Published Online: April 23, 1997

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Once Payzant arrived, he focused on writing standards for the city schools in line with the federal mandate.

While the department wanted standards to be drafted for every academic subject, Congress restricted the mandate to "at least" reading and mathematics to emphasize the program's traditional mandate and to ease criticisms that the federal government was meddling too much in the rest of the curriculum.

Districts also must employ a variety of assessments to prove that students are learning to the standards.

Moreover, the law offers flexibility. Any school with a poverty rate above 50 percent may choose to become a schoolwide program. That designation enables principals to merge federal money from most programs into a single pool so they can spend it on a comprehensive way to raise all students' achievement.

Payzant's 2 1/2-year stay inside the Beltway was a short one compared with many who write federal education policy.In early 1993, he accepted the invitation of U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to be the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

The former Eagle Scout, who has kept his boyish looks and energy into his 50s, would have no problems being confirmed by the Senate, officials in the new administration told him.

That was until conservatives discovered that Payzant had recommended that the San Diego school district bar Boy Scout troops from meeting in the city's schools. The recommendation, which the school board approved, was based on the national organization's rules prohibiting gay scoutmasters, in violation of the district's anti-discrimination policy.

The attempt to silence an All-American icon in the name of homosexual rights angered conservatives and made Payzant the perfect symbol for their attempts to label the new Democratic administration as out-of-the-mainstream liberals.

The controversy delayed his confirmation until July, six months after the administration took office. Unlike any other nominee for assistant secretary at the Education Department, his record was subjected to a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing.

During the squabbling, he called on several moderate Republican senators whose votes were needed to break any potential filibuster against his nomination. Later, those visits came in handy when it came time for him to round up votes for the new Title I and other changes in the Improving America's Schools Act, as the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was known.

A little more than two years after the Senate approved his nomination, the Boston school board hired him to be the city's superintendent. Boston is right next to his hometown of Quincy (or "Quin-zee," as he and other locals pronounce it). It was the only place that could have lured him away from Washington, he said at the time.

Once Payzant arrived here, he focused on writing standards for the city schools in line with the federal mandate: Standards for students in Title I had to be as tough as those their peers had to meet.

He and the standards-writing committees he formed published final versions of language arts and math standards in time for this school year and are rolling out standards for other subjects as they are completed.

The tumultuous history of desegregating Boston schools now actually makes it easier for the system to meet the schoolwide-program guidelines.

The final products build on the state's package of standards, adding specific goals where the state offers general ones and including benchmarks for children in every grade, not just the 5th, 8th, and 12th grades as the state does.

Now, in visits that are usually unannounced, Payzant is checking in on every school in the district this year, asking their leaders how they are using those standards and witnessing what is happening in classrooms.

"The concerns I'm hearing are: Will we be able to maintain the other academics?" Faye Webster, the head of the Ohrenberger Elementary School parent council, relays to Payzant when she arrives at the meeting. "How can you do it all without some kind of sacrifice?"

Payzant says that may be the biggest challenge for any school. Schools could spend three years just teaching children to read, then work another three years exclusively on math, and spend similar amounts of time on other subjects, he says.

That's why he's asking every school to choose one area to home in on, while ensuring that the children learn in other content areas as well. "We have to find a way to focus on one area, but not let everything else go," he tells Webster.

How Ohrenberger--or any other school--will solve that dilemma will be spelled out in its comprehensive school plan.

The plan, which Payzant requires of every Boston school, must answer broad questions, such as: Where do we want our school to be? How will our school get to where we want to be? How will we know our school is making progress?

Those far-reaching questions are similar to the ones that must be answered in any school's application for a Title I schoolwide designation-- with or without Payzant in the superintendent's seat.

The tumultuous history of desegregating Boston schools now actually makes it easier for the system to meet the schoolwide-program guidelines. Every school qualifies because a desegregation order spreads impoverished students throughout the system.

About two-thirds of the city's schoolchildren are eligible for a free or reduced-priced lunch subsidized by the federal government. Half of the system's students are African-American, one-fourth are Hispanic, 17 percent are white, and 9 percent are Asian.

By completing the comprehensive plan and ensuring its goals are met, schools do everything they need to qualify for federal aid.

"What was conceived in the legislation is absolutely consistent with comprehensive school planning," Payzant tells the group assembled in Assistant Principal McAlear's office. "There doesn't have to be a separate planning process for Title I."

For McAlear, that approach solves a lot of problems. A 1st grade teacher until she was promoted last fall, she struggled to help Title I students who left her classroom for a portion of every day.

"It was very disruptive to have pullouts," she says. "You try your best to have your children not miss what the other children are doing. You think you plan your program accordingly, but there are numerous interruptions that don't allow you to keep the schedule as you would like."

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