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The Unexpected Superintendent

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At the corner of North Avenue and Eighth Street, on Milwaukee's North Side, a shabby building with a faded sign proclaiming "Margie's Resale Shop'' stands as a sad reminder of the neighborhood's past.

Howard L. Fuller, one hand wound tightly around the steering wheel of his car, points a long finger toward the shop, partly obscured by graying boards.

"That was a thriving drugstore when I was growing up, and above it there was a doctor's office,'' Fuller says, motioning to the second floor. His car rounds the corner, and Fuller is silent until he reaches the stark, brick walk-up where he was raised. It squats near the edge of the street, part of a cluster of government-subsidized apartments adjacent to the Hillside Community Center, seemingly one of the few buildings built in the neighborhood since Fuller was a boy.

"This community is not as stable as it used to be,'' he remarks as he surveys the streets. He laments the loss of jobs, talks about the flight of middle-class blacks to the suburbs, and the school-desegregation policies that have resulted in children being bused across town.

But one thing is certain, Fuller says firmly. "I wouldn't want to be the superintendent anywhere else.''

It has been almost three years since Howard Fuller, now 53, startled many Milwaukeeans by accepting the top post in the 100,000-student school district. It was the first time a big-city school system had chosen a nontraditional candidate for the job of schools superintendent, and the decision earned national headlines. A former social-services administrator with no previous experience in precollegiate education, Fuller was best known for many years as one of the school system's most vocal critics. A longtime activist on civil rights and other issues in the black community, he had a history of bucking the system. In 1987, he had advocated carving out a separate, mostly blackschool district on the city's North Side--a plan that died in the legislature. A few years later, he lobbied hard for the district's pioneering, state-funded plan that gives vouchers to low-income children to attend private schools.

And yet, in 1991, he found himself in what seemed to be a peculiar position. After years of playing the role of the consummate outsider, Fuller was on the inside.

Fuller's corner office at district headquarters is jammed with memorabilia. A Pop Art portrait of Malcolm X shares a wall with photographs and awards, some dating back to Fuller's days as a high school and college basketball star in Milwaukee. A small framed paper bearing the words "Owusu Sadaukai,'' Fuller's adopted African name, is crowded among the mementos on another wall.

Fuller, a quiet but intense man, grins at the mention of the name, which friends gave him during his days as a civil-rights activist in North Carolina. In Hausa, the most widely spoken African language in Nigeria, Owusu means "one who clears the land for others,'' and Sadaukai translates as "one who gathers strength from his ancestors to lead his people.''

Both those descriptions seem apt for the longtime crusader.

Thirty years ago, Fuller certainly didn't seem destined to become the leader of a large bureaucracy in his hometown. But the superintendent's old neighborhood friends--who nicknamed him "Blood'' because of his strong ties to the community in which he was raised--don't seem surprised that he made the leap. Fuller, they say, is essentially the same crusader today he was as a young man.

Fuller agrees.

"When I was younger, I was going to change the world,'' he says over lunch at a restaurant near his office. "Now, I'm just trying to change the school system. But thesame things that motivated me then do now.''

Born and bred in Milwaukee, Fuller completed most of his education in or near the city before eventually settling down in a neighborhood north of downtown. He attended Carroll College in Waukesha, Wis.--just west of the city--as an undergraduate and received a master's degree in social administration from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in the early 1960's. In 1985, he earned a doctorate in the sociological foundations of education from Marquette University.

Fuller's life as an activist began early. After getting his master's, he moved first to Chicago to work with the Urban League and later to Durham, N.C., where he got involved in civil-rights demonstrations and joined the Black Power movement. In 1972, he spent a month as part of a guerilla movement opposing the Portuguese government of Mozambique, where he worked to raise money for liberationforces throughout southern Africa.

Bertie Howard, the executive director of the Africa News Service in Durham, met Fuller when she was a student at Duke University in the late 1960's. At the time, black students at the school were organizing demonstrations to demand that the university administration "be more hospitable'' to African-American students.

