Steering bold course, Grasmick wins fans, foes

July 31, 1994|By C. Fraser Smith and Mike Bowler | C. Fraser Smith and Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writers

She has moved into Maryland's public schools with so much purpose and power that some regard her as an Orwellian Big Sister.

Others say state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is a charming, knowledgeable "steel magnolia" and the rarest of government officials: a leader willing to take personal and political risks to achieve her goals.

She seems to relish confrontation with those who think public schools, particularly in Baltimore, are beyond saving. She takes on the powerful teacher unions and teacher colleges. She says she does it for the children.

Her opponents say she does it for the aggrandizement of Nancy Grasmick at the behest of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a longtime friend and sponsor of her and her husband, Louis.

Whatever, the state Education Department is a more activist agency under her leadership than it has been in years.

"School systems have to have every opportunity to improve the environment. If they do not, then the state has responsibility and authority to do it," she has said, adding this standard refrain: "No student, by virtue of where he lives, should have to attend a failing school."

Self-possessed and plain-spoken -- generally eschewing the jargon of educators -- the 55-year-old administrator says it's a case of denial when parents, teachers and education officials resist her reform ideas, including the "reconstitution" -- state-ordered reorganization -- of the state's worst schools.

The first two threatened this year were Baltimore's Douglass and Patterson high schools, and the Maryland State Teachers Association joined those schools' communities in outrage, calling the state initiative a threat to local autonomy.

"People said, 'You must have the facts wrong. There must be other schools that are worse,' " Dr. Grasmick recalled, adding that some parents were angry because they had a stake in the outcome but were not part of the planning for reconstitution. She has won some converts.

"In the beginning," said Letty Herold, president of the PTA at Patterson, "we felt threatened by takeover, but the more we learned about it, we realized the state wasn't just looking at Patterson but the system as a whole." As a result, Ms. Herold said, "I don't feel the state is a threat to us. I think they're defending us from the local system."

Dr. Grasmick's authority is underscored by her distinction as the state's only dual secretary: In addition to holding her $103,000 schools post, she is Maryland secretary of children, youth and families, an unpaid post.

In the latter capacity, she has taken an interest in day care centers and other preschool programs, public and private. For example, she visited the Home Play School in Ruxton, one of a network of home schools for preschoolers.

"She seems to be able to look up through the eyes of children, but also to look down through the eyes of teachers and administrators. It's a unique balance," said Adele P. Fryer, who heads the network.

The social welfare community finds an ally in Dr. Grasmick, said Susan Leviton, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School and president of Advocates for Children and Youth, a statewide organization working on social issues affecting children.

Since real reform often comes from outside the system, Ms. Leviton was surprised to find an insider leading the movement. "When you meet her you think of a sweet Southern lady. It's so disarming. You don't expect her to be so tough," Ms. Leviton observed. "But she has standards, and she stands up for them."

Although teachers have been critical of her, Dr. Grasmick seems to think she has leverage from public opinion. She has proposed making teacher training more rigorous and forcing teachers to earn satisfactory ratings in three years of every five-year period.

But she acknowledges underestimating the level of opposition.

"I always think of myself as being a person close to people. That includes teachers and parents and administrators. So I guess I was a bit naive to think that was a real strength and that I would get support from the teacher arena," she said.

Teachers say they support her objectives. But they dislike what Michael Butera, executive director of the MSTA, calls "silver bullet" solutions to complex problems.

He said the superintendent's proposals amount to saying, "Well, things are bad so we have to blow everything up. Why is it that the classroom teacher is held 100 percent responsible?"

Ms. Leviton offers this answer: "Would you ever have a factory where 50 percent of the widgets are broken and you keep making them? When an industry doesn't make a successful product, it closes down. And now the head of the system is saying we're not going to allow that to happen anymore in our schools."

Mr. Butera finds Dr. Grasmick "very capable and talented," but he wonders whether she is pursuing her own agenda or someone else's.

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