School & District Management

In Houston, ‘Sophisticated’ Paige Viewed As Hard To Replace

By Robert C. Johnston — January 10, 2001 3 min read
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The beginning of the George W. Bush era in Washington signals the likely end of another—that of Rod Paige as the superintendent of schools in Houston.

President-elect Bush this month tapped Mr. Paige to be the next U.S. secretary of education.

While the Senate must confirm his nomination, the Houston school board last week chose Kaye Stripling, a subdistrict superintendent, to be acting superintendent if and when Mr. Paige steps down.

Lawrence Marshall

The only consensus on finding a permanent replacement for Mr. Paige, who became the city’s first black superintendent in 1994, was that it wouldn’t be easy.

“You have to find an individual with so many assets,” said Lawrence Marshall, the board president. “Number one, this guy is unbelievably politically sophisticated.”

As the head of the 210,000-student district, the nation’s seventh largest, Mr. Paige has enjoyed one of the longest and arguably most successful tenures of any current urban superintendent in the country. (“Boosters Call Houston’s Chief ‘A Good Thing, and We Know It,’” Oct. 4, 2000.)

Test scores have climbed during his administration, and the district has cleaned up its finances. Just as important, observers say, is that Mr. Paige has helped unite a city that was once divided over the direction of its schools and has brought a sense of stability that eludes many urban school systems.

“The hardest thing to replace will be his ability to create camaraderie and build team spirit,” said Rob Mosbacher, who heads the education committee of the Greater Houston Partnership, an influential business group. “Whoever’s next will have to work mightily to build the same level of trust.”

Already, the school board is under pressure to name the first-ever Hispanic to the job. Local Hispanic leaders felt ignored during the 1994 process that led to the selection of Mr. Paige, who had been on the school board since 1989 and was recruited by some board members to be the schools chief.

Hispanics make up 52 percent of the Houston Independent School District’s enrollment.

The Houston chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens even announced last week that it would sponsor its own national search for a Hispanic candidate to be picked by the board as the city’s school chief.

The issue could prove to be a political minefield.

“Hispanic activists want a Hispanic superintendent,” said Nancy Lomax, the founder of the local chapter of Parents for Public Schools, an advocacy group. “I think most reasonable people say it does not have to be white, Hispanic, or African-American, but a person who is well-qualified for the job.”

Despite a roster of new programs and an emphasis on student achievement that have grown out of the Paige era, a lot of work remains for a new chief.

For starters, Mr. Paige’s most recent policy initiative was to secure board approval last month of more rigorous minimum coursework for high school students.

The 13,000 8th graders who enter the 9th grade next fall will have to take Algebra 1 and 2, geometry, biology, integrated physics and chemistry, and either chemistry or physics. High school students will also be required to take two years of a foreign language.

Students can opt out of the program only with parental consent.

Others hope to see some of Mr. Paige’s policies reversed. Not everybody is pleased with his moves to contract with private firms to run many district operations.

“I just think that privatization is not a cure-all for the problems of public education,” Ms. Lomax said. “They still need supervision to make sure we’re doing it well for taxpayers.”

Parents as Partners

Althea Williams, the president of the Houston Council of PTAs, wants the next superintendent to define the role of parents in schools, and to make sure local principals understand that role.

“I know at one time [Mr. Paige] considered us to be partners, but he hasn’t specified what kind of partners,” she said. “I don’t feel as welcome in the schools any more.”

Given the recent momentum in the district, however, most observers are not banking on, or hoping for, a major change of direction. In addition, the board has given Mr. Paige so much leeway to pick his own, like- minded staff members that his initiatives could remain intact.

“Mr. Paige has laid a wonderful road map for Houston,” said Linda G. Clarke, the executive director of the Houston Annenberg Challenge, part of a nationwide urban school reform initiative started by the Annenberg Foundation in St. Davids, Pa. “We would love to see the person coming in follow that map into the future.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as In Houston, ‘Sophisticated’ Paige Viewed As Hard To Replace

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