The day Terrel H. Bell was nominated as secretary of education back in 1981, Mary Jean LeTendre got a frantic phone call from one of his aides.
A veteran employee of the Department of Education with political ties, Ms. LeTendre figured that Mr. Bell needed a quick briefing on a policy issue or advice on navigating the Senate confirmation process.
But the aide said, “‘Do you think you could go out and find a 38-short tuxedo?’ ” she recalled in a recent interview.
Mary Jean LeTrende
Position: Director, Compensatory Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, 1985 to present.
Education: B.S., elementary education and psychology, College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, Minn.; M.S., education administration, University of Northern Colorado, 1975.
Previous Experience: Served as acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, January-August 1993; special assistant to Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, 1981-1985; basic skills specialist, Title I program, 1976-1981; program specialist, “Right to Read” program, 1971-1976. Worked as an elementary and Title I teacher and preschool and reading specialist before entering federal service.
Personal: Widow, with five children and five grandchildren.
She explained that Mr. Bell, officially nominated the day President Reagan took office, needed the formal attire for the inaugural ball that evening.
“I would have said, ‘Forget it, this is too mundane,’ ” added Ms. LeTendre, who was a Title I basic-skills specialist at the time. But she had always advised other women to take any career opportunity they were given, and she happened to know just the place to find a tuxedo on short notice.
That favor was the first of countless times Ms. LeTendre would help out the future secretary. She soon became one of Mr. Bell’s top advisers. Later, she moved into the job she’s held for some 15 years: director of compensatory education programs, which include Title I, the biggest federal program in precollegiate education.
Now, after almost 30 years in the federal government, she is retiring, with a reputation as one of the department’s best- liked and most committed employees.
A former Title I teacher and reading specialist in her native Wisconsin, Ms. LeTendre’s federal service began in 1971, when she and her husband, Andre LeTendre, a political appointee in the Nixon and Ford administrations, came to Washington. She was hired to work in the “Right to Read” program in the U.S. Office of Education, part of what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
“Being engaged as a citizen concerned about the country prepared me as equally for this position as did my education background,” Ms. LeTendre said.
And her political ties helped, too, she readily admitted, explaining that her husband was a friend of Mr. Bell’s and helped persuade Reagan administration officials to tap him as the nation’s second U.S. secretary of education.
Mary Jane LeTendre, the Department of Education’s Title I director, will retire after 30 years of service in January.
Shortly after Mr. Bell’s confirmation, the secretary named her as a special assistant and included her in the team that began planning what would become the highly influential report A Nation at Risk.
Not only did she help write the 1983 report, but Mr. Bell also credited her with pushing the project through in the face of stiff opposition and getting a wide range of contributors—not just conservatives, as the White House had wanted.
“Fortunately, my very able special assistant, Mrs. Mary Jean LeTendre, was fully equal to the task of combating red tape and bureaucratic impediments,” Secretary Bell, who died in 1996, wrote in his 1988 memoir, The Thirteenth Man. “She knew how to fight, and she was a diplomat as well as a bright and effective scrapper.”
Ms. LeTendre recalls worrying that the report wouldn’t get much attention. She worked at creating a splashy cover and wrote and rewrote President Reagan’s remarks for the release numerous times.
“When something really strikes me, I get chills—and the report was that way,” she said of the publication that galvanized efforts to improve American schools.
Ms. LeTendre also remembers those years for the many battles between Mr. Bell, a moderate who had served as U.S. commissioner of education under Presidents Nixon and Ford, and more conservative members of the Reagan administration, who had advocated the abolition of the Cabinet-level education agency. While Mr. Bell wanted to focus on the problems outlined in A Nation at Risk, she said, others in the administration emphasized issues such tuition tax credits, school prayer, and criticism of the teachers’ unions.
After Mr. Bell left the department in 1985, Ms. LeTendre was named to coordinate the agency’s compensatory education programs. Currently funded at $8 billion, those programs for disadvantaged students are the largest K-12 programs within the department.
She had a key role in introducing accountability measures into the 1994 Title I reauthorization—the first reauthorization to require that disadvantaged students be held to high academic standards and that the programs be based on proven research.
Ms. LeTendre acknowledges, however, that much remains to be done to improve the 35-year-old Title I program, particularly by increasing accountability, instituting more research-based practices in schools, and giving more attention to preschool and family literacy.
She’s also concerned about the role of paraprofessionals in Title I classrooms. Too many, she said, are being used to instruct classes, jobs for which she says they are not at all qualified. Getting rid of or changing their jobs, though, is a difficult topic that is often mired with local politics, she said.
“I’ve been boldly open about saying this is not a jobs program,” Ms. LeTendre said. “The logistical help is important, but [Title I paraprofessionals] should never be primarily in charge of providing instruction for students.”
Among her other achievements, Ms. LeTendre also came up with the idea for the popular Blue Ribbon Schools program, which is intended to recognize schools across the country that are deemed exceptional.
“Terrel Bell said we needed to recognize exceptional schools, because the [Nation at Risk] report was going to be particularly hard on high schools,” among others, she said.
Throughout the education community, Ms. LeTendre is known as a workaholic who takes the time to get to know her many constituents and their needs.
“She’s been a director you could get on the phone, ask a question, and get an answer from,” said Richard Long, the executive director of the National Association of State Title I Directors. “That kind of leadership and connection has made an enormous difference.”
After the recent death of her husband, however, Ms. LeTendre said she realized she needed to spend more time with her family and five grandchildren.
News of her retirement this fall spurred members from both political parties to offer their praise.
“Anyone who knows Mary Jean knows she has always been a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the needs of the nation’s disadvantaged children,” Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said.
Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, echoed that sentiment.
“I have never met a more dedicated and knowledgeable career government official than Mary Jean,” Mr. Goodling, who is also about to retire, said in a written statement. “In addition to her knowledge, Mary Jean has common sense, and is a hands-on administrator.”
After she leaves the department in late January, Ms. LeTendre, who declined to give her age, plans to stay active in the field, serving on boards and perhaps doing some consulting work. Some observers have speculated that she might return to the department as a political appointee or consultant.
Those rumors elicit a chuckle from Ms. LeTendre. “At this point in time, my plans are to leave and be involved in helpful ways, but not be engaged full time,” she said.
Either way, the disadvantaged students for whom she’s worked for so many years will not be far from her thoughts.
“I fought for all of them, not just the ones who are easiest to fight for,” she said. “It’s the least of the least for whom I remain concerned.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as Title I Director Reflects On 30-Year Crusade for Children