Frustrated by their dealings with the university, Howard and others joined Fuller in 1969 in opening Malcolm X Liberation University, which operated for four years and, at its peak, enrolled about 60 students. The university--which opened in Durham and later moved to Greensboro, N.C.--offered courses in African studies as well as "a practical education.'' The school's leaders organized their own teaching, engineering, and agricultural corps before disbanding because of financial problems.

Fuller, who taught classes and raised money at the school, was "a charismatic leader [and] a powerful orator,'' Howard recalls. "He would step back from a podium and close his eyes, and you'd know he would be heading into the emotional part of his speech because he would digress from his notes.''

Fuller still knows how to woo crowds. Every other Sunday, he attends a different church in Milwaukee, sometimes taking the pulpit to deliver a talk on "individual responsibility.'' Tom Brophy, a former colleague and now the director of the Milwaukee County human-services department, says the superintendent's shy demeanor belies his gift for public speaking. "When he gets in front of a crowd, he just electrifies people,'' Brophy says.

By the mid-70's, Fuller was back in Milwaukee, where he sold insurance for a time before going to work in the administration at Marquette University.

Though he was an unconventional choice for a schools chief, Fuller may have given even his supporters more than they bargained for. The superintendent, who is as comfortable discussing "gangsta'' rap as the nuances of education reform, has been nothing if not energetic. In his first three years, Fuller has:

  • Pushed for expanding the state's charter-schools legislation.
  • Unsuccessfully fought for a huge construction bond issue.
  • Supported two local African-immersion schools.
  • Considered hiring private-management firms to assist the district.

At the time of his appointment, Milwaukee residents seemed thrilled to finally have a superintendent who was one of their own. Fuller succeeded Robert S. Peterkin, whose resignation to accept a job at Harvard University upset many in the community who felt shortchanged by the superintendent's two-year stint. The previous incumbent, Lee R. McMurrin, had stayed 12 years.

At the time, Fuller headed the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services. He had also served as the secretary of the state employment-relations department. Though colleagues from those offices say there was some controversy when he was appointed to the state and county posts--some feared he could not work within the confines of a bureaucracy--his transition into government was by and large a successful one.

But his lack of experience in elementary or secondary schools--he had taught only in higher education--could have disqualified him from the superintendency. The state legislature, however, passed a law exempting Fuller from the requirement that he have three years' precollegiate teaching experience. The school board then voted to hire him over several more traditional candidates.

Fuller says he decided to throw his hat in the ring when the board deadlocked over whether to appoint Deborah M. McGriff, the deputy schools chief at the time and a friend of Fuller's. McGriff went on to accept the superintendency of the Detroit schools before taking her current position with Whittle Communications' Edison Project. Today, she and Fuller, a twice-divorced father of four, maintain a long-distance romance.

Fuller "had a real interest in the school district,'' says Floretta Dukes McKenzie, a Washington-based education consultant whose firm, the McKenzie Group, assisted the district in its search. "And he had a lot of support from the business community and the former superintendent.'' A large part of the black community also endorsed him, as did education advocates and many white residents.

"It's quite possible for a person who has not come through all the channels to do an excellent job,'' McKenzie adds. Fuller "is someone who can work outside the box and make some radical changes. I believe more and more folks are looking at nontraditional candidates, because I think people believe we can't keep delivering [education] the way we are.''

Friends and colleagues say it was Fuller's deep roots in the community and his impassioned support for its children--especially black children--that finally cast off doubts about his suitability for the job.

"Howard really lobbied for the job as a homegrown candidate,'' says Mary Bills, the president of the school board, which has essentially supported Fuller's agenda. "He's a wonderful spokesperson for the city's children.''

Milwaukeeans like to think of their city as clean and orderly. Despite the gray skies that seem to hang permanently over downtown as a result of years of booming production, the city's streets are tidy and its homes and municipal buildings well kept. Long a bastion of progressive politics and a union stronghold, the city of 600,000 today is more likely to be described by residents as a fairly conservative place. Mayor John O. Norquist, a Democrat, is an outspoken fiscal conservative. And voters will approve the occasional tax increase, "but they expect good services,'' Bills says.

