Jerome Clark's career rise was steady and conventional until 1985, when it turned meteoric.
John A. Murphy had just become Prince George's County's new superintendent of schools. He had pledged to revolutionize a second-class school system that was predominantly black after more than a decade of white flight, and he was looking for help. He decided Jerome Clark had the right stuff.
"I liked his management style. I liked his aggressive nature," said Dr. Murphy. "He was the kind of person who was willing to disagree and challenge and not be just a yes man."
Overnight, Dr. Clark, then an administrative assistant to one of the county's assistant superintendents, became associate superintendent for personnel: a key position for a school system that needed to build quality. It is a position he still holds.
Over the next six years, as Dr. Murphy made himself a national reputation and put a new gloss on Prince George's County schools -- a system about the size of Baltimore's -- Dr. Clark was part of the team that made it happen.
The experience has both shaped and reinforced this 48-year-old educator's philosophies. His views echo some of the views that helped Dr. Murphy win accolades in urban education -- a field that is more commonly littered with recriminations.
For instance, Dr. Clark believes principals and individual schools must be at the heart of reform, and reform must be undergirded by sound educational models. Change begins as a state of mind: A school system has to be brought to believe in its strengths and then build on them. All children can learn, and if they're not learning, the responsibility lies with the schools.
The Prince George's experience is wedded with Dr. Clark's own strong beliefs and forceful personality. He believes in cementing relationships to build consensus around a school's push to succeed. He thinks key ingredients are business and industry -- consumers of what schools produce -- and ministers, who can extend their congregations' devotion to the cause of educational excellence.
"To me, we've got to declare this thing for what it is," he said. "This is a war. We've got to establish a beachhead, and we do that by coming together collaboratively."
He thinks Effective Schools -- a national educational model in place in Prince George's, which places great emphasis on local control -- is a solid theoretical basis for change. Local control is Baltimore's chosen centerpiece for reform.
Dr. Clark does not forget his roots as a teacher -- he taught sixth grade for 11 years.
"A lot of people may not agree, but I think first of all a superintendent has to be a technician. You have to understand good teaching," he said.
"I was a good teacher," he said, recalling how he used to start out the school year by mustering students' parents, who would then be asked to pledge to meet with him each month.
Marjorie Spirer, president of the Prince George's County Educators' Association, believes Dr. Clark's teaching experience is part of the reason why he is effective. Thanks to him, the number of disputes between teachers and administration referred to outside arbitrators has dropped considerably, she said.
"I think he has vision, and I think he understands instruction," she said. She added, "He is a people person as well, so he tries to handle things with a minimum of friction, knowing that friction can come back and haunt you later."
Dr. Clark has lived in Maryland for 21 years. His wife, Karen, teaches in Prince George's County, and they have a 4-year-old son.
He started as a teacher at Beltsville Elementary and was later a principal and then administrative assistant to the assistant superintendent charged with the operation of 90 county schools.
Beverly Beander, immediate past president of the county's Council of PTAs, had a chance to work closely with him as a member of the county's panel on black male achievement -- a group that had its genesis in a proposal of Dr. Clark's.
"I was not disappointed," said Ms. Beander. "When you've been in the PTA business a while, you can tell if it's a vocation or an avocation. And with him it's both."
Dr. Clark is also a candidate in Prince George's County, which stopped accepting applications for a new superintendent April 15. He applied for the Prince George's job in 1984 and for the Baltimore job in 1988. In both cases, those cities opted for candidates who had previously been superintendents.
Baltimore has shifted its emphasis in this search -- seeking stability in a chief with ties to the region.
"See, my roots are in Maryland," Dr. Clark said. "I'm not going anywhere. And if I come in here to fight, I'm in there for the duration."