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Urban Educators Lament Negative Public Perception

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As big-city educators gathered here for the annual convention of the Council of the Great City Schools, many expressed a powerful faith that they are turning the tide of failure engulfing so many urban school systems.

Yet they projected an equally strong awareness that theirs is not the prevailing view.

"The public perception of us is very low," Franklin L. Smith, the embattled superintendent of the District of Columbia schools and the council's current chairman, said during his keynote speech at the Oct. 23-27 conference.

The council, a Washington-based association of 48 of the nation's largest urban districts, is determined to change that negative image. "We need to regain the public trust," said Michael Casserly, the executive director.

To that end, the council has joined forces with the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute for Educational Leadership to lay the groundwork for a national drive to improve urban schools and focus greater public attention on the obstacles they face.

Over the next few months, the group plans to hold a series of small-group discussions with educators, business leaders, and others. The object, according to a letter mailed to prospective participants, will be to plan "a longer-term national campaign to raise the public's awareness of the need to confront the challenges of urban education."

"Our work is likely to include naming a steering committee or advisory group on urban education, convening local or regional meetings, and possibly holding an Urban Education Summit if conditions warrant," the letter says.

In addition to Mr. Casserly, the letter was signed by Gerald N. Tirozzi, the Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education; Sharon Robinson, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement; and Michael Usdan, the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington-based policy group.

In the coming months, the organizers of the meetings hope to agree on steps urban schools must take to improve and on what outsiders, including the federal government, can do to help.

"The issues are extremely complicated," Mr. Usdan said. "It's going to require a concerted, very collaborative effort."

Mr. Tirozzi and Mr. Casserly stressed that their initiative was not aimed at merely reiterating a litany of long-recognized ills. "This is going to be action, not rhetoric," Mr. Tirozzi said.

Diana Lam, the superintendent of the San Antonio public schools, said she welcomed the effort to stitch together a nationwide push for better city schools.

"This is not something you want to do solo," she said.

Although he has been under attack in the nation's capital, Mr. Smith was embraced by his colleagues at the conference.

In recent months, the Washington superintendent has weathered fierce criticism of his performance, which intensified after some city schools opened late this fall for the second time in three years because of fire-code violations. The congressionally created control board that monitors the finances of the city government and its school system was widely reported this fall to be pushing for his ouster.

But in case anyone was wondering, Mr. Smith reminded conference-goers at a breakfast meeting: "Yes, I am still superintendent of D.C. public schools."

Serving as master of ceremonies during much of the conference in his role as the chairman of the council's board of directors, Mr. Smith peppered his remarks with sometimes self-deprecating references to his troubles at home.

And he seemed to strike a sympathetic chord in his audience when he called on the news media to accentuate the positive in covering inner city schools.

"If you're like I am, you're constantly bombarded by the media," Mr. Smith said. "You begin to wonder, 'Is there anything positive taking place in these urban districts?'"

In an emotional speech to the conference, Maya Angelou offered encouragement, telling educators that without the educators in her own life she had "no idea who she would be."

Ms. Angelou, a renowned poet, author, actress, and scholar who currently teaches at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., said her earliest educators were the relatives who raised her.

In relating the story of the early years of her childhood in Little Rock, Ark., during which she was mute as the result of the trauma of a sexual assault, Ms. Angelou explained that a teacher helped her regain her voice.

Ms. Angelou reminded the urban educators that even "when it looks like the sun wasn't gonna shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds."

--CAROLINE HENDRIE & CHERYL GAMBLE

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