School & District Management

Featured Profiles

December 15, 1999 9 min read
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Marva Collins | Rudolf Flesch | Steve Jobs
Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez | Ella Flagg Young


Ahead of Her Time:
Ella Flagg Young

When Ella Flagg Young took office as the elected superintendent of the Chicago schools in 1909, she confidently declared that “in the near future, we will have more women than men in executive charge of the vast educational system.”

But, in fact, for more than 60 years Young remained almost alone in her achievement, one of a very few women with enough political clout and experience to land the top job in a large district. Just as extraordinary, both as Chicago superintendent and as president of the National Education Association-the first woman to hold either post- Young promoted an ideal of teacher power and school democracy radically at odds with the views of many of her prominent colleagues.

Born in 1845, Young attended school for only a few years, though her working-class parents encouraged her independence of mind and spirit. At 17, after attending normal school, she took her first teaching job. Her pupils were the young men who herded cattle on the outskirts of Chicago. She married at 23, but became a widow soon after. Young eventually rose to become principal of the system’s largest high school before being named assistant superintendent in 1887.

At the age of 50, she took a seminar with the philosopher and educator John Dewey, who was then teaching at the University of Chicago. The two began a rich collaboration, with Young using her own experience to test Dewey’s ideas. After resigning from the school system in 1899 because she disagreed with the autocratic approach of the new superintendent, Young earned her doctorate under Dewey.

In 1905, she became the director of the Cook County Normal School, continuing her close association with teachers. Teachers and suffragists, using the vote women won for Illinois school elections in 1891, helped Young win the race for superintendent, and in 1910 she also became president of the male-dominated NEA.

Her tenure as superintendent was marked not only by reforms but also by battles with school board members. After seven turbulent years on the job, Young retired, remaining active in education and politics until her death in 1918.

—Bess Keller


‘Regardless of Lineage':
Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez

When their children were turned away from an all-Anglo school in Orange County, Calif., and told to go to a school for Mexican- Americans, Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez fought back.

In 1945, the farming couple filed a lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 Latinos against the county’s four school districts, seeking the right for their children to be educated in the same school as Anglo children.

Felicitas Mendez, a native of Puerto Rico, managed the family’s rented, 40-acre asparagus farm so that her husband, a Mexican immigrant, could work on the cause full time. Thurgood Marshall, then the top lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

A federal judge in 1946 ruled in favor of the Latinos, rejecting the argument that the schools for them and for Anglos were “separate but equal.” Judge Paul J. McCormick wrote that “the paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.”

Though the school districts had argued that they segregated Latino children because of language differences, the judge pointed out that the districts didn’t even test all children on their language ability.

Judge McCormick’s decision was upheld on appeal a year later, launching integration of schools in Orange County. And while the case showed that segregation was not just an issue for African-Americans, it helped point the way to the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

Gonzalo Mendez died in 1964, and Felicitas Mendez in 1998.

—Mary Ann Zehr


A Letter to Johnny’s Mom:
Rudolf F. Flesch

Nearly 45 years after Rudolf Flesch created a fictional 12-year-old boy and held him up as an indictment of elementary education in the United States, Why Johnny Can’t Read is still used as ammunition in the battle over how children should be taught to read.

In the book, Flesch, a writer and consultant who had emigrated from Austria in 1938, advocated the phonics method of instructing children in the alphabet and basic sounds. He likened learning to read to learning to drive. In both, he argued, students must first learn the basics-the mechanics of a car or the mechanics of the language-before taking the driver’s seat.

The problem with the reading instruction most U.S. students received at the time, Flesch believed, was that few of them were learning those initial skills.

“The teaching of reading-all over the United States, in all the schools, in all the textbooks-is totally wrong and flies in the face of all logic and common sense,” he wrote in the 1955 volume.

“Johnny’s only problem was that he was unfortunately exposed to an ordinary American school.”

The book begins with a letter to Johnny’s mother, and includes lessons and step-by-step instructions for parents.

A commercial success in its time, the book has become a manifesto for parents seeking a return to “the basics” in reading instruction.

But it has angered many educators, who say it endorses the kind of drilling in letters and sounds that they contend impedes real learning and takes the fun out of reading.

Flesch repeated his arguments in his 1981 sequel, Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, in which he included what he said were alarming new statistics on illiteracy.

