Title Holder

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As a federal official, Thomas W. Payzant helped reshape the Title I law. Now Boston's schools chief, he gets the chance to mold it to his district's needs.


Thomas W. Payzant, this city's hard-driving and plain-spoken schools superintendent, leans back on a plastic chair in a beige cinder-block office and throws out what he calls a "softball" question.

"How is Ohrenberger Elementary School implementing the new citywide learning standards and writing its comprehensive school plan?" he asks the school's leaders.

Ohrenberger will focus on improving the literacy of its 660 students, Elaine McAlear, the assistant principal, responds. To carry that out, teachers are investigating strategies for improving the way that they teach reading, she says. Whatever they do will include a mixture of whole-language and phonics techniques, she assures him.

Moving on to the second part of the question, McAlear notes that the school tries "to incorporate all members of our school community into our focus and mission statement," a reference to the comprehensive plan that Payzant is requiring of all city schools.

And all members means students. To that end, every teacher has assigned students to write or draw a vision of what they want from the school. "They want a school pool here, big time," McAlear jokes.

The superintendent makes no promises. Rather, he moves quickly to his next topic: Are the parent committee and site-based council of teachers involved in deciding how the school will meet the city's standards?

They are, McAlear declares. In fact, at this very moment, the chairwoman of the council is in the building, says Frank Galvin, the acting principal. Payzant indicates he wants to meet her, and Galvin is off to find her.

For these kinds of meetings in this drab environment, Payzant gave up comfortable high-backed leather chairs in ornate congressional hearing rooms where he answered the questions of U.S. senators and members of Congress.

Now, instead of walking the halls of Congress trying to persuade its members to overhaul federal programs, the U.S. Department of Education's former assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education visits Boston's 125 schools every year.

On this blustery morning, he's in the city's southern tip at Ohrenberger, where he reviews the major ingredients of his reform efforts--standards, comprehensive planning, school-based decisionmaking, parent involvement--ingredients that are likely to sound familiar to educators involved with Title I programs throughout the country. They are the same pieces now required from any school that receives money from the $7.2 billion federal program for disadvantaged students.

Payzant, though, knows them better than most. After all, he was instrumental in designing the new program that Congress reauthorized in 1994. He worked late into the evenings and many weekends throughout the summer of 1993 helping his colleagues at the Education Department write the proposal that became the working document for congressional discussion.

He sat through endless hours of conference meetings as senators and House members haggled over the final details of the bill more than a year later.

He made the rounds to secure votes from members on the fence about radically changing the remedial education program that had been in place for almost 30 years.

And, once the law passed, he negotiated the rules the department wrote to govern the program shortly before he left for Boston.

For the first time since its creation in 1965, Title I is to be an integral part of a school's mission, not a program that pulls students out for separate lessons.

The Boston post gave him the opportunity that few who operate inside the Washington Beltway get: To use the tools he helped design. As a result, he knows every detail of the law, where he can bend it to meet the needs of his 65,000-student district, and where he needs to demand results from the 125 principals who run the schools.

"Talk about an exaggerated sense of what you do," says Ellen Guiney, a former education aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

"The road from the Senate hearing room to the classroom is so long. It may as well be the moon," says Guiney, who is now the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence in the Public Schools and is operating a project in tandem with Payzant's reforms.

The law, Payzant says, is the natural outgrowth of what he learned in almost 20 years as a superintendent in Oklahoma City, Eugene, Ore., and San Diego before he moved to Washington to join the Clinton administration.

It "reflected a lot of my experience and thinking from San Diego," Payzant says from his office across the street from City Hall--an office filled with photos of him standing side by side with President Clinton and the first lady, as well as his own family.

Now that he is back in the superintendent's chair, he is tailoring what his schools do around his basic philosophy of improving schools by raising standards and stimulating a communitywide dialogue on how to ensure students meet them.

That is a contrast from the days when Chapter 1--Title I's predecessor--was treated as a program designed for a specific, isolated population and could be excluded from what the rest of the school system did.

"There's no conflict in having to do what you need for Title I and what we're doing for the whole system," Payzant says. "It's been a real advantage having had the privilege of working on the federal legislation."

For the first time since its creation in 1965, Title I is to be an integral part of a school's mission, not a program that pulls students out for separate lessons. It is to be built around the same curriculum offered all students, not remedial coursework designed for struggling children. And parents are to be actively involved, especially in urban areas, where schools must spend 1 percent of their money working with parents.

Most of the changes came from the plan that the Education Department proposed in 1993, and Congress--then run by Democrats--adjusted it to fit its own needs before readying it for the president's signature in October 1994.

The final version of the bill, which also reauthorized federal programs for professional development, technology, and impact aid, reflected the themes that the Education Department team had presented.

Under the reauthorization, school districts are expected to build their Title I programs around academic standards that their states set. The standards for low-achieving children who qualify for Title I must be every bit as challenging as the ones for the other students in the school.

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