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Milwaukee School Boss Walks Away

`PETERKIN won't be getting any going away parties,'' said a Milwaukee principal just before Robert S. Peterkin, former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent, left the job at the end of May. ``He came here and he was going to be the savior,'' continued Josephine Mosley, principal of Victor Berger Elementary School. ``He was riding in on a white horse and then they started jumping all over him.''

Like superintendents in many large cities across the United States, Dr. Peterkin was brought in to restructure and reform a faltering school system. When his contract came up for renewal, Peterkin decided to leave for a job as director of the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

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``I didn't consider myself indispensible,'' Peterkin says of his decision to leave Milwaukee. ``There comes a time when you have to make decisions on how you do your life's work and make an impact for schoolchildren.... The preparation of the next generation of leaders is particularly important, especially in urban areas.''

Peterkin, a tall, serious man who carries himself with confidence, was superintendent of schools in Cambridge, Mass., before taking the job in Milwaukee in 1988. Some say that the 7,000-student district was not an adequate training ground for the challenge of running Milwaukee's 99,000-student district, with a $536 million budget. But few doubt Peterkin is a sincere, intelligent educator.

``In the three years he was here and in every conversation we had, Peterkin always put the children first,'' says Ms. Mosley, of the elementary-principal advisory board. ``When I heard he was leaving, the air came out of my sails and it stayed out for quite a while. I felt that his leadership was really going to take us where we needed to go.''

Bob Peterson, a teacher at Fratney Street School here, marks Peterkin's job performance as a B+. ``He's offered some vision and has started to reduce the bureaucracy.''

But some people in Milwaukee are disappointed, even angry, about Peterkin's departure. ``He came in and raised hopes and then left too soon to be sure whether anything was done one way or the other,'' says Milwaukee mayor John O. Norquist about the superintendent. ``There's kind of a bitter taste in people's mouths about it.''

Nevertheless, Peterkin says he is satisfied with the progress made in Milwaukee. ``The board and our administration were able to lay a foundation and to act as change agents. That's the reason that they asked me to come. The work is clearly unfinished but I feel good about the foundation.''

During Peterkin's tenure, Milwaukee gained a reputation as one of the most innovative school districts in the country. This year a voucher program is providing state funds for private schooling and two African-American Immersion Schools are scheduled to open next fall [see related articles].

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``Peterkin is a man who doesn't shirk from innovation; he'll try things out,'' says Norman Gill, a McBeath senior research scholar of the Bradley Institute for Democracy at Marquette University here. ``There's a great sense of impatience to get results so Milwaukeeans are willing to try something new out of frustration.''

The difficulty, Peterkin says, comes in bringing change to a system that inherently resists it. ``We're talking about a school system that essentially hadn't changed in three centuries,'' he says. ``That was part of the paradox of Milwaukee. Internally, people thought we were moving much too quickly. While externally, the governor, the legislature, the mayor, and parents who were concerned about the achievement of the youngsters were pressing the administration to go even faster and to be more radical.' '

In 1989, Peterkin was named ``Man of the Year'' by the Milwaukee Times. Expectations for change in the city's schools were high. But the district's own data now show that the dropout rate has remained steady at about 15 percent and test scores have remained flat. Black students, who make up 55 percent of the enrollment, continue to perform poorly.

In recent years, the outdated industrial base of this city has been transformed into a booming service sector. Despite the overall progress of the economy, however, unemployment is still high among blacks.

At the same time, the woes of urban America have recently hit the city hard. Drug traffic thrives; the murder rate has almost tripled in two years; racial tensions are rising. A University of Chicago study recently listed Milwaukee as one of five ``hypersegregated'' cities in the US. Whites cluster on the South Side or along the lakefront in luxury homes. Blacks dominate the depressed North Side.

Milwaukee schools have operated under a court-ordered desegregation plan since 1976 and all but 19 schools are considered integrated. But black males are still failing at an alarming rate.

Soon after arriving in Milwaukee, Peterkin initiated a decentralization program and began implementing school-based management, which involves principals, teachers, and parents in governing their own schools.

Despite agreement that decentralization was needed, a survey of teachers taken earlier this year indicates dissatisfaction with the reorganized school district. ``Changing the administrative structure does nothing to help the classroom teacher,'' says Donald Ernest, executive director of Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, which took the survey.

Now organized into six ``service delivery areas,'' the district has a community superintendent and parent advisory council for each area. A third of the 150 schools in Milwaukee have opted for school-based management.

But ``people began to realize very quickly that the parent councils and community superintendents didn't have much authority,'' says Walter Farrell, a professor at the University of Wisconsin here.

Some parents say they are frustrated with the new system. ``Peterkin broke the school system down in all these little districts,'' says parent Michael Shackelford. ``Now you have to go through so many peons to get to someone with some authority.''

For much of his tenure in Milwaukee, Peterkin benefited from a supportive coalition of five on the nine-member school board. ``They supported me with the votes that were required to do some tough things in Milwaukee,'' Peterkin says.

But the board was not united in its strategy for reforming the district and some members tried to micromanage the school system, says Doris Stacy, who just recently went off the board after serving for 19 years.

``The truth of the matter is that Peterkin had more support than any superintendent I've worked with,'' Ms. Stacy says. ``He had five people who always supported him without question.''

Board members need to understand the limits of their role, Stacy says. ``We're policymakers. But what we've had in the last four years or so is a group of five who see it as perfectly appropriate to get into day-to-day operations. That becomes very politicized and very dangerous.''

To understand the superintendency, Peterkin says, requires a knowledge of its evolution. In the early days of public education, superintendents served as clerks for school boards. ``They essentially kept the minutes while popularly elected boards ran the school districts.'' As the superintendency changed to more of an executive position, a ``tug and pull'' began to develop between the roles of superintendent and school board.

As many communities nationwide have moved from a general election system to election by district, school boards have become more politicized. Electing school-board members by district provides for broader representation, says Jeanette Mitchell, president of the Milwaukee board. But it does introduce some difficulties. ``When I first got on the board I thought that when you got ready to make decisions all you had to be concerned with was simply, `Was it good for children or not?''' Ms. Mitchell says. ``B ut when you have everyone seeking their own special interests it's not so simple.''

Veteran board member Stacy detects a change in school boards over the past two decades. ``There's always been elements of politics,'' Stacy says. ``But when I started on the board in 1972, you didn't get people who wanted to run the school system.''

For superintendents, constant political battles mean less time for the business of providing high-quality education, Peterkin says. ``The myriad of little concerns overwhelm the educational agenda.''

Another frustration, Peterkin says, is the high turnover on school boards. During his three years in Milwaukee, five of the nine original board members left. A superintendent may be hired by one group but find a majority of new faces at the table before his contract expires. The initial strategy may no longer be widely accepted as the best course.

The key to success, says Mitchell, is a unified board. ``The board has to come together and set a vision for itself and for the system. If you agree upon that vision, then you have something to go back to and say, `This is the bottom line.'''

Over the next decade, Peterkin sees an evolution of governance in urban districts. School boards and superintendents will serve less as ``directors and monitors and more as facilitators and service providers,'' he says. ``The bulk of the power and decisionmaking will reside in the schools, and the superintendent will be charged with clearing the way of any problems.''

Sitting in her principal's chair, Mosley sympathizes with Peterkin's decision to leave. ``The battles that one has to fight in order to do what's right can be overwhelming sometimes,'' she says. ``I'm in a job where I'm with the children. I'm renewed each and every day by their smiles and their hugs. But as superintendent you've got to fight with the community, the union, the board. And no one ever tells you that you're doing a good job. We have to offer these people more support.''

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