After a six-month search for a leader, the New Orleans school board has pinned its hopes on Anthony S. Amato, who has earned a national reputation as a “turnaround” superintendent by raising student performance in foundering districts.
The former schools chief in Hartford, Conn., said last week that the terms of a contract still were being negotiated, but that he intended to accept the top job in the 77,000-student Louisiana system. The Orleans Parish school board voted 4-3 on Jan. 31 to make him the offer.
Board members minced few words in describing the challenge Mr. Amato faces. With more than 70 percent of its students living in poverty, New Orleans contains 21 of the 23 schools that have been identified by the state as failing. The superintendency has turned over several times in the past decade. And state lawmakers have begun talking of possible intervention in the district’s governance.
“It’s like a cardiac arrest for a school system, and it needs someone to come in and shock it back to life,” said board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz. "[Mr. Amato] is a change agent. He can get change very, very quickly.”
Mr. Amato made good on a pledge to raise Hartford students’ test scores from dead last in the state in less than a year. A panel appointed to oversee the district following its takeover by the state had hired him in 1999 from the superintendency of New York City’s Community School District 6, which in 12 years he had pulled up from the bottom of the city’s 32 subdistricts. (“Under Amato, Hartford Schools Show Progress,” March 1, 2000.) The Amato formula has included common curricula across the system, a focus on basic skills, instruction in test- taking techniques, and extra academic instruction for students who needed it, including after school.
Back to Tradition
Although student achievement continued to climb in Hartford throughout his tenure, Mr. Amato was seen by some there as authoritarian, and he drew complaints for applying for jobs in other districts. He resigned last fall, shortly before the district returned to the control of a locally elected school board.
Mr. Amato’s background contrasts sharply with that of New Orleans’ last superintendent, Alphonse G. Davis, a retired Marine colonel hired largely because of his non-traditional background. After falling out of favor with the school board, Mr. Davis resigned last summer, and the board vowed to replace him with an experienced educator.
Not everyone in New Orleans was convinced that Mr. Amato was the best man for the job. Three of the seven board members voted to hire Andre J. Hornsby, an administrator known for his previous success in leading the schools in Yonkers, N.Y. Mr. Hornsby, who is black, was favored by some community members who felt that the 93 percent African- American district should have a black leader.
Mr. Amato, a native of Puerto Rico, said last week he wasn’t worried about any lack of support.
“What I’ve always managed to do is stay focused on children and families,” he said. “Once people see that that’s your real and only agenda, and once that actually produces dramatic increases for the community, educationally, economically, and even spiritually, then very quickly people forget about race and ethnicity.”