City Bound

By Joanna Richardson — November 22, 1995 19 min read

San Francisco

Elaine Koury has heard all the pitfalls of running urban schools. The long hours. The catfights with boards and mayors. The neverending scrape for money. The hopelessness over student achievement.

The burnout.

But that didn’t stop her from leaving her native Cambridge, Mass., this summer to spend six months here at the center of San Francisco’s 64,000-student school district. With Superintendent Waldemar “Bill” Rojas at her side, Koury has set out to discover the elusive qualities that make for a big-city schools chief with staying power. The superintendent’s task? “To provide a case study that’s real--without making it so real that she’ll be scared away,” Rojas says with a heavy dose of sarcasm.

Koury, a longtime teacher and writer, is a student in Harvard University’s 5-year-old Urban Superintendents program. Each year, the academic track turns out eight to 10 recruits, whose rigorous coursework and field experience are supposed to prime them for the cutthroat world of district management. Most are former teachers or administrators who’ve grown frustrated with the lack of gutsy leadership in their own communities.

At a time when fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s superintendents are minorities and fewer than 8 percent are women, the program is also supplying districts with many of the field’s most wanted candidates. Some 70 percent of its students are people of color, and 65 percent are women, says Robert S. Peterkin, the program’s director and the former superintendent of the Milwaukee and Cambridge, Mass., schools. (By coincidence, Koury and Peterkin had worked together years before when she was a teacher and he was the headmaster at Boston’s renowned English High School, the oldest public high school in the nation.)

Above all else, though, the program’s purpose is to build a better school leader--someone with the thick skin and determination to take on a job that, more and more, appears impossible to do. The architects behind the program hope to improve those odds by sending students out in the field for a practice run with a seasoned urban schools chief. The Ford Foundation and the sponsoring district share the cost of the student’s $30,000 stipend for the six-month internship.

By the time the candidates accept their first big-city posts, they’ll have few surprises to send them packing, or so the theory goes. And just maybe their real-world training will help put a stop in the revolving door of urban school leadership.

“There’s a degree to which any superintendency is a bit like entering the arena,” Koury says. She’s learning that she’ll never be able to escape the occasional “time bombs and snipers,” a popular euphemism among the students for the pressures of working in urban settings.

“But there also has to be a sense of more than just firefighting,” adds Rojas, her mentor, who says school administrators too often simply reel from one crisis to the next in a strategy he calls “messmanagement.”

“There are some simple things that can become tremendous political nightmares,” he says. “But what we really try to show them is if you intervene early, you can prevent a crisis.”

On the surface, the schools chief and his understudy are as different as night and day.

Rojas, 50, is all rough edges. Born and raised in the Bronx, he has a raspy voice, street smarts, and quick sense of humor that are unmistakably New York. After finishing up his studies at Concordia Teachers’ College in Illinois, Rojas returned home to embark on his teaching career. His first posts were tough ones: a yearlong stint at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital followed by two years at a juvenile-detention center in the Bronx.

For the next 20 years, after completing his master’s in educational administration at New York University, Rojas worked his way up through the ranks of the district’s administration. In the end, he was the executive director of special education for the the nation’s largest district of some 1 million students.

The small pond that urban superintendents inhabit is a small one. In a fitting example, Rojas left his home in 1992 for the shores of Northern California when Ramon Cortines stepped down as superintendent. Cortines, a native San Franciscan, swapped coasts to accept the chief’s post in New York City. His tenure there ended just last month, after countless battles with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Rudy Crew, who also interviewed for the San Francisco job in 1992, recently left the top post in Takoma, Wash., to become New York City’s new schools chancellor.

With all those years of climbing under his belt, Rojas seems to be the perfect teacher for Koury, whose background is decidedly less conventional in this field. “Some of that stuff they could never teach you at Harvard,” Rojas says with a broad grin, his eyes squinting playfully behind his spectacles. Koury, in her familiar perch next to her mentor in his office, lets out a joking protest in her program’s defense.

Koury, a self-described New England girl, is the picture of grace and elegance. A former teacher and playwright, she has an intensity about her that is at times unnerving. She chooses her words with studied precision. Her talk of inner-city children is passionate and incisive. Not surprisingly, the theater veteran got rave reviews for her handling of a mock interview for an urban superintendency during a Harvard seminar last month. The only complaint: At times, she was so animated and expressive, it was distracting.

