Schools chief finalist praised as reformer

Florida administrator Varela-Russo to speak at public forum tonight

May 23, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Speak to people who know and work with Carmen Varela-Russo, a finalist for chief executive officer of Baltimore public schools, and you will be struck by the simple uniformity of the way she's characterized: dynamic, highly focused, and a consensus builder who makes firm decisions.

"Carmen is so consistent in how she works and treats people," said Billie Miller, a curriculum specialist at South Florida's Broward County Public Schools, where Varela-Russo is an associate superintendent, "that you find people sort of gushing over her in the same terms. That's something unusual in the world of education."

Varela-Russo is scheduled to meet the public, including teachers and school administrators, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. tonight at Poly-Western High School. The three other finalists will appear later at candidate forums.

Polished and meticulously organized, Varela-Russo is a former teacher who worked her way through New York City's school administration to become superintendent of Bronx schools, then chief executive of all high schools in the nation's largest school district.

Known as a pragmatic reformer, she embraces standardized tests and accountability of schools but sees the scores as a way to motivate and identify trouble spots rather than a source of disheartening instructors and principals.

Varela-Russo, 64, moved six years ago from New York to Broward County, the nation's fifth-largest school district. The district, with a rapidly growing population of roughly 240,000 students, is double the size of Baltimore's. It is 42 percent white, 36 percent black and 18 percent Hispanic, with a small percentage of Asian, biracial and Native American students.

Problems remain in the mainly suburban school district, but observers credit Varela-Russo with being a key in a reform effort that is stabilizing the once severely troubled system and guiding it in the right direction.

"I seek out challenges," said Varela-Russo as she sat in her office overlooking Fort Lauderdale. "That's a big part of the reason for wanting to come to Baltimore, the desire to help a troubled system keep turning itself around. I relish it."

Varela-Russo, a widow engaged to a fellow schools administrator in Broward County, got her start in education in 1969 as a business teacher at a high school in New York City, where she worked for four years before moving into school administration.

In the mid-1980s she became principal of Morris High School in the Bronx, in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. In a school racked by poverty and low test scores, Varela-Russo presided over a renaissance in which the school became recognized as a "model urban school" by the New York City Board of Education.

In 1990, she was appointed chief executive of the city's high schools.

"When I think of Baltimore and the problems that the schools there face, I think my experience in New York prepared me perfectly," said Varela-Russo, who as high schools chief oversaw 157 schools and secondary programs that served 280,000 students. She had a budget just under $1 billion.

Her 3 1/2 years as high schools chief were marked, observers say, by a push to boost graduation requirements for math and science, the reorganization of a number of the larger high schools into smaller institutions and improved ties between the private sector and the school system, something she says she would focus on in Baltimore.

A finalist in 1993 for the superintendent's position in New York City and Minneapolis, Varela-Russo also just missed out on the position of school's chief in Broward County in 1994. Observers of the mostly suburban district said she was so impressive in her interviews that she was eventually asked to join the administration there.

The associate superintendent for technology, strategic planning and accountability, Varela-Russo is widely heralded in the district for her work on an initiative that began in 1995 to turn around 25 of the county's most troubled schools.

"What she did with those schools is emblematic of her style of leadership," said Robert L. Hankerson, who heads the schools in Broward's south central area. He said she worked to bring together factions in her district. Hankerson and others interviewed about the initiative say that Varela-Russo pushed money and manpower into the schools to shore up everything from principal leadership to health care for students, teacher morale and academic standards. Twenty-four of the 25 schools improved enough to be taken off a list of the worst in the state.

"She's one of the most energetic, determined people I've come across," said Pat Santerama, vice president of the Broward Teachers Union. He told of a recent, sensitive labor issue involving a school that the district was revamping with a less top-down bureaucracy so that it would operate similarly to a charter school. Varela-Russo was instrumental in finding a solution.

"She helped both sides understand one another and in the end got the district to back off of its position a bit. She's a risk taker. Baltimore would be extremely lucky to get her."

Varela-Russo would not talk about what she would do as Baltimore schools chief, saying she would need to be more familiar with the system before making such recommendations. But she did offer general thoughts.

"I see the system there already doing some very positive things, so my role would be to keep the ball rolling," said Varela-Russo, adding that she is a firm believer in Baltimore's emphasis on basics, its embrace of phonics-based reading programs and its experimentation with direct instruction, a teaching style characterized by highly structured drilling.

"My whole thing is, let's get everyone feeling good about their jobs," she said. "Let's honor our teachers and students and let's have really high standards because our students can reach them if we guide them properly."

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