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Wednesday, July 2, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Leading The Charge -- In 2 Years, Seattle Schools Superintendent Stanford Fulfills Goals, But Changes Have Come With Missteps And Small Battles

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

Everybody wants a piece of John Stanford.

It is a measure of his magnetism that people line up after the Seattle school superintendent's speeches and community meetings, pressing in close with their questions and complaints. His phone lines, his e-mail, his public appearances are jammed with the details of a thousand wrongs that must be fixed. Yesterday.

He listens graciously, taking notes and motioning his staff to step in and get the particulars. But the line doesn't form because people trust the staff to fix things.

At the end of his second school year as superintendent, Stanford is still larger than life, a charismatic leader whose force of personality convinces people he can work miracles.

The School Board will give Stanford his annual evaluation next fall, but it's clear most board members believe he already has achieved all 10 of the major goals they laid out for him last year, and then some.

Outside the board, it's clear the community still is willing to give Stanford the benefit of the doubt because of who he is and what he says he will do for children and for Seattle.

But doubts have crept in, although they're still a quiet eddy in a river of praise. In interviews with more than 50 parents, teachers, principals, legislators and others, there is much enthusiasm for Stanford's leadership - and nagging questions about his style and what impact his grand designs have had on classrooms.

There were missteps this year - problems at Meany Middle School over a dramatic restructuring plan, at T.T. Minor over a businessman's plan to "adopt" the school, and at Lowell Elementary over a proposal to move a gifted program there, displacing regular students.

There were concerns over advertising in the schools, an interim site for Ballard High, a grant for books about gay and lesbian families. And parents and teachers still are waiting to see real changes in the classroom.

Stanford's style is such that controversy isn't surprising. Partly, it's the nature of the job, and Stanford - a retired Army major general who never held a job in education before coming to Seattle - was not hired to do it cautiously. He relishes the role of provocateur.

Stanford dismisses all these issues as distractions, minor skirmishes to be expected along the way toward winning the war. "If people are looking at the little stuff like this, they can't measure what I've done," he said.

Still, it's hard to win a war if your army loses too many of the little battles.

The question is whether he has provoked unnecessarily, creating political heat that was avoidable. If there is a common thread running through views of his difficulties this year, it is a failure to do his political homework, to anticipate public reaction and win over key constituencies.

T.T. Minor is a case in point. But what happened at the Central Area school last week when he appeared before a group of parents and staff also illustrates Stanford's personal appeal.

Stanford stood in front of a group of African-American parents at the school concerned about a white businessman's plans to pump million of dollars into new programs there.

Two hours later, their skepticism and fears about Stuart Sloan's motives had given way to excitement. Stanford told them their school would "probably be the most incredible public elementary school in this country." He kneeled at the child-sized table where parents and staff sat, and the room hummed with um-hms and yesses and shared laughter.

After seven months of mounting criticism, Stanford's straight answers had won that group over.

District has seen some changes

The district has undeniably accomplished much in the past year under Stanford.

Test scores are up, across all grades and in almost all subject areas. A shift toward neighborhood schools was accomplished with a minimum of political conflict. Schools now have more authority than ever over their budgets.

A coalition of local school districts, led by Stanford, effectively lobbied state lawmakers on key financial issues this spring. On another front, much of the $2.2 million raised this year by the private foundation that supports Seattle schools is due to his efforts.

Teachers now must make syllabuses available for public review, and schools are required to target kids who are failing, triggering a process of tutoring, mentoring and parent conferences to help them improve.

A reading campaign championed by Stanford has schools devoting blocks of time to all-school read-a-thons and students competing to see who can read the most. All Seattle principals went through a yearlong training program developed because of him.

All this in a time of budget cuts and in an institution many considered too unwieldy and slothful to change. In another year, with another kind of leader, any one of those items might have been considered a victory.

Perhaps Stanford's greatest success has been the most intangible - raising the profile of the Seattle School District in the community.

"I work in an institution where most of my colleagues don't send their children to public schools," said Amy Hagopian, a parent and former School Board member who works at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "I no longer have to feel embarrassed that I do. Now they have to feel a little embarrassed that they don't."

"I'm not sure what else we could humanly ask," board member Scott Barnhart said. "He's put into place a radical restructuring of the district, which I don't think the public fully comprehends."

Others question whether Stanford can take credit for these successes. Test scores, for example, are up across the state. (Seattle's increases slightly outpace the state gains.) Lisa Bond, outgoing president of the Seattle Council PTSA, believes much of what is right about the district today is the result of changes made long before he arrived.

