San Antonio Express-News
November 22, 1998 Questions surround SASD future, Lam's successor
by Anastasia Cisneros-Lunsford and Jeanne Russell (San Antonio Express-News, November 22, 1998)
Less than a week after signing off on a widely criticized contract buyout with Superintendent Diana Lam, the San Antonio School District board president predicted an end to recent rough-and-tumble politics.
"Let me assure you, when it comes to a (superintendent) search, this board is going to be very unified," board President Tom Lopez pledged.
Trustees have been divided since they chose Lam by a 4-3 vote in 1994 to lead this historically troubled, low-performing urban school system. The board shifted the next year and tried, but failed, to oust her. After the 1996 election, she regained support and started implementing reforms.
But the board majority swung again this year when Lam tried to do too much too soon, critics said, and ignored the community.
Lam's resignation, including cash and continued benefits totaling $781,000, has left many feeling confused and unsure
of the future.
What about the reforms and programs she started? What sort of superintendent will the factionalized school board attract? What does Lam's departure mean for urban school reform? Will this give voucher supporters ammunition to pass a state-funded pilot program to send San Antonio students to private schools?
Few clear answers have emerged as the district moves forward to select a new leader. Lopez said he supported many of Lam's initiatives, but wanted to review each program and department to determine what is working. Supporters of Lam's reforms don't find his words reassuring.
Programs and reform
Lam's mantra was "all children can learn" and her method was new math and reading programs, lots of teacher training and smaller schools within schools.
The SASD long ranked as the lowest-performing large urban district in Texas. Test scores remain mediocre, but they ascended steadily during Lam's tenure.
Many parents said they love the reforms, but not the reformer.
Cindy Zimmerle, SASD Council of PTAs president, said she has heard from parents who feel insecure about the board's commitment to educational excellence.
"If you (the school board) have a plan, it had better be a doozy of a plan because we had a pretty good one in place," Zimmerle said, noting she was not speaking for the PTA council.
But for every parent who raves about innovations, another says Lam could never resist any package labeled "reform."
At the elementary schools, Lam pushed New American Schools, thematic designs that provided a framework linking subject areas. She reorganized high schools into smaller magnet schools or academies.
Tommy Gregory, whose children attend Davis Middle School and Edison High School, said he wouldn't mind if the magnet schools - with areas of specialization such as technology - follow Lam out the door.
"I think there's a way you could teach all of the subjects at all of the schools," he said.
But parent Margaret Brown supports magnet schools and their focus on college preparation. She volunteers with the district's Parent and Community Partnership Network, formed in 1995 with a $1 million Rockefeller Foundation grant.
"(Lam) started the dialogue for what needs to happen for these children and that dialogue has to continue," she said.
One reform that steamed parents and teachers is Chicago Math. The curriculum is based on looping, or introducing and coming back to key concepts such as fractions, rather than staying on the topic until all students get it.
"It doesn't require mastery of a skill before you move on. It isn't worth a damn," said parent Lyndon Hightower, who derided Lam's shotgun approach of sticking the program in all grades at once.
"Her idea of total quality management is like the flavor of the month. She didn't see a program she wasn't enamored with."
Lam's downfall probably began last year. She alienated parents, teachers and community members when she abruptly announced her plan to reorganize Jefferson High School, the district's historic gem, into four academies.
Augustin Ramirez, a member of Jefferson's site-based management team, said discipline works better at traditional, hierarchical high schools with a principal and assistant principals.
"I want them to go back - and Mr. Lopez (the board president) said they would - and look at Jefferson again and reconsider the uniform policy," said Ramirez, whose son is a sophomore.
Lopez said he wanted to give the Jefferson redesign a chance.
"At this point in time it would not be right for us to redesign the campus," he said. "But we need to stop and assess what's going on with this and any program."
Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee superintendent who now heads the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, said Lam's achievements could be documented by persuasive, clear data. But what wasn't clear, Fuller said, was whether the reform momentum could continue without Lam.
"While you can institutionalize some of it, it still requires a person at the top with the drive to continue," he said.
Lam's undoing likely was her failure to involve teachers so they felt like co-pilots rather than passengers.
Alan Shoho, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the reforms would probably continue at some schools and languish at others, depending on the level of commitment at each campus.
Urban school reform
The Lam story fits a national urban school reform mold, with a San Antonio flavor: Idealist comes in with unfamiliar ideas, turns a system topsy-turvy, offends some key players and is removed.
The more politicized the school district, the more likely the reformer's tenure will be short. The average stay for a Texas urban superintendent is 2.8 years.