Like most other older, industrial cities, Milwaukee fell on hard times in the early 1980's. It survived the slump by modernizing its manufacturing plants and expanding its service industries. While the effort buoyed the economy, it had the unintended effect of crippling the city's poor black communities, whose residents held many of the high-wage, low-skill union jobs that disappeared even during urban renewal.

The unemployment rate for blacks has remained high. About half of the black residents now receive some form of public assistance. And in the schools--where about 70 percent of the students are members of minority groups, and the majority are black--nearly 80 percent of black children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

But one fact about Milwaukee seems to crowd out all others: Experts say it is one of the nation's most racially segregated cities.

On the way to visit Louisa May Alcott School, Fuller gets lost trying to navigate the side streets of the residential South Side.

The superintendent uses his car phone to call the elementary school's office again for directions, then laughs ruefully about the brief detour. Though he's lived in Milwaukee for most of his life, a large part of the South Side--where most of the city's white residents live--is still uncharted territory to him.

His views on school desegregation are naturally complicated by his own experience as a student and an activist in an era before court-ordered busing made even its modest inroads in integrating the city's neighborhoods.

Fuller, who graduated from North Division High School in 1958, roundly criticized then-Superintendent McMurrin's efforts to desegregate the schools under a 1976 federal court order. McMurrin's deputy, David A. Bennett, also came in for criticism. Today, Bennett is the president of Education Alternatives Inc., the Minneapolis-based private firm that manages public schools. Fuller and other black leaders charged that the plans placed the burden for integration on black children and their families.

Fuller maintains that school desegregation in the city is a numbers game, designed to create the illusion of harmony based on head counts. Mayor Norquist has railed against the district's busing policies as well, but little has changed. The issue, however, remains a political hot button here, particularly among blacks.

Like a growing number of other African-American educators, the superintendent argues that the well-meaning proponents of desegregation policies have diverted attention from a more important issue: the quality of education for minority or underprivileged children.

"I've always held the view that whether or not America is integrated has to do with people having skills and the power to participate, not whether black and white kids play together on the playground,'' Fuller explains. "Children should get an education for the world they're going to face. Integration is a secondary part of the whole discussion.''

In addition, he asserts, district policies have contributed to the deterioration of tight-knit communities where children attended neighborhood schools staffed by local black teachers--role models for the youths.

Fuller's own alma mater, North Division High School, sits across from several vacant lots bordered by rows of small, boxy houses resembling those in children's drawings. The school's sturdy brick construction gives it an air of permanence somehow lacking in its surroundings.

Situated firmly inside the northern limits of the city, North Division has for many years been known as "the black high school,'' even though its traditional rival, Lincoln High--which was closed in the mid-1960's--was also a predominantly black school.

Fuller and State Rep. Polly Williams--classmates at the school in the 1950's--fought a successful battle in the late 1970's to maintain North Division as a neighborhood school. It had been slated to become a citywide magnet school after the district razed the old school building and rebuilt on the property.

Fuller's friend Michael Cummings, a physical-education teacher at the high school, says the superintendent earned the nickname "Blood'' during the two-year fight over the school.

"We started calling him that because blood is thicker than water, because nothing is closer than that,'' Cummings recalls as his students line up for a drill in the high school's vast gymnasium.

Even though a new building was erected, Williams says, the community was angry that "all the innovative ideas'' that were discussed as part of the magnet plan were dropped once the district agreed not to bus in white children from across town. Today, the school is often cited as one of the city's low-performing schools, although it enjoys strong community support.

"You've got grades, on the one hand, but you've also got a lot of love and tradition in this school that you don't get credit for,'' Fuller says, pointing out that several teachers, like Cummings, are former North Division High students.

In their dramatic efforts to draw attention to the educational opportunities denied to black children, Fuller and other prominent black leaders in Milwaukee in 1987 pitched the first of two controversial reform plans.

They proposed creating an autonomous, mostly black school district in the heart of the North Side. The district would have enrolled 8,400 students in 22 predominantly black schools--with North Division as its only high school.

