In Providence, a Superintendent Follows Her Dream
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Diana Lam is not your usual superintendent. For starters, she is a
woman, which puts her in a minority—roughly 12 percent of schools
Her parents hailed from Peru, so she belongs to the 5 percent of superintendents who are members of minority groups. She has never been the principal of a high school— the single most common preparation for the top job—nor does she possess a doctorate, which many superintendents do.
And she is rare in this: She has willingly, deliberately taken on the problems of four urban districts.
In August, she began her fourth job as the head of the 28,000- student Providence, R.I., schools. The 51-year-old administrator has seen many of the difficulties commonly associated with being a woman and a leader—sexism, the struggle to maintain a family life, the isolation. She has also felt the power that comes from challenging society's lowered expectations for women and poor children.
"As superintendent my goal is to be worthy of the title, 'candidate of the women and children,'" she told an audience recently, quoting the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. "We start with our dreams and continue with our deeds."
Ms. Lam's detractors, however, say she moves too fast, forcing change on the people to whom she purports to listen. But her admirers say the pace reflects her feeling about the individual students who are lost every day in a system that serves adults far better than children, and some children better than others. "Outspoken" is a word both camps could probably agree on.
Ms. Lam also brings to the job determination in a guise that might be called more feminine than masculine.
Take a recent day, with tropical storm Floyd gathering force outside and Ms. Lam in the midst of one of 44 school visits she intended to make before the end of September. The superintendent, a diminutive woman who takes long quick strides, has an agenda that includes setting targets for state test results.
Can the school jack up the pass rate on the 9th grade health test to 10 percent, from last year's 2 percent? Ms. Lam asks a wary high school principal.
"The answer is, I don't know," the principal responds.
Ms. Lam cocks her head, smiles, and listens to complaints about the difficulties of both raising attendance and lowering the dropout rate and the failure of the principal's campaign to move to a new schedule amid the rigidity of the teachers' contract.
But the superintendent returns to the subject at hand, naming the targets for the three other tests. The principal is noncommittal.
Outside in the rain, Ms. Lam is not dismayed. She has provided the targets, and the principal might come around. Meanwhile, Ms. Lam has been summoned to the mayor's office for an emergency meeting of department heads because of the approaching storm.
At the meeting, Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., who appointed the 14-member search committee that recommended Ms. Lam and two other candidates to the school board earlier this year, calls the superintendent to the front of the ornate room.
"Sit up here," the mayor commands, pointing to the front row of seats. "because you are going to answer a lot of questions about schools."
But, in fact, no one asks Ms. Lam any questions in the 50 minutes that follow. What announcements need to be made about school closings are made by Mr. Cianci. Ms. Lam shrugs off the lost time without impatience.
Theodore R. Sizer, the retired Brown University professor and author, says that's one of the traits that give him confidence in the new superintendent: She isn't easily surprised. "There's nothing there [in Providence] that she hasn't already seen in one form or another before," said Mr. Sizer, who now runs a charter school in central Massachusetts with his wife, Nancy Faust Sizer. He remains an interested observer of Providence and its schools.
But where Mr. Sizer finds confidence in Ms. Lam's experience as a superintendent in Chelsea, Mass.; Dubuque, Iowa; and San Antonio, others see cause for concern.
"She's been a very controversial figure," said Steven Fischbach, a parent of two children in the Providence schools and a local activist. "She hasn't been in any community very long. I'm afraid she'll raise holy hell and move on."
Girl With a Dream
Born to a Peruvian mother and a father of Chinese descent, Ms. Lam grew up in a crowded Lima apartment without luxuries—including books. At the age of 8, a teacher helped her set a course for the United States.
The teacher told her she must do three things to fulfill her dream: become fluent in English, get good grades to win a scholarship, and persuade her parents to let her leave home. That advice became her road map, and at 17, Ms. Lam won a full scholarship to the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., where she majored in sociology.
