A Tough, Confident 'Political Animal' Tackles a Tough Job
Minneapolis--When Richard R. Green leaves here to assume the chancellorship of the New York City public schools on March 1, he will be trading a community where he has gained solid support during his superintendency for a vastly larger one where he is at best an unknown factor.
But both Mr. Green and his supporters here are confident that he is well prepared to, as he puts it, trade "the 'Minneapple' for the 'Big Apple."'
"He's a perfect person for New York," said Harry Davis, one of the two current school-board members who have served with Mr. Green continuously since he was appointed superintendent in 1980.
"When he gets there, he'll adjust to it and pull people together," Mr. Davis predicted.
Although all of Mr. Green's experience has been in Minneapolis, whose total population is roughly a third the size of the student enrollment in New York City, one key to his success is a self-confident, take-control management style that street-smart New Yorkers could relish.
When faced with opposition to his leadership, he can turn on a sharp, school principal's manner, and his critics say he can be arrogant.
Judy Farmer, the school-board chairman, said some of his projects were controversial, but added, "There's not many who say he's not competent."
One of his earliest and most significant moves here--centralizing authority in his office--is bound to attract much attention in New York City, which is currently facing a barrage of criticism aimed at the system's structure of decentralized governance.
At the time Mr. Green was promoted to district superintendent, he was superintendent of one of three subdistricts that enjoyed a degree of autonomy similar to that of the 32 community districts that govern New York's elementary and middle schools.
During a process that lasted almost a year and a half, Mr. Green solicited opinions from--and won the admiration of--business and community leaders, parents, and school employees. The resulting five-year plan not only gave him nearly sole control over the system's operations, it also earned him the support of the city's school board, which with rare exceptions has approved his proposals.
But the far more complex political structure in New York City may not prove as amenable to Mr. Green's consensus building.
In contrast to New York, the mayor and city government of Minneapolis have no control over the independent school board or its superintendent, although Mr. Green has worked closely with both the city and county, by choice, and has participated in a group that forms a united front to lobby the legislature.
"He's a very political animal," a district official said when asked if Mr. Green could survive the school-related battles of New York.
Anecdotes about how he pursues his goals in face-to-face encounters abound. There are numerous stories of his accosting pupils in school and on the street for impromptu quizzes and lectures on ambition and getting good grades.
On one occasion in 1985, Mr. Green sternly lectured black parents, pointing out that Southeast Asian newcomers often did better in school than black pupils. He urged his listeners to emulate the involvement of Asian parents in their children's school work.
Although the proportion of minority students here is far smaller than that in New York City--45 percent of the district's 39,000 students are minority, as opposed to nearly 80 percent in New York--Mr. Green's efforts to ensure an equitable education for all children have been widely praised.
Minority test scores on the city's "benchmark" tests have been steadily improving over the past several years. The benchmark tests, which are perhaps Mr. Green's unique legacy, must be passed by students in kindergarten and grades 2, 5, 7, and 9 before they can be promoted.
In addition, Mr. Green has standardized the curriculum in city schools, ensuring that all students have access to the same level and quality of courses.
The 51-year-old superintendent knows what it is like to be what is now called an "at risk" student--he was raised by a single parent in a predominantly black housing project in north Minneapolis.
A voluntary integration plan implemented during his tenure has enabled parents to choose from among a variety of specialized schools, ranging from traditional academies to schools based on the Montessori model.
Mr. Green's adamant refusal to allow a disproportionate influx of white students into academic programs that are less popular with4black students has proven to be his greatest political problem in recent years. Last fall, three newcomers were elected to the seven-member school board, largely due to a coordinated campaign organized by angry white parents.
His open-enrollment plan and a program that allows high-school students to amass credits while taking college courses served as models for programs that have sinced been adopted statewide.
Mr. Green's ability to win a high degree of support among the business community here should prove useful in New York, where a highly publicized withdrawal of support from an innovative school program by Time Inc. and CBS Inc. helped hasten the demise of the former schools chancellor, Nathan Quinones.
While he was still a principal, Mr. Green successfully sought support from business leaders here to finance his pursuit of a doctorate in education from Harvard University, which he completed in 1972.
After hearing of the formal vote that gave him the chancellor's post last week, he said he looked forward to building a sense of "shared mission" around the schools there, as he has here.
"I want to be certain that the teachers and principals also know they have my support and understand the mission," he said. "I don't want anybody to feel they are not valued."