After completing her undergraduate studies at Bates College, Koury went on to get a master’s in education and theater arts from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She taught theater in Boston’s public schools for a decade, until the late 1970s. Although she found the work rewarding, Koury believed the city--famed for its rich intellectual and cultural environment--wasn’t offering its schoolchildren enough opportunities in the performing arts.

So in 1978, she and a friend started their own theater in the living room of Koury’s South End home. The acclaimed--but now defunct--Boston Youth Theater later moved to a studio downtown, where it staged Koury’s original plays with the help of a troupe of aspiring actors between the ages of 15 and 24, most of whom came from disadvantaged homes. (Koury still dabbles in playwriting. She co-wrote her latest work, “Washed-Up Middle-Aged Women,” about three years ago.)

Koury argues that her 11 years of experience as the theater’s director helped prepare her for the realities of a being a schools chief. After all, she says, running a small business isn’t unlike running a school system: You can’t afford to ignore the bottom line. The nonprofit theater was forced to close its doors in 1989 when it lost financial support from several corporations battered--or broken--by the state’s depression.

After the theater closed, Koury went back to teaching in the Cambridge school system. But after a few years, she set her sights on what she jokingly refers to as her “neighborhood school": Harvard.

For Koury, 48, getting accepted to the Urban Superintendents program was poetic justice: A rejection from the university some 20 years earlier had left her confidence shaken. But it wasn’t the timeless allure of a Harvard education--or the convenient location--that attracted her. Instead, Koury says, it was her conviction that starting from the top was the best way to fight for the children who had been lost or forgotten in the nation’s schools.

“I was infuriated by policies coming down--both locally and in the state,” she says of her recent years teaching in Cambridge. In particular, she took umbrage with Massachusetts’ 1993 reform act, “a jumble of financial and educational issues that didn’t belong together,” she says, her voice rising. “Parts were disastrous. The part that was most frustrating was the teacher-blaming tone of it.”

She also found a disregard for poor children and for students who struggle through school because of a difficult home life, emotional problems, or other hard-to-overcome hurdles. She’s especially displeased with the trend toward alternative schools for disruptive students, which she likens to prisons where people are given nothing constructive to do. “I worked with those kids in the theater, and they are not impossible,” she argues. “I wanted to get into a position where I could help make policy to change that. I think the superintendency has the potential to be one of those positions.”

Koury’s classmates give similar reasons for wanting to make their way into district leadership. Deanna Burney was the principal of the inner-city school in Philadelphia that was the focus of the Oscar-winning 1994 documentary “I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School.” There, Burney says, she became mired in paperwork and other tasks, leaving her precious little time to focus on what counted: instruction. And she felt she had little support from the district. By the close of the film, Burney had resigned in frustration. She landed at Harvard not long after.

Of course, the program comes at a price: Tuition runs about $18,000 a year. Most students--who are typically in their 30s or 40s and leave behind well-established careers--do get financial aid, according to Peterkin.

And then there’s the grueling schedule: two years’ worth of classes crammed into one. From June to the next July, students take courses in the graduate school of education. Peterkin and Linda C. Wing, the program’s coordinator and the former director of Apple Computer’s national urban-education initiative, co-teach a separate professional seminar required of all students. One of its central themes focuses on dealing with the media, a skill Peterkin considers absolutely crucial to a superintendent’s success. Students must also take such courses as microeconomics and politics. Throughout the year, a voluminous reading list accompanies a barrage of exams and papers.

The internship follows from August to January. And then comes the dissertation. But all the hard work pays off with state certification and a doctoral degree. About 60 percent wrap up their dissertation within five years, Peterkin says. Districts snap up the rest before they’ve had the chance to finish.

The program is small--and the schedule accelerated--by design. The university figured few students would have the time or money to stick it out for much longer, says Jerome T. Murphy, the dean of Harvard’s graduate school of education.

The program is not without its critics. One urban schools expert says Urban Superintendents is still too small, too time-consuming, and too expensive to really make a difference. Even if the preparation is top-notch, he adds, there’s not enough follow-up with graduates once the training is over.

Other critics argue that the program is in danger of simply becoming a newfangled “old boys network.” They claim that the program’s “insider” mentality doesn’t play well in the gritty world of urban school management.

Despite its size, Wing argues, the program’s 48 graduates have the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of students in the country’s biggest districts. What’s more, she adds, the urban posts demand nothing short of the most intensive, hands-on training possible and the support of colleagues and mentors.

There’s one overriding--and obvious--trait that students in the Harvard program share: They are city people. Koury thrives on the culture and the quick pace, the grit and the grime. Although she gets considerably less of the last two here in San Francisco.

