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Seattle Schools Now March To a General's Cadence

America's urban schools face unique and stubborn challenges, prompting some cities to adopt radical solutions

Two or three times a week, John Stanford strides through the paint-chipped hallways of Seattle's schools as if reviewing a platoon.

He stands erect. His doubled-breasted suit is immaculately pressed, his white shirt heavily starched. A personable man with a warm handshake, the retired Army major general still habitually clicks his heels when meeting people.

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Mr. Stanford doesn't pretend to be an educator. The new superintendent has never run a school, never mind a chaotic urban school system with 46,000 students.

But during the Gulf war, Stanford oversaw the delivery of American troops, tanks, and supplies to the front lines in the Saudi desert.

Now, eight months into this bold experiment, Seattle's school board doesn't regret its decision to tap the skills of a man with 30 years of military training.

Seattle is the largest of a handful of cities nationwide that have given the challenge of running an underfunded and overcrowded urban school system to someone with no experience as an education administrator.

"The No. 1 and 2 qualities we were looking for were leadership and management experience," says Seattle school board president Linda Harris. "We were looking for those qualities in either a traditional or nontraditional candidate."

When it came down to the final three candidates, the board passed over two with education experience and chose a candidate for whom the adjective "non-traditional" may be an understatement.

After his career in the Army as an administrator, four years ago Stanford was hired to be county executive of Fulton County, Ga. The thought of someday running an urban school district never entered his mind.

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Now, Stanford is bringing his leadership experience and discipline to the task of overhauling Seattle's beleaguered school system.

Seattle schools face many of the same problems other urban centers face: Budgets are shrinking, the immigrant population is swelling, test scores are uneven, and buildings are aging and costly to maintain.

To top it off, Seattle's last school superintendent left amid charges of misuse of public funds.

Undaunted, Stanford is embracing the task and boldly predicts that Seattle will lead the nation in reinventing education in America. "We are determined to be the best school district, not just in the state of Washington," he says, "but in the United States."

Indicative of his determination is the small but significant modification of the school district's motto. It once read, "Every child can learn." It now says: "Every child will learn."

He plans to bring that vision - which includes strict adherence to the rules - to fruition by 1999.

"What we're trying to produce here is a world-class, student-focused learning system, not a teaching system," says Stanford. "The big question is, did the student get it," he says. "If not, then we have failed."

To answer that question, Stanford has instituted tests in Grades 3, 5, 8, and 11. If a student is not "getting it," Stanford says, additional help can be given, including holding the student back a year.

Such testing procedures, also proposed by President Clinton, have been controversial. Some educators say that holding a student back undermines self-esteem and social development.

But Stanford is adamant. "I will not be responsible for a child who cannot succeed out there," he says. He asks which is likely to produce a lasting loss of self-esteem, to be retained in the fifth grade or to "be 18 and you can't pursue your dream because you can't get a job."

The education system that Stanford is creating in Seattle is also about school administrators staying in touch with what is going on in the classrooms. It is now a rule that all district administrators must spend at least one day a week in the classrooms.

Stanford doesn't let parents off the hook either. He says parents should be held accountable for the behavior of their children. He proposes that a committee of school and law-enforcement officials examine whether parents can be charged if a child brings a gun to school. Stanford's rule now is that anything that can be used as a weapon is grounds for expulsion.

Similarly, any teacher or staff member who endangers a student will be fired or put on leave immediately. Recently, a school custodian, who reportedly touched a student in an improper way, was "out of the school in five minutes," Stanford says.

And Stanford is giving out homework: All parents of grade school children must read to their children at least 30 minutes each evening.

The new superintendent has made reading a top priority. Several times a week, he visits the classrooms, stressing the importance of reading and telling students that their teachers deserve more respect than just about anyone, certainly more respect than sports figures. Every chance he gets, he says: "The most important job title in the United States today is teacher."

When asked by a student, "How much money do you make?" Without hesitation, Stanford answers, "About $175,000 a year, and if you read, read, read, someday you can have my job."

At each school, with its profile in hand, Stanford sits down with the principal (he calls them "CEOs") to discuss the school's strengths and what is being done to correct deficiencies.

