charters."

* In Los Angeles, former Colorado Governor Roy Romer is putting more money into instruction and hiring hundreds of reading and math coaches for elementary schools. Even with his deft political skills, he faces daily distractions managing a school district prone to gridlock. The sheer size of his, and other, school districts requires sharp management and organizing skills, including the ability to balance big budgets and negotiate with strong teachers' unions. The latter might make more headway if they framed their desires for better wages and hours in the context of bettering student achievement.

* In Boston, a welcome change from the norm should help offset the average 2-1/2 year life span of a school superintendent. Just last week, Boston's mayor offered to extend Thomas Payzant's contract through 2005, which would make Payzant the longest-serving chief in that job in 30 years. That should help provide needed stability to bring about further changes.

An effective superintendent has to fix the academic basics and improve student achievement - within a culture disinclined to change. Paul Hill, author of "It Takes a City: Getting Serious About School Reform," argues for civic initiatives that emphasize increased incentives for kids and teachers, more investment in teacher training and recruitment, and more freedom of action for school chiefs.

Citywide coalitions that are dedicated to improving the schools for the long haul could do much to make a superintendent's job less impossible.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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