New Superintendent Brings Hopes Home to East St. Louis
Fresh leadership heading to the East St. Louis schools has restored an almost forgotten sense of optimism in the beleaguered Illinois district.
The eyes--and hopes--of many in the city rest this summer on Nathaniel Anderson, a native son, college football star, and former high school principal who will become the superintendent of the 12,000-student system on July 1.
Mr. Anderson, 47, earned a reputation as a strong leader and dedicated educator as a principal and assistant superintendent in Rock Island, a blue-collar, racially diverse city in northern Illinois.
He said last week that although he could have written an easier career ticket elsewhere--"People think I'm nuts!" he says half jokingly--he felt compelled to tackle the challenge of leading the troubled system out of the red and toward academic success.
"It's my home," the 225-pound, 6-foot-4-inch former running back said last week. "And hearing sad stories about the schools I attended and knew so well hurt. I know we can do better and make a positive, lasting difference."
Yet he faces formidable hurdles in his first attempt to run a school district--one that has seen the promise of new leadership fade before. East St. Louis, which sits across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo., has for years suffered from extreme economic depression. Racially, it is the least diverse district in Illinois, with a student population that is 99 percent black, and is largely poor.
The state took control of the district's messy finances in 1994, hiring a three-member panel to guide the school board through budget decisions. Though the finances are coming around, state officials say the panel's work will continue for some time. ("Looking the Other Way," February 15, 1995.)
In addition to the academic and fiscal problems, the district faces other troubles as well. Mr. Anderson succeeds Geraldine Jenkins, whose three-year tenure as superintendent was marred by management problems and alleged corruption that both the FBI and the International Revenue Service are still investigating. Ms. Jenkins, who was ousted by the school board in November, is now retired and could not be reached for comment.
Diplomatically, all Mr. Anderson would add to her legacy is that he plans to be a leader who is "part of the solution, not part of the problem."
'Long, Long Way To Go'
State and local leaders share those hopes.
"The future looks promising," said Joseph A. Spagnolo, the state schools chief. "The school board and oversight panel are working well together, and there's a new focus on student achievement," he said last week. "But there's still a long, long way to go."
Eight of the district's 25 schools are on the state's academic watch list of low-performing schools.
Acknowledging that, Lonzo Greenwood, the newly elected president of East St. Louis' seven-member school board, said he's hopeful that Mr. Anderson is capable of managing the reforms that will ultimately lead to the end of state oversight.
"He's got the drive and the innovation that we're looking for," said Mr. Greenwood, a lifelong resident of East St. Louis. "For the first time, I feel like we're all in concert--the oversight panel, the board, and our superintendent. I'm really excited about what's ahead."
Mr. Anderson's former boss in the 7,000-student Rock Island district, retiring Superintendent William Mitchell, echoed that assessment. He said that after spending four years as both the principal of Rock Island High School and as an assistant superintendent, Mr. Anderson is ready for the challenge of running an entire district and managing an $80 million budget.
"He's stepping into a big job, responsible for things he hasn't dealt with here--more management, finances," Mr. Mitchell said. "But Nate's a natural leader, and a take-charge person. I expect he'll learn what he needs to on the job."
Mr. Anderson grew up in East St. Louis and graduated in 1969 from Lincoln High School--the alma mater of, among other notables, Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, jazz musician Miles Davis, and Donald McHenry, a former ambassador to the United Nations.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in recreation and a master's in education from Eastern Illinois University, Mr. Anderson was a teacher and administrator in Decatur, Ill. and then Cairo, Ill. He went to Rock Island in 1993 and received a doctorate in education administration from Illinois State University last month. He and his wife, Tanya, have two daughters and three grandsons.
At Rock Island High School, Mr. Anderson is credited with, among other accomplishments, bringing order and discipline to the school.
"He tackles problems head-on," said government teacher Mary Lou McLaughlin, adding that on most days he shared lunch in the school cafeteria with a table full of students. "And he never avoids a confrontation. Kids and teachers really respect him."
Mr. Anderson helped modernize Rock Island's vocational education program and helped forge a number of school-business partnerships. He said he'd like to do the same in East St. Louis. He would also like to explore the idea of adding a nonvoting student member to the school board.
Perhaps the toughest challenge he faces at the helm of one of the state's lowest-performing districts is academics. Mr. Anderson said he'd like to channel some of the current focus on sports--the district boasts numerous football, basketball, and track championships--toward books instead.
But he also understands the need to sweat the details. "I'll need to start small--checking facilities, making sure that schools have working bathrooms, cafeterias, that the classrooms are heated, that sort of thing," he said. He'll also need to smooth the transition for the district's two high schools, which recently merged because of declining enrollment and aging facilities.
"I'm going do the best I can," Mr. Anderson said, "and take things one step at a time."
Vol. 17, Issue 41, Page 12