At an elementary school in north Seattle, Principal David Ackerman says, "I've been doing this for 26 years. I've worked for a lot of superintendents, but I've never seen anyone like him. It's been very exciting."

Stanford gives school principals free reign for setting policies but also holds them accountable. He recently questioned Mr. Ackerman closely about allowing parents to choose which teacher their children would get but didn't order it stopped. He wanted to be kept posted on the results, however.

STANFORD wades through a cluster of parents gathered for a school musical program, working them as if he were a politician running for election. He warmly shakes their hands, talks a little about his ideas, then listens to what they have to say.

"He listens and he acknowledges," says Lee Roberson, the mother of a student participating in the program. "Those are two very important people skills."

Another mother, Terese Sullivan, says the new superintendent has strong backing among parents in the district. "Everyone is excited about his new approach," she says. "He's not afraid to make big changes."

One of the changes Stanford has proposed is making the school district a "market-based system."

For instance, one inner-city junior high school was hit by declining enrollment. Parents were taking their kids to other schools. Stanford installed a magnet program and promised that parents who enroll their children in the school next year will get first pick of high schools for their children.

The quid pro quo is Stanford's version of a market system.

While public opinion continues to run high for the man whose job it once was to help move troops, equipment, and supplies to his friend Gen. Colin Powell, Stanford has had his share of battles to fight here.

He had barely unpacked when, for the first time in 20 years, voters failed to endorse a $150 million levy for school district operating expenses.

Stanford campaigned hard before the matter was taken to the voters a second time last month, and it was overwhelmingly approved.

He won that skirmish, says Roger Erskine, who heads the Seattle Education Association, the 4,600-member teachers' union. But Stanford's funding challenge is likely to continue. "It's the ongoing problem of having a financial base that is stable and predictable, that has some growth and that impacts inflation," he says.

One obstacle is that a Washington State law forces school districts to go before voters every two years for approval of operating levies, even though no tax increases are required.

The failure of the first levy vote this year sent Stanford off to lobby state officials to change the law that lets voters regularly dole out operating money. He contends that school districts should be able to count on day-to-day operating funding.

Mr. Erskine says funding is vital to Seattle schools, where a large percentage of students have special needs. "We have kids with some very distinct needs, from language to special education," he says. "Parents bring their children to Seattle because we have such an outstanding special education program and bilingual education program, but these are high-cost programs."

The cost of providing English language instruction may be high, but Stanford chooses to see the diversity as an advantage rather than a drawback. "We have 115 different cultures in our school system. We have the world here," he says with enthusiasm. "We have 80 different languages spoken, and we must treat that as a strength."

Asian and Scandinavian cultures have long been represented in Seattle schools, but now more and more immigrant children are streaming in from Russia, the Ukraine, Mexico, and Central and South America. Stanford has proposed offering the parents an opportunity to learn English in the schools as well.

That would require more money, but it goes along with the superintendent's plan to lure more parents and Seattle residents into supporting the schools.

Cuts in federal and state revenues have produced cuts in music programs, arts, kindergarten, and school athletics. Stanford is trying to draw skills and money from area corporations and professionals. He has asked the community for library books in a program he calls "Fill the Shelves."

While some educators express their concern about the commercialization of the classroom, Stanford proposes allowing corporations to advertise in the schools.

He recently tapped volunteer engineers, architects, and construction workers to trim $600,000 off the cost of one school renovation project.

In a district that was ready for change, Erskine says most teachers approve of Stanford.

But Stanford has a few detractors too.

Linda Jordan, who co-chairs a citizen action group called People for Ethical Government, continues to publicly needle Stanford about the need for a performance audit of the district. Stanford says such an audit would be too costly, but Ms. Jordan counters that voters should know how money is spent.

Stanford's wife, Pat Corley, is aware that his greatest challenges may lie ahead. She initially advised him to stay in Atlanta.

"Are you crazy?" she told him. "Do you know what it will be like dealing with parents and their children?" Now, Ms. Corley says, she's a little awed by the reception her husband has received.

"This celebrity status for a school superintendent seems somewhat strange," she says. "But people have been very kind and extremely supportive." She hopes they will still be supportive a year or two down the road.

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