Booker hopes he has the answers Interview: The new chief of Baltimore schools believes he has "what it takes to turn the system around."

The Education Beat

September 16, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE FIRST QUESTION many ask of Robert Booker, the new chief executive officer of Baltimore schools, is this: "Why?"

Why would a man of 68, a man with a six-figure pension from Los Angeles schools and a six-figure salary as chief financial officer of San Diego County, a man living comfortably on the beach in one of America's most pleasant communities, want to take over an urban school system in deep trouble?

It was the first question put to him during an interview last week.

Booker: Obviously, I didn't come here for financial gain. I lost, if you look at it that way. I came here because I thought I could help children. The thing that intrigued me, after I did the research on Baltimore, is that the city was looking for someone with a much broader perspective in public education than is normally thought of. This is an $800-million business. I sincerely believe I have what it takes to turn it around. I think ultimately I can help the children who need help the most.

The Sun: You're the first schools chief in modern times with no connections to Baltimore. Is that a help or a hindrance? And what have insiders told you about what is expected of you here?

Booker: Not only did I not have relatives here, I didn't even have friends! But there's a great advantage in coming in as an outsider. You have no preconceived notions. People have told me that I need to know this is a city with heavy politics and a lot of intertwining of people and groups and associations.

But I'm not here to follow anyone's agenda. I'm here to do the right thing, based on facts that I obtain, based upon my evaluation of those facts, and then making informed decisions.

The Sun: Now that you've completed two months, what have you found that's better than you expected, that's about what you expected and that's worse than you expected?

Booker: Generally, the quality of the personnel in the system is better than I thought it might be, based on what I'd heard and read. Student achievement is about what I had expected. It's well below national norms and urgently needs addressing.

The negatives? At the first board meeting I attended, I was surprised at the lack of information provided the board by staff people asking the board to make important decisions. I took care of that immediately.

The Sun: Is the North Avenue bureaucracy bloated?

Booker: I've not reached a conclusion. I'm having an analysis made -- you might call it a desk audit -- to find out if there's duplication. I'm sure there's some. You can go to any city or county office or school system, if they're large enough, and people will make that observation, and oftentimes it's accurate.

In education, some things function centrally, others are dispersed out to the regions. So if you were to say North Avenue is bloated, I need to ask: Are we talking about things that are centralized and need to be decentralized, or are we talking about having more people than is necessary to do the work that needs to be done? I hope the audit will ferret out some of the answers.

The Sun: What's your impression of the principals in city schools?

Booker: I obviously haven't met them all, but I'd say they're average. They may be a lot better than it appears, but my statement is based primarily on the fact that they have to take much of the responsibility, along with the teachers, when the school system is failing.

The school-based adminis- trators and the teachers are the ones that make it happen, and so I would say that, based on the test results we saw the other day, and the test results in general, I couldn't give the principals in general a very high grade.

The Sun: And the teachers?

Booker: I've had even less exposure to the teachers. But I must say that on the first day of school, I visited five schools and was enormously impressed with the positive attitudes on the part of the teachers -- and that goes for principals, too. But we have to come back to what the record shows: The system has not done very well.

The Sun: How do you feel about experimentation?

Booker: I'm not opposed to it, but when you have a situation such as we have in Baltimore, where the children have been shortchanged all these years, part of it must be due to the scattershot approach to curriculum. And when the student transfer rate is pretty high, you need consistency, you need conformity. I guess I'm more interested in the core functions being provided equally to all students.

The Sun: At 68, how do you stand up to the pressure?

Booker: I'm blessed with good health. I don't smoke, and I don't drink. I don't need it. Much of it has to do with a positive attitude toward life. Living alone, I do my own shopping. People will come up to me and express surprise that the CEO does his own shopping. Then they'll talk schools, and they'll say, "We're going to do it!" It's very inspiring.

The Sun: As the new school leader, what message do you have for Baltimoreans?

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