Booker gets 'A' for listening skills New superintendent impresses members of city schools staff

'I can make a difference'

He says improving students' learning is his greatest challenge

May 27, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Living up to his reputation as a cautious, deliberate administrator, Baltimore's new schools chief met his staff yesterday with an ear for listening, but no clear vision for solving the intractable problems of city schools.

"I have a lot of reading and thinking to do before I come back here," said Robert Booker, who was hired yesterday by a unanimous school board vote. Booker, who is the chief financial officer in San Diego County government, begins the job of chief executive officer July 6.

After half a day of meetings with the senior North Avenue staff, Booker said at a news conference that he was appalled by the number of under-achieving schools in the system and by the disrepair of the city's 183 school houses.

An estimated $600 million is needed to repair and replace worn-out schools, a school system audit has concluded.

"I am well aware of what this community and this board expects. I am interested in increasing the level of achievement of children," he said.

Booker said improving classroom learning will be his greatest challenge and that he fully supports the school board's current strategies, which include reducing class size, instituting a citywide curriculum, buying new textbooks and passing a teacher evaluation policy which holds teachers responsible for their students' test scores.

"I was very impressed with him in terms of his willingness to listen," said Roger Reese, the city school's chief financial officer, who met with Booker early yesterday. "He just absorbed a lot of information."

Too often, Reese said, new leaders are anxious to start handing down orders rather than listening.

"I felt confident he is coming here to bring clarity and direction to the initiatives of the board," said Zelda Holcomb, chief of the school system's Division of Research, Evaluation and Accountability. "I had a good meeting with him. I felt he was listening."

Booker was one of three finalists for the job. Others included a former local chief executive, and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the only one who had a traditional education background.

Some sources had suggested last week that the board might hire Byrd-Bennett to back up Booker's strong financial background with her success in improving test scores in low-performing schools in New York City.

Booker did not rule out that possibility yesterday. In an interview, Booker said, "That subject has not been raised, but that is not a concept I am against at all."

While Booker might not have the traditional educational background of a school superintendent, he is a 37-year veteran of the Los Angeles city schools, where he was the chief financial and business officer until 1992. Booker was in charge of a $4 billion budget in a system with 680,000 children. In San Diego, he worked under a county administrative official who had come from a job in the private sector.

That experience, Booker said, has given him some background in using management systems which are more common in the private sector and might be useful in managing Baltimore's schools.

While he did not say how he intended to improve the system or what his priorities would be, he said several times that he will set clear standards for what teachers and staff must do and that he will hold them accountable.

At a press conference yesterday, Booker said his passion for education comes from a childhood of poverty in a small town in Texas. He lived in a three-room house with no plumbing, running water, electricity or gas. "We had to live in very harsh conditions," he said. "My father said, 'Robert, gaining an education is something that will help you out of this condition.' "

Booker said he was not a "gifted" student, but he worked hard and achieved high grades in high school while earning money shining shoes. He went on to get his doctorate in education.

He said he wants to come to Baltimore because he believes he can be a role model for children who are living in poverty and who need a good education. "I personally believe I can make a difference," he said.

School board members expressed relief that their search for a leader was over, but gave warm thanks to interim chief Robert E. Schiller, who had signed on for a three-month stint last summer and will have ended up staying nearly a year.

School board president Tyson Tildon said the board interviewed nearly 40 people before making its final selection.

Booker only contacted the board to express his interest in the job six weeks ago.

Pub Date: 5/27/98

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