Not squalor but Shakespeare: Russo brings out schools' best

Head of city system shows the human touch

July 02, 2000|By Ann LoLordo and Kurt Streeter | Ann LoLordo and Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Morris High School opened in 1902 as a neo-Gothic cathedral of learning. But when Carmen V. Russo arrived for her first day as principal, she found a run-down fortress, a school surrounded by blight whose students were considered too poor, too South Bronx to perform Shakespeare.

Graffiti marred the streets in the school's neighborhood, where the Latin Kings, the Zulus and the Dominican Power gangs guarded their turf. Garbage was strewn behind Morris. Broken bottles littered its playground. The copper roof of the historic building leaked badly. The school auditorium, grand with its Tiffany stained-glass windows, was condemned.

Morris drew its more than 2,000 students, mostly Hispanic and black, from the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in New York - and the nation. A quarter of its freshmen graduated in four years.

But Carmen Russo, Baltimore's new schools chief, wasn't overwhelmed or intimidated by what she found in 1984. She got busy doing what she does well: leading. And she led by example. In the early days, she drove past the once stately brick townhouses and nearby high-rise housing project to remind her of what her students faced when they left the castle on the hill.

Russo came to school early and worked late. She attacked the problem of truants and dropouts, rearranging the Morris student body into smaller groups and assigning a team of teachers and other professionals as mentors for each group of students from the day they entered Morris until the day they left.

She transformed Morris into a community center where parents gathered on Sundays to learn English or the basics for a high school equivalency diploma.

She made Shakespeare happen.

When Russo starts her new job in Baltimore this week, she will bring with her a memento from her four years at Morris. It was the place where she began her rise through the New York City school system, experience she says prepared her for the challenges she will face as chief executive officer of Baltimore's public schools.

The memento is a big photograph of a student production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It stood out among the professional plaques and awards that hung in her office in Broward County, Fla., where she held her most recent post, associate schools superintendent. It will hang in her office on North Avenue.

The smiling, costumed students, Russo said, include a girl who went to Skidmore College on a scholarship and a special education student.

"Nobody ever thought we would put on `A Midsummer Night's Dream' at Morris High," said Russo, a Spanish-speaking native of the Bronx who was raised in Miami.

"The kids from the South Bronx didn't believe they could do it either," said Jack Forman, a retired Morris teacher who directed two more Shakespeare plays at the school. "We made them believe anyone could do it. Carmen was a big factor in that transformation."

Russo said, "You get what you expect."

A high school guidance counselor's expectations of the former Carmen Varela set her on a career path faster than she expected. The family moved from Florida to Queens in 1952 when her father, Emilio Varela, a native of Spain, was offered a better job managing several restaurants in New York.

Her mother, Dora Varela, became a bakery manager who helped run the restaurants at Idlewild (later John F. Kennedy International Airport).

As a youngster, Carmen, the oldest of three girls, moved from one school to another - six in all - as her parents moved from one place to another in Dade County, Fla.

Forest Hills High School, where Carmen spent her senior year, was the seventh. Like many young women her age, she expected to go to work. But a guidance counselor, impressed with her intelligence, persuaded her to head for college.

Family support

Carmen had talked about being a teacher since the fourth grade. Dora Varela knew of her daughter's ambition and gave her blessing: "No matter what, we'll support you."

Carmen enrolled at Hunter College in Manhattan, studying economics and working after school and in the summer to help pay her bills.

In her last year at Hunter, "Capable Carmen" (as the yearbook dubbed her) met the captain of the basketball team, Tony Russo from Brooklyn.

They shared the pursuit of education and a passion for sports. They loved to dance and cook and travel. They married when she was 23.

After a stint playing minor league baseball, he joined Kingsborough Community College, where he was chairman of the athletic department and later dean of students.

Russo went on to earn her master's degree in education from Hunter, but she was a stay-at-home mother until her children, Laurie and Anthony Jr., began school.

Initially, Russo was a substitute teacher. Until the children were grown, she took jobs as a business teacher and assistant principal in schools that were minutes from her Queens home.

Her family, immediate and extended, has always been at the center of her life.

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