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San Diego's Bertha Pendleton Climbs to the Top

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Plaques line most of the heavy brown shelves in Bertha Pendleton's office in Hillcrest, a clean, busy neighborhood north of Balboa Park and the city zoo in San Diego. Some of the awards form neat rows on the shelves; others seem to have been set down casually, as if they were intended for hanging one day.

There are old awards from schools, new awards from the school district, service awards from the city. Separately, the plaques--the standard, thick slabs of wood bearing inscribed golden plates--are unremarkable.

Together, though, they form the connecting pieces of a story. Pendleton has worked in the city's schools for 35 years, has been recognized for every aspect of her work, and has climbed the district's career ladder in the process.

This summer, she was the unanimous choice of the school board to be the superintendent of the San Diego City Unified School District, succeeding Thomas W. Payzant, who left to become the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education in the U.S. Education Department.

Payzant was, by most accounts, a tough act to follow. During his 14 years in San Diego, he was credited with bringing stability to one of the fastest-growing--and most ethnically diverse--districts in the state. He was also a leading advocate of grassroots school reform.

Pendleton, 60, was the first woman, and the first African-American, to be named to the top post in the 127,000-student district, the eighth-largest in the country.

While other urban districts, New York and Chicago among them, chose new school chiefs this year after extensive--and sometimes contentious--national searches, the school board here tapped Pendleton, a deputy superintendent at the time, in one quiet, decisive move.

Hiring a seasoned administrator already working for the district was a notable departure from the routine in many large districts of bringing in new, high-profile superintendents every few years to "save'' the schools.

The process in San Diego also seems to have sidestepped the politics of race that has polarized the superintendent-selection process in many urban areas.

Observers say the choice was a natural, particularly in a district that already seemed to be on a successful track. No one, they say, was more qualified to keep the schools on course than a veteran like Pendleton.

"We have a lot of talent locally,'' says Raymond Uzeta, the executive director of the Chicano Federation, a local advocacy group. "My feeling is, Why spin your wheels? Why bring someone in who has to go through the learning curve?''

Staying on Course

With a diverse student population--roughly one-third white, one-third Hispanic, and one-third African-American and Asian-American--the San Diego public school system has been recognized as one of the nation's better urban districts. It is one of the few that has succeeded in reducing its dropout rate, and, under Payzant's leadership, reorganizing the central office to make it more responsive to reforms in individual schools.

When they selected Pendleton last summer, most board members said they believed she shared their desire to continue moving from the old "factory'' model of schooling to a performance-based system.

"If you want to change, it makes sense to look for someone from the outside. But there is real merit in getting someone who can just move with'' an agenda, Pendleton says. "It wasn't like I was trying to come in and turn the ship around.''

Pendleton had been recruited for the top posts in several other districts--including San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.--before she accepted the job here in June.

The fact that Pendleton was in such demand is perhaps one reason the board found it unnecessary to scour the country for new blood. "I think they felt like I had really made it'' in the field, she says.

But William Crane, the president of the San Diego Teachers' Association, also notes that a national search for Payzant's successor would have been politically risky for the board. At the time, teachers were facing the threat of a 2 percent salary rollback, he says.

"We're talking about $9.8 million in cuts in this year's budget,'' Crane says. The union "would have come out strong if the district spent the equivalent of $75,000 to do a national search when we had somebody here of Bertha Pendleton's quality.''

Sue Braun, a board member, says Pendleton's strength is her ability to bring together diverse interest groups. She describes the scene in a school auditorium where Pendleton spoke after the board's vote this summer.

"The whole place erupted,'' Braun recalls. "Everyone jumped from their seats, into the air, and started screaming. It was like a football game that you've just won by one point.''

Pendleton's popularity in the district transcends racial bounds, says Braun, who represents a vast area stretching to the district's northeastern boundaries.

"My community is largely white, and everyone was thrilled'' with the appointment, she says.

Climbing the Ranks

Pendleton, a reserved, gracious woman whose careful speech still carries traces of her Southern upbringing, describes her career as she heads for yet another in an endless string of daily appointments.

She grew up in Alabama and later studied at Knoxville (Tenn.) College. She took her first teaching job at an elementary school in Chattanooga, Tenn., where she soon heard that the San Diego schools were recruiting teachers.