Stanford doesn't take full credit, but said he shares in the success. "I'd like to find someone in this city that can say we've not made improvements in this district over a broad range of things," he said. "I don't know all the answers. I don't even know all the problems yet. . . . All the hard work we've done is really nothing compared to what we're going to do."

Some wonder, however, if Stanford will be around to see it through. The job offers "just keep coming all the time," Stanford said. But he added: "This is the most important job I have ever done."

Emphasis placed on test scores

Stanford has yet to win over teachers, who say the superintendent hasn't done much to help them in the classroom.

On one key issue, they worry he's undermining good teaching.

Teachers say the emphasis Stanford places on standardized test scores will result in "teaching to the test" and ultimately shortchange students.

There's "lots of pressure put on principals, which is then put on teachers, which is then put on children, to do well on standardized tests," said Jenifer Katahira, a 30-year teacher. "Quality teaching does not equate to time spent on testing and test scores."

Stanford bases a large part of his evaluation of principals on test-score improvement, along with closing the gap in performance between whites and most minorities.

What teachers want most from Stanford is money and time invested in teacher training. They want good, solid seminars that will make a difference "when you go into class on Monday morning," said Robert Femiano, a teacher at Arbor Heights Elementary.

What they feel they've gotten, instead, are two consecutive years of budget cuts in the STAR program - a mentoring program where a cadre of highly regarded teachers helps newcomers and experienced teachers who are having trouble.

Still, teachers are largely pleased that Stanford's cheerleading has improved the public's image of the district. Parents even volunteer in classrooms after hearing Stanford's speeches, said Martin McGowan, a teacher at West Woodland Elementary.

There's a strength in having an outsider as the district's leader, something that's especially evident in Stanford's relationship with business executives. Stanford often peppers his public appearances with references to business people who have handed him checks for $100,000 or more for the district.

"John Stanford needs to be given credit for laying out a vision" and putting the pieces in place to go after it, said David Marshak, an assistant professor at Seattle University's School of Education. But he questions whether it's the right vision.

Stanford's emphasis on things like standardized test scores "is related to an antiquated notion of schooling in the 20th century," Marshak maintained.

Running into the `Seattle process'

Enthusiasm about Stanford's vision is sometimes tempered by concerns that he hasn't worked hard enough to include people in his plans.

Last fall, he proposed allowing corporate sponsorships of school activities, hoping to raise as much as $1 million for the cash-strapped district. After several months of public criticism by parents, Stanford did an abrupt about-face and suspended the new policy.

Brita Butler-Wall, a parent who led the fight against the policy, gives Stanford high marks for backtracking, but thinks he could have avoided the whole snafu with earlier public input.

"We'd like to be brought in at the brainstorming phase instead of during the public hearing a half-hour before the vote," she said. Stanford's style of thinking out loud "sometimes feels very disrespectful to people, to throw something out and maybe not even be terribly serious about it," she said. "There are better ways to take the temperature of the public."

People attribute other controversies this year to his lack of understanding of the "Seattle process," the idea that Seattleites want to meet and discuss and be heard on public issues.

Stanford offers a different evaluation. In many cases, he blames "special interests," adults with narrow agendas who don't focus on what's best for children.

That was the case at Meany Middle School, he said, where "warring among adults" divided the school. But the war forced Stanford to remove the principal, finding her a job in the central office, and raised questions about whether Stanford had made the right choice in the first place.

"Special interests" also were to blame for the controversy over moving Ballard High School students temporarily to Sand Point, Stanford said. The district "did everything we should have done," he said, but got caught in the middle of a fight between the neighborhood and the city.

In the case of T.T. Minor, though, Stanford blames himself for not working with the community sooner, before he and Sloan had hammered out the plan for Sloan to "adopt" the school.

Not knowing all the players may have hurt him in some instances, Stanford acknowledged. But he makes no apologies for his approach.

"You cannot hide from criticism. You've got to throw the ideas out there," he said.

The public tussles over Meany, Minor, gay books and all the rest are "down here at the tactical level," he said, drumming his fingers on his table. Raising his hands into the air, he added, "I'm up here at the strategic level . . . I'm into winning wars, not just the little battles."

Nobody wants Stanford to get so hung up in public process that nothing ever gets done. Board members, in particular, have a sense of urgency. "When you have an urban district with 20,000 students below the poverty level and an enormous need to raise academic achievement, we don't have the luxury to diddle around with process," Barnhart said.

Some blame Stanford's staff for making him look bad by not following through on things. There's a gap, they say, between the vision of the district Stanford paints and what the district actually delivers.