Critics--black and white--called the plan "segregationist,'' but it drew considerable support. The state Assembly approved a bill creating the district in 1988, but a joint conference committee with the Senate killed it.

Williams, a Democrat who fought for the plan's approval in the legislature, says its supporters believed that under a locally controlled district, more resources would be dedicated to children than were coming "out of the district's general pot.'' Williams represents much of the North Side.

Sitting in his office at central headquarters, located on a busy street northwest of downtown, Fuller now admits that, at the time the plan was proposed, he was uninformed about the extent to which public schools depend on property taxes. "If we had carved out an all-black district, it would have been dirt poor,'' he says. "We would have had to fund it differently.''

Even after the proposal failed, black leaders in the city--Fuller among them--continued to argue that the needs of children in their community were not being met. In 1990, they came up with a plan that put the Milwaukee school system on the map: private school choice.

With the support of prominent Milwaukeeans and many in the black community, Williams, the architect of the plan, persuaded Wisconsin lawmakers to pass the nation's first private-school-choice bill, allowing a limited number of the city's low-income children to attend nonsectarian private schools at public expense.

There are now about 800 children in the program, which gives parents about $2,900 toward tuition costs. Ninety-six percent of the children who participate are African American or Latino.

Although Fuller has been a staunch supporter of the plan from the outset, he and other school officials acknowledge that recent studies by researchers at the University of Wisconsin revealed that the academic performance of students attending the private schools appears to be no better than that of low-income students who remain in the public schools.

Fuller says, however, that "the parents seem to feel better'' about the choice schools.

Fuller's name has since become closely associated with challenging the status quo. He has not disguised his willingness to embrace some controversial reforms, most of which are designed to loosen restrictions on individual schools. The superintendent eschews the notion of a monolithic school system. Instead, he calls the district a "system of schools,'' in which each site is unique and capable of change.

At an early-morning meeting of school principals in the central-office auditorium, Fuller warns the crowd of an impending "struggle over public education.'' School officials have speculated that a statewide campaign for private school vouchers could become an issue this year, and Fuller appears open to the possibility.

"We're going to have to fight our internal myths, our internal inertia,'' he tells the crowd. "Because if we don't rethink it, it's going to be rethought for us.''

"I think he feels a level of frustration about getting change from the inside; therefore, he looks outside the system,'' board president Mary Bills says.

Most recently, Fuller pushed for changes in the state's existing charter-schools legislation, which permits districts to operate up to two charters as long as they are "instruments'' of the school system in which they are located. The new bill--which died in the legislature earlier this month after lawmakers failed to vote on it--would have allowed private contractors to manage the charter schools and to turn over some school jobs to nondistrict employees. The superintendent was discouraged by the setback, but says he has not given up on expanding the state's vision of charters.

Fuller also announced recently that the board was considering hiring the Edison Project--the entrepreneur Christopher Whittle's private reform venture, which recently expanded to include management of public schools--to help implement the district's school-to-work plan.

Fuller admits that he has been criticized for "trying to sell off the system,'' but he maintains that he is only trying to predict how schools will look over the next 10 years. "The question is whether we're going to be in front of the curve,'' he says.

The superintendent's unorthodox views have not endeared him to the local teachers' union. His relationship with the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association "has been rocky,'' he says tentatively. "I'm willing to work together, but I'm not willing to give up the things I believe in. And there are some things the union holds sacred that I think are impediments to change.'' The superintendent believes, for example, that reform plans in individual schools have been hamstrung by conditions in the teachers' collective-bargaining agreements.

In a cramped meeting room off the bustling central hallway of Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School, Chuck Howard, the president of the M.T.E.A., steals time from teaching to discuss the union's "questions about Fuller's commitment to public education.'' Although other teachers stream through the office to reach a neighboring room, the union leader continues to speak without interruption.

"I know he honestly wants to change things,'' says Howard, an English teacher at the citywide magnet school. "We just disagree with his methods.'' For example, the union has criticized Fuller's push to gain authority to "reconstitute,'' or close and restaff, failing schools without having to follow hiring procedures laid out in the union's contract.

