Stanford's Illness Dampens Spirits in Seattle

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

A pall settled over the Seattle schools last week after Superintendent John Stanford unexpectedly entered the hospital to undergo chemotherapy for leukemia.

"People are very shocked and saddened," said Elaine Woo, the principal of John Rogers Elementary School. "I feel like I'm grieving, to some extent, because at my level and below my level in the classroom, things are just getting going now. We just look up to him and want him there."

Mr. Stanford, a tireless, charismatic cheerleader for the public schools, became Seattle's first black superintendent in June 1995 and one of the few noneducators to lead a big-city school system.1 The 59-year-old former U.S. Army major general, who had previously served as the manager of the Fulton County, Ga., government, appears to have captured the hearts of people in Seattle in a way that is unusual for top district administrators. ("A Military Man Takes Charge of Seattle Schools," Oct. 11, 1995.)

The superintendent met with the school board, administrative staff, and principals on April 3 to tell them he would be entering the hospital for treatment for at least a month. Leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells, has a remission rate of about 70 percent to 80 percent for people who undergo chemotherapy in the early stages of the disease.

"I do not want this personal difficulty to hinder the progress of our students in the classroom in any way," Mr. Stanford told his staff.

During his absence, Joseph Olchefske, the chief operating officer for the schools, will oversee the day-to-day operation of the 47,000-student district.

Leadership Praised

Though he is well-liked, Mr. Stanford's tenure has not always gone smoothly. After months of public criticism, the school board in March 1997 rescinded his proposal to allow corporate advertisements in schools as a way to raise money.

His early efforts to remake low-performing Meany Middle School also foundered after he was forced to replace the school's principal. And a decision two years ago to move more than one-third of the city's principals to different schools played well with the public but less well with employees.

Since then, however, Mr. Stanford has been credited with turning around a district once considered so troubled that a report to the state legislature in 1990 suggested taking the system over if things didn't improve.

His popularity has extended nationwide as well. The notion of a former general commanding a big-city school system has brought him frequent attention from the news media. (" Take Note," Jan. 17, 1996.)

In 1996, Mr. Stanford was a speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And he is writing a book about education to be published by Bantam Books in New York City.

But perhaps the biggest measure of his popularity was a $500,000 bonus offered him last winter by anonymous donors in the Seattle area in an effort to encourage him to stay on the job through June 2002. His current contract expires at the end of the 1999-2000 school year. In rejecting the offer, Mr. Stanford, who is paid about $200,000 a year, challenged the donors to spend the money instead on school programs.

"He has excited the city about its school system," said Donald Nielsen, the vice president of the school board. "People are now proud to work for the Seattle public schools."

Voters signaled their approval in February 1998 when they passed two levies for the schools, totaling $422 million. Mr. Stanford also has reached out to the business and philanthropic communities through the Alliance for Education, a coalition that has raised more than $5 million for the district since 1995. Last week, the group launched the "Stanford Book Fund" to try to focus well-wishers' efforts on raising money for public school libraries, a longtime goal of the superintendent's.

Beyond boosting morale, Mr. Stanford has taken a number of steps to restructure the district, including giving parents greater choice of schools, allowing schools more control over their budgets and staffing, and focusing attention on standards and accountability.

Test scores and enrollment are inching up. "He has focused students on academic achievement and parents on academic achievement," said Sharon Potter, the principal of Schmitz Park Elementary School.

'Love 'Em and Lead 'Em'

A key to Mr. Stanford's success, educators say, is that he has led by example. An overwhelmingly upbeat, high-energy chief, Mr. Stanford is given to such exhortations as "Love 'em and lead 'em" and "When you're in charge, take charge."

"I love my boss," said Cathy Profilet, the principal of Viewlands Elementary School. "He's my hero."

Following the announcement, many Seattle educators said last week that the spark had temporarily gone out of the district. "We've all been working together as a team, so we don't really feel that day-to-day operations will change," Barbara Schaad-Lamphere, the school board president, said. "But everyone is going around a little slack-jawed."

Web Only

Related Stories
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories