San Diego'sNew Chief anUnlikely Pick

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The chief federal prosecutor in San Diego was named last week to head the schools in that city, the first practicing lawyer to join the growing ranks of nontraditional superintendents of large, urban districts.

U.S. Attorney Alan D. Bersin will take over the 137,000-student district this summer from retiring Superintendent Bertha O. Pendleton. His appointment ended a nine-month national search in which candidates without an education background were explicitly welcomed.

The 51-year-old lawyer, who serves as the Clinton administration's California "border czar" on immigration and drug issues but has never run an educational enterprise, was one of two finalists for the job. He was chosen over the superintendent of an urban district whose name has not been released.

Four of the five school board members voted to offer Mr. Bersin a four-year contract starting at $165,000 annually. The contract also provides performance incentives tied to test scores that could boost his salary by at least $10,000 a year. The fifth member of the board, Frances O'Neill Zimmerman, abstained from the vote, saying the process had been too hurried and secretive.

The new superintendent said last week that he'll work for improvement in the district by trying to bring disparate groups together.

"If we can recast old disputes in new terms and create a wider platform for people to agree, we can go beyond the kind of traditional finger-pointing that has stymied us in the past," Mr. Bersin said in a telephone interview from Washington, where he had traveled to meet with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to discuss his successor. "We can create an environment in which student achievement is improving routinely, class by class, school by school."

Ms. Pendleton, the first woman and the first African-American to head the district, announced her resignation last summer. The 64-year-old educator has spent her entire career in San Diego, rising through the ranks to become superintendent five years ago. ("San Diego's Bertha Pendleton Climbs to the Top," Dec. 1, 1993.)

During her tenure, dropout rates have fallen below the county and state averages, and the district has raised its high school graduation requirements as well as put new standards in place.

Ms. Pendleton said last week that she hasn't decided yet what she will do in her retirement beyond relaxing and spending time with her family.

A 'Proven Leader'

A six-member panel of prominent city residents appointed by the school board conducted the search for her replacement with the assistance of an executive recruiter.

The panel measured candidates against a list of "most desired characteristics" drawn up by a group of 28 parents, students, educators, and others, who in turn sought opinions from across the community.

Mr. Bersin was encouraged to seek the job by his wife, Lisa Foster, according to the school board president, Ron Ottinger. The couple has two daughters, ages 3 and 5. The older one is expected to start kindergarten in a public school in the district next fall.

Mr. Bersin "is a proven, successful leader who is a change agent," Mr. Ottinger said last week, using two descriptions from the "most desired" list. "Just for starters," he added, "he's demonstrated he's able to focus a large organization on results and bring the key parties to the table to get everybody moving together."

In his new job, Mr. Bersin faces challenges on several fronts. Improvements in achievement among the district's black and Hispanic students have proved elusive, and recently, the school board put 20 of the district's 167 schools on notice that scores must go up.

Mr. Bersin, who is fluent in Spanish, said his first task would be to "listen, listen, listen and learn, learn, learn."

A New York City native who was born in Brooklyn and educated in the public schools there, Mr. Bersin holds an undergraduate degree in government from Harvard University and a law degree from Yale University.

He worked for 17 years with a Los Angeles law firm, specializing in securities and insurance law. In 1993, with no experience as a prosecutor but ties to the White House dating back to his law school friendship with Hillary Rodham Clinton, he was named U.S. attorney for San Diego. He garnered praise for helping bring down the crime rate by targeting criminals with prior records and for increasing the diversity of his staff.

But as "border czar," Mr. Bersin angered some with his aggressive enforcement of immigration policies.

When rumors circulated that he was the leading candidate for the superintendent's job, some Hispanic activists questioned his fitness to head a district where more than a third of the students are Hispanic and more than a few are the children of illegal immigrants. But other Hispanic leaders backed the candidate, saying he was a good bet for raising achievement among minority students.

New Direction

Ms. Pendleton said last week that she was ready to lend her support to her successor. "We're seeing a willingness to try and see if it works and to support the experiment," she said in an interview. Mr. Bersin, she added, "is known as a very strong leader and manager, and those skills will serve him well."

Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, noted that Mr. Bersin's selection was part of a trend toward nontraditional candidates for district leadership posts.

Retired military officers have been tapped for the top school jobs in Seattle, the District of Columbia, and Boulder, Colo. Until recently, a private company headed by a businessman, Peter Hutchinson, led the Minneapolis schools under an unusual contract arrangement with the city. And in Chicago, a former city budget director, Paul G. Vallas, is the schools chief.

Mr. Houston said that public frustration with schools has led to a search for "saviors" from outside education, particularly in troubled urban districts, where dissatisfaction is high and the candidate pool tends to be shallow. "There aren't a lot of real strong candidates out there for these big districts, so they almost have to reach out," he said.

"I think the jury's still out on the viability of the model," he added. "It's very dependent on the skills of the person. Those people who know what they don't know tend to do well."

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