When Lillian Gonzalez started out in public education 20 years ago, she began in a classroom in the South Bronx teaching mentally retarded children. Since then, she has built a career on helping students with special needs -- the developmentally disabled, those who don't speak English, the homeless, children born to drug-addicted mothers.
It is a journey that brought her to the Washington public school system 2 1/2 years ago, to a job in which she has overseen the delivery of services to special education and bilingual students, as well managing adult and community education.
Those who have worked with Dr. Gonzalez, an assistant superintendent for special populations, have found the 45-year-old educator to be a diligent, committed administrator
who puts students first, a proponent of school-based management who devises a plan of action and delivers.
"She is intelligent. She is thorough. She is task-oriented. She is effective. She has credibility in this school system," said Karen Shook, a Washington school board member who worked with Dr. Gonzalez on developing a model program for children of drug-addicted mothers as well as on issues involving special education. "She was extremely instrumental in the impetus to mainstream students with special needs."
While serving last year as chairman of the school board's committee on special populations, Wilma R. Harvey followed the district's reorganization of services to non-English speaking children.
"What I have always advocated is we need to send these children to their neighborhood schools so they can be an integral part of their school," said Dr. Harvey. Ms. Gonzalez "has been successful in laying out a plan for that to happen. She has seen that resources have been placed in neighborhood schools. She sets out a clear set of objectives and goals and works toward them."
The district's reorganization of services to non-English speaking children reflects what Dr. Gonzalez says has been her philosophy of education for 20 years -- "You take the services to the children." That philosophy encompasses Dr. Gonzalez's support of school-based management, a high priority for Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the underpinning of the city school board's plan to restructure the schools.
Their similar view on the issue was one of the key reasons Dr. Gonzalez applied for the Baltimore school superintendent's job.
They have a very similar mission to mine. A district that knows they want to make changes, that's important," Dr. Gonzalez said. "The reform, the revitalization, knowing there is such a commitment on the part of the mayor -- that's exciting."
To Dr. Gonzalez, the primary objective of school-based management is "to improve the academic program for children." While the process gives principals the flexibility they need to serve their individual school populations, Dr. Gonzalez said the goal "is a network united in leadership to meet all the goals of the district."
In 1987, Dr. Gonzalez left the New York school system, where she had worked since 1971, to pursue a doctoral degree at George Washington University. In her last position with the New York school system, Dr. Gonzalez oversaw the evaluation and placement of 30,000 special education students in Manhattan.
"I have known Lillian for 15 years. In all of our dealings, I have always found her to be tremendously competent, highly motivated and a genuine asset," said Stephan Hittmann, New York schools' deputy executive director of special education. "She has always been able to serve as a bridge builder . . . and has shown herself as a strong leader."
Born in Brooklyn, Dr. Gonzalez moved to Puerto Rico with he family at age 11. She returned to the United States after getting a bachelor's in psychology in 1966 from the Inter American University in San German, Puerto Rico. Fluent in Spanish, Ms. Gonzalez received a master's degree in special education from City College of New York in 1974.
Maria Tukeva, the principal of the Bell Multicultural High School a Washington public school that serves international as well as district students, has worked with Dr. Gonzalez on task forces involving bilingual children. She said Dr. Gonzalez "knows how to both delegate and follow up" in a team setting.
"And she always gets to the heart of the matter," Ms. Tukev said.