Howard says it seems that the superintendent has "given up'' on traditional public education.

Another teacher, perched on a desk facing a sculpture of giant wooden cogs that dominates the wall above the school's main entrance, says she believes Fuller "doesn't understand the problems within the classroom.''

The superintendent, for his part, says he has made a concerted effort to visit schools and talk to teachers, students, and administrators about their concerns. "I've now been in 131 schools,'' he points out. "I have a much better understanding of what happens on a day-to-day basis.''

Fuller suffered a stinging political defeat early last year when voters quashed a proposed $366 million construction referendum. The measure was designed to reduce class size and create additional space to accommodate a surge in enrollment, particularly at the middle school level. The superintendent also hoped the bond issue--a crucial part of his plan to revive the schools--would placate parents who wanted the district to cut down on busing.

But the city's voters killed the proposal by a stunning three-to-one margin.

"What it boiled down to was taxes,'' Fuller says. "We had the same problem as other urban districts: Who's in our schools, and who actually pays? We were asking for a small group of people, many of whom have no connection to the schools, to pay.''

Several observers credit Mayor Norquist with the defeat. (Representative Williams, however, also opposed the referendum, and publicly debated Fuller on the issue.) A former state senator who once wrote an article intimating that the nation's cities could do without public schools as we know them, the Mayor characterized the construction plan as wildly expensive.

Norquist believed the plan "would have been a crushing blow to city taxpayers,'' says Jeff Fleming, a staff assistant to the Mayor. "It would have extracted significant additional taxes without connecting it to education reform.''

One local official said the disagreement over the referendum "permanently made the relationship difficult'' between the Mayor and the schools chief, whose views on such hot issues as privatization and school choice are not so far apart. Norquist favors "practically no limitation on school choice,'' including the participation of parochial schools, Fleming notes.

For his part, Fuller resists political labels, saying only that he "leans to independent.'' Observers say the superintendent is well-regarded by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson--a Republican who has praised Fuller for making "a tremendous impact on his community''--and that he worked closely with former Democratic Gov. Anthony S. Earl as head of the state employment-relations department.

Several observers say Fuller's relationship with the Mayor has been far more complicated. The superintendent says only that "many times our views don't coincide.''

The superintendent is frank about the toll the job has taken on his personal life. Driven to perfection, Fuller spends 12 to 14 hours a day in the office, in addition to several hours there each weekend, one colleague says.

He also spends a good deal of time each week participating in community activities, where he is accessible to schoolchildren and their parents. With the little free time he has, Fuller puts his extensive record collection to use as a disk jockey at parties and dances. His tastes run from vintage to contemporary pop, and he lately has become a fan of several rap artists.

"I think this job has had an impact on my physical and mental health,'' Fuller says. "If you care, and I really do, this stuff really tears at you. I went through some really difficult periods in my first year.'' Board members agree that it was tough for Fuller to get over the "learning curve.''

As a well-known children's advocate and a nontraditional educator, he carried a lot of baggage with him to the superintendency, his friend Polly Williams says. And, because Fuller has been such a powerful activist here, many seemed to expect him to transform the organization overnight simply by putting his money where his mouth is. "I guess, in a certain sense, it's poetic justice that I'm superintendent,'' Fuller says wryly.

"I think there was a view that he would just go in like gangbusters and make changes,'' Williams says. "But I think he went in and found out just how sick the system is. He's having a hard time, and he's very frustrated. You can see it in his face.''

McKenzie, the education consultant and a former superintendent of the District of Columbia schools, agrees. "I find him to be one of the most committed individuals I know, to the point that it might be unhealthy,'' she says. "Frankly, at the pace he was going, I did not know how long he could last.''

But despite the strain and some recent poor health, Fuller appears determined to live up to his reputation as a tireless crusader.

"I'm willing to work as long as I feel that change is happening. If I'm not getting that, I'd have to ask myself: 'Why should I stay?''' he muses. "I don't want to administer a static organization.''

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