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'Power to the Schools' Is Credo of Boston's New Chief

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As he hurried through the brightly painted halls of Oliver Wendell Holmes elementary school in Boston, Thomas Payzant kept stopping. Each time, the city's new school superintendent introduced himself to someone new - a student, a teacher, a parent.

"I just don't want to miss anybody," he explained, stooping down to welcome a kindergartner enrolling midterm.

Dr. Payzant has built his reputation on the idea that the people in the schoolhouse - not central office administrators or officials at city hall - are the key to improving public education. It seems a straightforward, even simple, philosophy, but by adhering to it for 30 years in the public schools, Payzant has been hailed as one of the top education reformers in the nation.

So it is that Payzant, on his first day as Boston's superintendent last October, pledged to visit each of the city's 123 schools before the academic year ends, a promise he is now close to fulfilling. Even in one trip, such as his recent stop at Holmes elementary in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, Payzant says he can tell a lot about how well a school is functioning.

Once known for excellence, Boston's public schools have slipped since the 1960s to the point where less than 10 percent of fourth-graders can read and compute math at their grade level, test scores show. Five of the city's 15 high schools are in danger of losing their accreditation from a regional board, jeopardizing their students' chances of going to college.

Payzant's plan for restoring public education is to develop strict, clear standards for student performance and to provide the resources needed to achieve them: high-caliber principals, teacher training, and an organized plan for involving the community.


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