The key role played by the San Antonio Federation of Teachers in electing Lam's opponents could backfire for the organization, said Richard Elmore, an education professor who studies school restructuring at Harvard University.
"It is a common pattern and ultimately a very, very, very destructive pattern for teachers' organizations to respond to accountability- based reforms by opposing them and trying to make the messenger go away," Elmore said. "It fuels everybody's stereotypes about teachers. It's bad for teacher organizations. It's bad for reform. It takes a long time to recover."
Pressure to improve test scores came not just from Lam, but from state and national leaders.
"In a state like Texas where the hot breath of accountability is breathing down everyone's neck right now, this could be a real problem," Elmore said.
However, Shoho said, it may be fair to fault Lam for her style.
"She had a sense of urgency, almost like a religious conviction," the UTSA instructor said. "She probably moved a little too quickly. It was not bad, but it was too quick in a political sense."
Lam stirred tension as superintendent in Dubuque, Iowa, but kept a board majority before coming to San Antonio.
Few superintendents have overhauled large urban districts while winning over community and business leaders, parents and teachers, Elmore said. Noteworthy successes include Anthony Alvarado, who spent 11 years in New York's District 2 but is now struggling with teachers as chancellor for instruction in San Diego, and Boston Superintendent Tom Payzant.
Lam regularly makes a list of the nation's most innovative superintendents along with Gerry House, who also adopted the New American Schools designs in Memphis, Tenn.
In Texas, Lam was mentioned alongside Ysleta's Anthony Trujillo, who came out of retirement and led the El Paso district to become the state's top-performing large school system. The school board fired him in October. A state appeal is pending.
The educational establishment's tendency "to eat its young" raises troubling questions about school governance, Elmore said.
In Australia, school districts have been abolished, he said. In this country, privatization is more likely.
"We are involved in an absolute orgy of self-destruction with local school governance. Pretty soon the public is just going to get tired of this," Elmore said. "The dollars will just migrate away from public education."
Search for a replacement
District observers agree the search for a new leader is critical, but they wonder who will want to take charge of the state's seventh- largest school system.
They said whoever replaces Lam will have to brace for the ultimate challenge - to maneuver the SASD out of its history of political chaos and a financially murky future, and reaffirm its commitment to boosting student achievement.
The next superintendent should be a good communicator, a visionary, a reformer and should have plenty of courage, several interested parties said. The leader also should be someone who can unite the fragmented school district.
"I believe that good and qualified applicants for the superintendent's position will view working with the (SASD) community, staff and board as an opportunity to demonstrate his or her ability to lead and bring all stakeholders together," Lopez said.
Shoho predicted that person will have little in common with Lam.
"You are probably not going to see someone on the cutting edge, like Diana Lam was, but someone who is sort of a status quo person," he said.
Trustee Julian Trevino said the board needs to go on a retreat to set goals for the district and the next superintendent.
But the players - parents, students, business and community leaders, taxpayers and SASD staff - also want a say.
Rob Easley, a vice president at H-E-B who sits on the Citizens Oversight Committee, said it is crucial the business community help find the right superintendent.
"We need ... a clear criteria of expectations," he said. "People representing the community should oversee the ... process of selecting a superintendent."
Trustees ultimately will pick the next superintendent. But in 1994, a Chicago-based search firm narrowed a field of 80 candidates to three, who were interviewed by a school board-selected committee.
"I hope they (the board) don't get influenced by a small group of parents," said Brown, the parent volunteer who was on that committee. "They should really ask the kids, especially when they evaluate programs. They should have an influence on the board's decisions."
But Hightower, the parent and Lam critic, said he would rather see someone who understands the San Antonio community take over, such as acting superintendent David Splitek.
"He is a very loyal employee. Maybe they should take him from interim to permanent superintendent," he said.
The voucher issue
Lam supporters said they believe the board has made the district vulnerable to attacks from advocates of vouchers, which would allow parents to use public funds to send their children to private school.
"Quality is going to go down, and when quality of education fails to go up and keep up with charter schools and parochial schools, vouchers will become more attractive," said Rachel Reynosa, a Citizens Oversight Committee member.
Jeff Judson, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a government watchdog group, said the SASD board's "circus atmosphere" doesn't help their case.
"It points out why we need vouchers," he said. "There's no way out except through the political process. But it shouldn't be about politics. It should be about kids."
But Lopez doesn't feel pressured by the voucher movement.
Copyright 1998 San Antonio Express-News
Record Number: 403037