When she decided to head there in 1957, with her husband and young son, "My family thought I was going to the end of the world,'' she says with a grin.

Her first post in San Diego was at Memorial Junior High School in the barrio of Logan Heights. Today, Logan Heights and National City--just south of downtown--are still home to many of the city's low-income and minority students.

She rose through the district's ranks as a school counselor, a local coordinator of compensatory education, and a high school principal. In 1976, she moved to the central office, where she was director of compensatory education, an assistant superintendent, and, finally, for about eight years, Payzant's second-in-command.

Pendleton has made improving student achievement the cornerstone of her plan for the district. "If you can make great inroads on achievement,'' she believes, "you can take care of a number of other things at the same time.''

"When she came out with her 16 elements [to improve achievement], that was her effort to make some separation between her'' and Payzant, notes Crane of the teachers' union. Among the goals is that every graduating high school student will have at least a 2.0 grade-point average and that every school will offer a community-service elective.

In addition, the superintendent is concentrating on a board member's proposal to reduce class sizes, which average about 34 students per teacher at the secondary level. The district, which covers some 200 square miles, enrolls an additional 3,500 students a year; its enrollment is expected to exceed 145,000 in the next decade.

A Wake-Up Call

Speaking to the Rotary Club in La Jolla, an exclusive community north of the city, Pendleton gears up for a tough crowd.

Most of the members gathered here for lunch at the La Valencia Hotel--a grand, salmon-colored building in the Spanish style that overlooks Prospect Street on one side and lush gardens and the Pacific Ocean on the other--are prominent white businessmen or professionals in this politically conservative area. The president of the club, Pendleton later points out, is a top official in one of La Jolla's private schools.

Although she was prepared to talk about the recent rejection by voters of Proposition 174, a statewide school-voucher initiative, Pendleton softens her "victory'' remarks. Instead, she focuses on her district's attempt to make the system less bureaucratic and more responsive to students' needs--a theme likely to strike a responsive chord in her audience.

Pendleton assumed her post as public schools in the state were undergoing a crisis in confidence in part as a result of the debate before the vote on the voucher initiative last month. She seems keenly aware that the proposal, though rejected by a seven-to-three margin, signals flagging support of public schools. And she says she will continue backing such alternatives as charter schools while pursuing more radical ways to jump-start the system.

"Public education is under the microscope, [and] we're going to have to prove that we can do the job,'' John E. Perko, the assistant superintendent for business services, notes.

Already, three new choice plans have been submitted to the state attorney general's office since the defeat of Proposition 174, he adds.

A New Relationship?

For starters, school officials are considering contracting with Education Alternatives Inc., the private Minneapolis-based firm that says it can run public schools more efficiently. Pendleton, along with a group of school board members, teachers, and administrators, was scheduled last week to visit Baltimore, where E.A.I. manages nine public schools, and Dade County, Fla., where the firm oversees instructional services in one public school.

Some of the impetus for looking at E.A.I. came from the business community, and the San Diego Business Roundtable for Education in particular. The district has worked closely with the group's leaders to insure that private industry is represented in school reform.

"The idea sort of took hold because we had been reading a lot about'' privatization, explains the superintendent, and business leaders came to the district supporting the concept.

But the plan to investigate a relationship with the firm has generated the first hint of controversy since Pendleton took office.

The local newspapers have run with the story, creating the illusion that the district is much closer to a deal than is the case, school officials say. And some of the city's residents are starting to ask questions.

"There is no doubt that there is a certain level of dialogue going on about whether to permit privatization,'' Pendleton admits. "But we're just gathering information.''

Some members of the African-American community have expressed dismay that more local groups were not consulted on the issue. And the teachers' union, while it was planning to send representatives on the East Coast trip, has "major reservations about E.A.I.,'' Crane says.

But Pendleton seems determined to maintain the district's gains while leading the schools into a new era.

"The community wants to know where our sense of outrage is over the lack of student achievement,'' she says, adding that district officials must not become complacent about the reforms they've made to date.

"We're taking a very proactive role in changing the things the public is dissatisfied with,'' Pendleton says.

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