The district spent six months deciding whether to move the program for gifted children into Lowell Elementary, displacing most of the students who already were there. Stanford called it one of the most difficult decisions he has ever made. While public hearings were held, many Lowell parents felt they had been treated poorly by the district, said parent Ruth Ann Halford.

Questions went unanswered by the staff, parents who tried to contact the district were given the runaround, and there was a "thinly disguised attitude of `we know better than you,' " she said.

Stanford has developed his own, new administrative team through staff reshuffling and hiring, but he's made little apparent effort to get rid of weak principals and teachers. Out of a teaching corps of 2,500, only about 20 teachers have left the district in the past 10 months, mostly resigning or retiring after their job performance was called into question, said Tom Weeks, the district's human-resources director. He would not provide a comparable figure for principals.

That can be blamed, at least in part, on tough tenure laws that protect them. Firing them requires mountains of paperwork and usually triggers a lengthy and expensive appeals process.

Stanford moved more than one-third of his principals to new schools last year, and has made nine more changes so far this year, but it's too early to say whether that's made any difference. So far, he said, none has been so unsatisfactory to warrant being fired.

"Would they suggest that I wholesale fire teachers and principals, that I start a war with the union?" he asked. "In an unpublic and unspectacular way, I will get (staff problems) fixed."

Stanford scope reaches far

For the first time, Stanford this year proved he could play on a statewide stage. Legislative observers say he was instrumental in forming a coalition of school districts and other education officials to persuade lawmakers to restore part of an earlier 4 percent cut in the authority of school districts to raise money from locally voted property-tax levies.

"It was his idea originally to meet with the large district superintendents, especially Spokane and Tacoma, and see what they could do to get that 4 percent restored," said John Fotheringham, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators.

In Olympia, Stanford's candor and the fact that he doesn't come from an education background worked in his favor with legislators.

"What was refreshing about Stanford was he cared about the policy issues, regulatory relief, more local control, discipline, assessments, not just money," said Rep. Gigi Talcott, the Republican majority whip from Tacoma. "This man is on the edge. He's willing to tell it like it is."

And he tells it with a consistent message. He makes an average of three to five public speeches and appearances a day, always with the same theme: Seattle Public Schools are very good and getting better. The district is on its way to having a "world-class, student-focused learning system by 1999."

He's been so effective in spreading that gospel, in fact, that some say the message and the man are indistinguishable.

"I can't tell you the countless hours I have spent talking to media across the nation" about Stanford, said Linda Harris, School Board president. "We need to be sure people have confidence in the entire district and not just in one person. . . . It's not the John Stanford School District. It's the Seattle School District."

Stanford maintains there are thousands of people just like him working for the district. "This is just not about me. I just happen to be the guy" the School Board chose. "A leader fails if the system collapses when he leaves."

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Seven things to watch in Stanford's third year

John Stanford begins his third school year as Seattle schools superintendent this fall. Here are seven key things to watch in the coming year, bellwethers of his ultimate success or failure in Seattle:

-- T.T. Minor: Parents and teachers criticized the district and Stanford for not seeking their input before launching major changes that are part of businessman Stuart Sloan's plan to adopt the school. Stanford delayed the project for a year to get better community support. Can he heal wounded feelings and overcome political hurdles to get the project going again?

-- The return to neighborhood schools: A new student-assignment plan kicks in this fall. Will it resegregate schools, as some fear? Will it revitalize the district by bringing parents in closer contact with their schools?

-- New school-based budgeting: Schools now control more of their base budget than ever before, making their own decisions about staffing. In addition, new rules mean schools with more difficult-to-educate students get more money. Will more budgeting authority and flexibility mean better student achievement?

-- Meany Middle School: This was Stanford's first major initiative to remake a school with his own vision as a guide. But the experiment stalled this year because of concerns about the principal he chose, academic achievement and discipline. Can he resurrect his flagship?

-- Support from teachers: Teachers rejected the proposed contract with the Seattle Education Association, in part because of concerns about doing away with seniority-based job guarantees. That's an indicator Stanford has more work to do in building trust among his teaching corps.

-- Accountability: Stanford has said he will hold students, teachers and principals accountable for academic achievement. Exit exams for students will measure whether all have passed muster. What will he do about poor teachers and principals protected by tough tenure laws?

-- Public relations: Stanford said he will work to rebuild confidence in the schools, encouraging parents who opted out to take another look. Does this mean replicating the successes of the most popular alternative programs, many of which have waiting lists? Even if they cost more?

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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