Schools chief eager to take on challenges

O'Rourke needs to devise a plan to tackle tough issues

He starts job July 1

February 06, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

John R. O'Rourke, the newly named Howard County superintendent of schools, was basking in the glow of success yesterday as he left for his home in Pittsford, N.Y.

Exciting new challenges lie ahead, and he says he can't wait. For now, there are receptions to attend and congratulations to accept.

Soon, O'Rourke will have to come up with a plan.

As yet, the former psychologist admits, he doesn't quite have one.

Give him time, he said Friday, when the official announcement was made at the Board of Education that O'Rourke would succeed Michael E. Hickey as superintendent.

When he starts work July 1 as the fourth Howard County superintendent in 51 years, O'Rourke said, he will have many formidable tasks ahead.

Two of the biggest: filling Hickey's polished shoes and proving to people that someone from a smaller, tidier shop can take a good district -- one that's bigger and slightly thornier -- and make it better.

To come up with a plan, O'Rourke said, he intends to start now, listening, reading, studying, observing -- and most importantly, learning.

"I'm capable of dealing with a very steep learning curve," O'Rourke said Friday. "I'm counting on my ability to be able to do that quickly and effectively."

In fact, O'Rourke said, the challenge of the learning curve is one of the things that made this job so attractive, as he considered his many successes in Pittsford and attachment to the state of New York, where he's been all his life.

It's a challenge O'Rourke says he's up to.

"It's not as if I have spent my entire life or even my career in small, upper-middle-class communities," he said.

The Pittsford school district is in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Rochester. The school district is about 90 percent white, and O'Rourke said most of his students are upper middle class.

But, O'Rourke said, he is no stranger to diversity.

Before arriving in Pittsford in 1992, O'Rourke spent four years as the superintendent in Fulton City, N.Y. -- a district where half the students were on free and reduced-price lunches, a common indicator of poverty.

He also worked three summers in Syracuse, N.Y., in the federal Head Start program, helping parents prepare their preschoolers for kindergarten.

In that capacity, he said, he spent many work days in housing projects and predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

"That's my experience," he said. "That's what I bring."

He said he knows there's a big difference between Howard County and Pittsford Central. And he's set up times to talk with county NAACP Education Chairwoman Natalie Woodson and County Councilman C. Vernon Gray. He said he wants them to "take him by the hand" and walk him through the tough issues of diversity and equity. He's looking for more people to talk to.

"If any segment of our population is in need, then it's a responsibility of our organization as a whole to respond to that need," he said. "Those are representative of the kinds of people I'm going to be reaching out to. Those will be my first efforts."

And while he continues to run the Pittsford district -- which he stressed is his first priority -- he'll be reading area newspapers on the Internet and talking with Hickey and other board members. He has asked to be notified about all district policy issues and major decisions between now and July.

`Diverse opinions'

Many have praised O'Rourke for his ability to listen and build consensus.

But Pittsford is fairly homogenous. Howard County has many more groups to listen to and divergent opinions that he will have to merge.

That won't be a problem, he said.

"It's not a matter of my listening to everybody and then making everybody happy," O'Rourke said. "It's about working with those diverse opinions, helping people come together.

"It's not easy where I come from, and I'm not going to pretend that it's going to be easy here."

Many have said Hickey was adept at bringing people together, making many segments of the community feel a part of the district's decisions. Some have likened O'Rourke to Hickey in that way.

O'Rourke is flattered by the compliment. He looks up to Hickey and calls him a friend.

But he said he intends to be his own person, not a clone of Hickey.

"He's a great educator. He's recognized by his peers across the country," O'Rourke said. "But I'm an individual, and so is he. This is not going to be an administration that is a caretaker administration."

`We're looking ahead'

O'Rourke said he plans to be respectful of Hickey's legacy and the traditions in the county schools.

"But we're looking ahead," he said. "I wouldn't know how to replicate his administration. Nor would I want to."

O'Rourke uses the Malcolm Baldrige model, a self-evaluation tool named after the former Commerce Department secretary that stresses continuous improvement, in the Pittsford district. In Howard County, he said, he sees part of that model in place.

But he doesn't plan to fully implement that model here.

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