“We know our cities. We understand our cities,” Koury says of her fellow classmates. “Just like teaching a language, it is easier to learn another city when you know your own.” The other six students in Koury’s class hail from major cities across the country, where they all had experience as teachers or administrators: Detroit, Chicago, San Antonio, New York City. All but one are women or members of minority groups. And all say the internship is probably the most valuable--and thrilling--part of their training.

Now, like Koury, her classmates are back in their element where they belong. They chose their destinations because of a fascination with a particular superintendent’s management style and efforts to boost district achievement. Koury chose San Francisco for a number of reasons, including Rojas’ aggressive effort to restaff failing schools and his emphasis on putting more technology in students’ hands. Rojas has even made arrangements to set up computer centers in the city’s housing projects.

At first, Murphy was skeptical that the program would be able to hook the infamously overworked superintendents from the nation’s largest districts. But they proved him wrong. The line-up of superintendents who’ve gotten involved in the program--either as mentors or in some other advisory role--reads like a who’s who in urban schools: Benjamin Canada of Atlanta; David Hornbeck of Philadelphia; Gerry House of Memphis; Bertha Pendleton of San Diego; Frank Petruzielo of Broward County, Fla. And the list goes on.

Behind the scenes, the program’s architects also have a hand in advising urban school boards on their superintendent choices and heading up teams to help smooth the frequent transitions from one schools chief to the next. “It’s kind of strange,” Murphy admits. “We never thought a place like Harvard would become the center of all this discussion and activity around urban schools.”

When New York City ran into trouble finding a replacement for Cortines, for example, officials there phoned Harvard for some last-minute advice. In Boston, Peterkin is heading up the transition team for new Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, a former Clinton appointee to the U.S. Education Department.

“No other program really has a national focus like ours,” Peterkin asserted during a hobnobbing session with top urban school officials who gathered in Cambridge last month. “We really want the students to be out there all over the place.”

Still, Peterkin hasn’t cornered the market. Superintendents Prepared, a training program run out of Washington by the McKenzie Group, the Institute for Educational Leadership, and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, is often compared to his Harvard program. Although some say Superintendents Prepared reaches more folks--and so makes a difference to more cities--its leadership training is not as intensive, and it generally targets administrators who are already well within reach of the chief’s post.

Koury and her classmates say their program’s emphasis on outside involvement puts a network of the nation’s top school leaders within their reach. Students, who already tap out regular e-mail messages to their fellow interns, can also regularly pick the brains of some of the profession’s most seasoned veterans. The superintendents attend seminars at Harvard, speak on topics of interest in urban districts, and generally try to make themselves available to students.

Deanna Burney’s first day on the job in New York City as an intern for Chancellor Cortines tested her nerves all right.

She walked in and, boom, there was her first assignment: Write the annual report for the nation’s largest school system. Burney, a little panicked at first, started pulling information from bulletin boards around the central office. She amassed a pile of press releases. (A year’s worth, to be exact.) She called district employees whom she’d never met to ask for guidance. Then, she just crossed her fingers and wrote.

In the end, the finished product, an ordinary banker’s gray report with enough facts and figures to make your head spin, went to the printer without so much as a proofread from her superiors. Cortines’ impending departure had sent many administrators packing, leaving Burney to fend for herself.

“I had bad dreams at night about The New York Times headlines saying: ‘Harvard Intern Screws Up Big-Time,”’ Burney told fellow students last month at a seminar in Cambridge. They belly-laughed like only a knowing audience could.

But once she adapted to the pace, Burney fed on the excitement. She was witness to New York City’s stop-and-start search for a new chancellor. And the tug-of-war between the district’s board and Mayor Giuliani provided a textbook example of the urban district as pressure cooker. After Cortines stepped down last month, Burney moved on to intern with Anthony Alvarado, a superintendent in one of the city’s community school districts.

Ray Reynosa, another student from Koury’s Harvard class, experienced his share of pressure in El Paso. Reynosa, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the city’s superintendent, Stan Paz, spent his first few months in the border city in the tangled web of school board politics. It was usually the intern--and not the schools chief--who would come out of tense board meetings steamed. “It was really good for me to see how he would take something that could be emotional and use it as an advantage, not a liability,” says Reynosa of his mentor, whose low-key style is obvious even in introductions.

“I say this in a humble way, but I also think it was a benefit to him to have an intern,” Reynosa adds. “Someone he can trust, without the interference of politics or territory.”