She also protested the war in Vietnam and met her future husband at the neighboring men's college.
Ms. Lam married Peter Plattes in 1969, the year she graduated. They taught middle school for two years in his native Minnesota. Then the couple moved to Peru, where they were teachers in a mining camp. Returning to the United States and settling in Boston, Ms. Lam took a job teaching elementary school in the nearby town of Framingham. In 1979, she moved to the Boston public schools as a coordinator of bilingual programs. A quick rise up the administrative ladder followed.
As a middle school principal, she gained a reputation as an innovator—and ran smack into sexism. She picked a woman as her assistant principal in 1986. But, Ms. Lam says, the superintendent vetoed her choice, saying an all- female team might face problems with student discipline. Ms. Lam left the position vacant and filed a discrimination complaint with the Boston Human Rights Commission. Three years later, the commission ruled in her favor.
To accommodate Ms. Lam's 14-hour workdays as an area superintendent and to avoid conflicts of interest, her husband left his position as a high school department head in the Boston schools to stay home with the couple's two children: Sasha, now 21 and a senior at Trinity University in San Antonio, and Tamara, 17 and a high school senior.
"Her husband is a saint to make her life possible," said Meg Campbell, who worked for Ms. Lam in Boston and Chelsea and now heads the Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound organization and the Harvard Outward Bound Project in Cambridge, Mass. "I think you can't understand Diana without understanding how important family is to her."
By 1989, Ms. Lam was running the troubled Chelsea schools outside Boston, the first superintendent to lead the district under a management contract with Boston University.
She left that year to declare her candidacy for mayor of Boston. Though considered a serious contender, she withdrew from the race soon after the Boston Globe revealed that she and Mr. Plattes had filed overdue income-tax returns just before she announced her run.
The Dubuque and San Antonio jobs followed. Ms. Lam stayed just two years in Dubuque, accepting the San Antonio offer in 1994, she says, after the Iowa district's board dithered about extending her contract.
Spanish- speaking, with a track record among inner-city children, Ms. Lam seemed to have found the perfect challenge in 61,000-student San Antonio. But after four years of whipping up what one journalist called a whirlwind of changes—smaller schools, a curriculum overhaul, and the appointing of master teachers for every campus—a new school board bought out her contract last winter for $658,000. During her tenure, San Antonio saw substantial improvements in its worst schools and in student performance on state tests.
"That's what brought me to a new system," Ms. Lam said. "I know I have a lot to offer any district, and I'm hoping Providence is the right match."
A New Challenge
Ms. Lam is optimistic that Providence's economic renaissance in recent years will translate into more support for its schools. The new job also offers proximity to Boston, where she and her husband still have family and friends.
For now, though, the family is separated, with Mr. Plattes remaining in San Antonio until their children graduate next spring. That's a hardship for Ms. Lam, who is camped out in an executive apartment five minutes from her still sparsely decorated office.
Still, collegial support has filled in some of the space left by her family's distance. Five school leaders who have been active with Ms. Lam in the Danforth Foundation's Forum for the American School Superintendent paid a weekend visit to offer support and advice. Last month, three women from her leadership team in San Antonio flew in to see her. She prizes such contact in part because, "not everybody feels comfortable challenging my thinking."
The superintendent says her goals for Providence are much like those for San Antonio: higher achievement and community engagement. But she says she's modifying her approach. "I'm trying to be a little more understanding of what people go through" in the course of change, she said. And she is focusing on principals more than in the past.
She acknowledges that she has made mistakes, but says she's learning from them.
Before she left San Antonio, Ms. Lam had a chance to take a lucrative private-sector job. Though her husband and son pleaded with her to accept it, she wasn't ready to abandon her career and her mission.
"I've ended up with a situation that is complex and difficult," she adds, "but I needed to try it one more time."
Vol. 19, Issue 11, Page 23Published in Print: November 10, 1999, as In Providence, a Superintendent Follows Her Dream