Big city school chiefs compare notes

April 29, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff Writer

With only a few weeks left in his term as one of America's big-city school superintendents, Milwaukee's Howard L. Fuller is watching a dream slip from his grasp.

Just this month, he was hailed by Business Week as an innovative reformer. By June, he'll be unemployed, finishing his meteoric rise and fall in the high-stakes, high-risk job of educating America's children. He lasted longer than many urban school superintendents: four years.

"By the time you get to the point you understand what needs to be done and understand how it might be done, your time's up," Mr. Fuller says, summing up the shared anxieties of the nation's urban school superintendents.

About 50 current and former school chiefs are at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Baltimore this weekend for a forum of the Large City Schools Superintendents.

The meeting offers a chance to compare school-reform strategies, tap the expertise of researchers and commiserate with peers about the toll exacted by their jobs. Far from the scrutiny of their school boards, unions and PTAs, they lean on each other for advice and support.

Here's their view through the revolving door: Nationally, the average stay of a big-city superintendent is about 2 1/2 years -- just until elections, controversy, burnout or a better job comes along. By comparison, the average of tenure for superintendents nationwide is about 6 1/2 years, and has been increasing slowly, according to education groups.

If Baltimore Superintendent Walter G. Amprey serves out his contract, good through 1998 -- for seven years on the job -- he would tie the longest tenure of any school chief in the city in at least 35 years.

In Baltimore and several other cities, superintendents are staying much longer than they did in the 1960s. In many other urban areas, however, quick turnover has become the norm.

And the impact on schools is clear. Longer stays are not always better, but the high turnover hurts cities' abilities to retool school bureaucracies, launch education reforms and stay the course.

Meanwhile, there are signs that pressures contributing to the turnover are helping to reshape the modern superintendency. The profile of the typical candidate is changing.

The type of training available is changing, too. But whether this will improve superintendents' staying power remains to be seen.

"You can either do the job or keep the job . . . or both," says Robert Peterkin, a former Milwaukee school chief who is director of Harvard University's 5-year-old urban superintendents doctoral program. He attributes the wry saying to a colleague's view of the competing economic, social and political influences on education decisions.

Demographics help tell the story. Of the nation's 42 million public school students, big cities serve about 13.5 percent. But they include 22 percent of the poor and 36 percent of the limited-English speakers, according to a 1992-1993 study by the national Council of Large City Schools. More than 50 percent of big-city students are eligible for federally subsidized reduced-price and free lunches based on family need.

Add the cities' shrinking tax bases, high crime and competition with private schools for the children of the middle class. Add spending cuts. Add unions and racially divided communities.

It's a recipe for trouble. The problem, many superintendents and their mentors say, is that education decisions often protect adults' interests, not children's.

"Never once did I make a decision where the pressures put on me were to do the right thing for the children," said Paul Houston, a former superintendent and now president of the American Association of School Administrators. "You were making choices between who is going to get hurt the least; it's debilitating. There's a survivor's and scapegoat's mentality out there."

Reform means championing change, and change means trampling someone's turf, no matter how carefully consensus is sought.

Before taking the helm in Milwaukee, Mr. Fuller was an outspoken critic of the school system. Afterward, he proposed radical reforms. As he reflects on his waning tenure, his passion has not been tempered.

"We are looking at a hip-hop generation with a waltz mentality," he said from his office in Milwaukee. "You can't force this generation into an organizational form that was created in another era."

Announcing his resignation, he said he was leaving because he was "uncertain about the depth of board support." Four of five candidates supported by the teachers union had won seats on the nine-member school board in March.

He had clashed with the union over his ideas, including his support for reorganizing schools and his interest in hiring for-profit Education Alternatives Inc. to help run some city schools. Eventually, the district decided that union contracts and other factors would not make privatization feasible.

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