Koury and others at last month’s seminar in Cambridge agree. Over time, they started to see themselves as friends and confidantes--and not just students. Their fellow classmate, Susan Dyer, jokes that she and Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds of Birmingham, Ala., spent so much time together they even started going to the same barber shop.

Koury says she sometimes feels like a kid again when she’s around Rojas. She walks with him through the schools. Follows him through the city’s streets. And tags along through the district office, a monolithic structure with fanciful architectural details that is about to be transformed into a high school for performing arts. (An irony that is not lost on Koury, who cursed the absence of such a school in Boston.) The pace here is relentless, but by paying close attention to what’s happening around her, she’s already picking up little tricks of the trade--like walking into the girls’ bathroom to get a first impression of a school.

“In my first month, I was just watching and listening. I realized that the last time you have the opportunity to do that is as children,” she adds with wonder. The advantage: After a while, people stop noticing you’re there. “And you get a much truer sense of what’s going on because you can just sort of disappear.” And that, she says, is a luxury.

Rojas has let Koury form her own opinions about people and ideas. He doesn’t tell her how things should be done. Instead, she says, he shows her through subtle maneuvering. Koury describes him as a “brilliant strategist” who’s always one step ahead of the other player. “I don’t know if he plays chess, but I bet he’d be incredible at it,” she adds.

She’s also getting a taste of her mentor’s calm under pressure. “I have seen him frustrated, annoyed, and outraged, but I have never seen him lose his cool and let those feelings cloud his judgment,” Koury wrote after her first month of observing him. “Quite to the contrary, I have seen him conduct most civilized and friendly meetings with people who have caused him all sorts of grief. I absolutely wonder at his equanimity.” That composure was evident at a recent board meeting where Rojas was the epitome of cool detachment during a shrieking display by several opponents of a school expansion.

Koury is required to write several memos during the internship. Some of the writings are simply reflections. Others let her “second-guess” steps the superintendent has taken, offering her own take on events.

John Muir Elementary School sits in a “No Zone” in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood.

“No banks, no libraries, no pizza places,” Rojas says, conceding that this stretch of forgotten streets may not be as bad as some of New York City’s worst neighborhoods. “It’s not Bedford-Stuy,” he adds, in a clipped New York accent as the school and a neighboring housing project come into view. “But the overall abject poverty is about the same.”

Muir Elementary was one of 17 schools that the superintendent put on warning in 1992 because its students were not succeeding. His message was simple: Shape up, or we’ll shut you down. Rojas gave the schools a year to improve test scores, dropout rates, and attendance levels--among other indicators--with the help of a district liaison.

So far, the stern approach has paid off for the district. A dozen schools made enough progress to escape reconstitution. The others weren’t so lucky.

Muir Elementary is now one of the ailing schools on the mend. Leonard R. Flynn Elementary, in the city’s mostly Hispanic Mission District, is another. Franklin Courtade, the school’s principal, says nearly half his staff jumped ship when the superintendent targeted his school. Now, a couple years after its troubles seemed so overwhelming, the students are making small gains in reading and math, attendance levels are up, and more parents are coming in to help out at the school.

Koury is taking advantage of her six months in San Francisco to document the progress being made at Flynn Elementary and the other schools in the program, including those that were shut down and reopened. Much of her dissertation will center on Rojas’ approach. And since she’s got this natural experiment playing out right in front of her, she’s jumping on the fast track: She hopes to have her paper completed by next January.

There is life after Harvard for Koury. She sees herself in a mid-sized city, with a central office job that will let her get her feet wet before she takes the big plunge into the superintendency. Maybe a deputy or assistant superintendent, she says, though she’s not ruling anything out.

But first, she’ll probably find a temporary job to pay off her debt while she finishes a couple courses and ties up the loose ends of her research. “I don’t really have any choice,” Koury says with a half-hearted laugh. “I haven’t made a living in a year.”

The outlook is good. Peterkin says many graduates have already landed the top posts in urban districts; others have advanced in the school systems where they had worked before enrolling in the program.

Patricia Harrison Conn, for one, became the superintendent of the Richmond, Va., public schools this summer. (One of her deputies is also a graduate.) Mary Brown Daniels headed down to Atlanta, where she is an assistant superintendent to Ben Canada. And Wayne Harris, who put in more than 20 years in the Fairfax County, Va., schools, moved downstate to become the schools chief in his hometown of Roanoke. Both Conn and Harris say their training has served them well.

Still, Harris admits, nothing can really prepare you for the strange brew of politics in some big-city districts.

A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 1995 edition of Education Week as City Bound