The original “Johnny” book has been reprinted several times, most recently in 1994. Other books by Flesch, who died in 1986 at age 75, also focused on the use of language and literacy. In all his volumes, he promoted his own no- nonsense style, as evident in the titles: The Art of Plain Talk, How to Make Sense, The Art of Clear Thinking, and Say What You Mean.

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo


Doing Things Her Way:
Marva Collins

From the start, Marva Collins made no secret of her dismay with what she considered the poor quality and attitudes of Chicago’s teachers. Determined to go her own way in educating the poor, inner-city children she believed were being ignored by a callous system, she quit her job as a teacher in the city’s public schools to open her own private school in 1975.

In it, Collins preached self-respect, success, and self-reliance. She insisted that her students read, read, read. She advocated the use of phonics and salvaged some of her first textbooks from a garbage dump at a Chicago public school.

The Westside Preparatory School, housed in the basement of a community college, soon became one of the best-known schools in the country. Visiting reporters watched as children who had been labeled failures by the public schools recited passages of Shakespeare and wrote letters to heroes of Greek mythology.

Her determination-and the success of her students-earned her a spot on the newsmagazine show “60 Minutes.” In 1980, Collins’ message of academic rigor and self- reliance caught the attention of President-elect Ronald Reagan’s transition team. But Collins turned down an offer to become U.S. secretary of education. Instead, she has gone on to train teachers nationwide in her methods, lend her name to both public and private schools, and write four books.

Despite the acclaim, Chicago teachers remained critical of her success, questioning her results in bitter attacks that prompted Collins to defend herself on the Phil Donahue television show in 1982.

Collins was born in Monroeville, Ala., in 1936. Though she came from a prominent family, she was denied access to the local public library because she was black. She graduated from the all-black Escambia County Training School in Atmore, Ala., and from Clark College in Atlanta.

In Chicago, where she began her teaching career in 1961, Collins became known as a maverick and troublemaker. Determined to do it, as she titled her autobiography, Marva Collins’ Way, she came to embody a firm but friendly style of teaching that has proven effective with disadvantaged students.

“In each classroom, we have a mirror,” she says, “and the little ones, each time they walk by, have to hug themselves and say, ‘I am wonderful. I am marvelous.’ ”

—Ann Bradley


An Apple for the Classroom:
Steven Jobs

Steven Jobs did more than any of the other young firebrands of Silicon Valley in the early 1980s to convince the world that the personal computer could be an essential tool for every man, woman, and ultimately, child. That vision helped move computers-especially his Apple II and Macintosh computers-into nearly every school and ignited a technology buying spree by U.S. educators that continues to this day.

It was far from a pure triumph, though. Jobs’ mercurial, divisive style in helping run Apple Computer Inc. made the company weaker as it faced mounting competition from ibm and other companies entering the budding PC market.

And many educators who became Apple loyalists were more impressed by Stephen Wozniak, the brilliant co-founder of the company who invented the first Apple computer and the Apple II.

Born in 1955 and adopted by a family that later moved to Los Altos, Calif., Jobs was a high school friend of the older Wozniak, an electronics genius. In 1977, Wozniak and Jobs, along with Mike Markkula, incorporated Apple Computer, for a while based in Jobs’ garage.

With brash marketing led by Jobs, Wozniak’s elegant machines caught the first wave of popular enthusiasm for microcomputers. Jobs’ vision of the computers as appliances for everyman played well in the media and helped attract exceptional talent to the company.

The Apple II won the hearts of thousands of teachers in the 1980s, in part because the company offered schools its best computers, practical software, and free computer course materials. The giant International Business Machines Corp., by contrast, initially offered the school market the underpowered PC Jr., with little support.

Apple was also unmatched in its discounted pricing schemes, its extensive support for software development and research, and its conferences and training that catered to educators.

In 1983, Jobs took over the development of the Macintosh computer, but caused a schism in the company between the Macintosh and Apple II divisions. In 1985, Apple Chief Executive Officer John Sculley engineered the ouster of Jobs, who resigned and started another computer company, NextStep, which was considered a failure. A year later, Jobs bought a stake in the successful movie company Pixar Animation Studios.

When Apple foundered in the 1990s, Sculley’s successor, Gil Amelio, brought Jobs back as a consultant, only to see the Apple board of directors pick Jobs to displace him as interim ceo in 1997. Apple has seen a recovery under a more mature Jobs, with popular new lines of computers and the reappearance of the friendly media buzz that the company once enjoyed.

—Andrew Trotter

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