John Stanford electrified the city when he became superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools in September, 1995.
He had no education background: a retired Army major general, he had also been a county executive in Georgia. But Stanford infused the job with an energy that attracted national attention and an outpouring of financial and human support in Seattle.
He started the district on the road to tougher academic standards and made himself an unabashed cheerleader for the schools. Calling himself the "children's crusader," he demanded district personnel put students first in everything they did.
Within 39 months, Stanford was dead. He'd battled leukemia with passion for eight months before dying on Nov. 28, 1998, at the age of 60.
It was in the hospital that Stanford finished a book he'd long promised, spelling out his vision for education and sharing his experiences in Seattle. "Victory in Our Schools," written with author Robin Simons, is published this week by Bantam Books.
Today through Wednesday, The Seattle Times will publish exclusive excerpts. The first segment begins as Stanford, as one of three finalists for the job of superintendent, addresses a Seattle audience.
Not surprisingly, the room was packed. As the interview began, I could hear the murmurings of the crowd. Some of the most respected principals sat behind the school board president and whispered adamantly in her ear, "Don't hire the general!" Teachers joked about how they would have to address me, and whether they'd have to salute each other, and polish their shoes. Parents worried that I'd promote excessive discipline, squelch creativity, and transform the schools into boot camps.
I knew, of course, the concerns of the parents and teachers. I knew the stereotype they held of the army general: a Pattonesque commander, inflexible and abrasive, more able to order than to listen, willing to sacrifice our city's children for a questionable cause.
But I also knew how far from the mark that was. Thirty years of leading in the military had taught me that most leaders are the antithesis of those traits. Leading means inspiring, not commanding. Leading means loving the people you lead so they will give you their hearts as well as their minds. It means communicating a vision of where you can go together and inviting them to join. The community was right: a TV general could not have led the public schools. They didn't know me, but their stereotypes were different from my reality. Now I had two hours to change their minds. ....
I listened carefully to the audience's concerns. In response I told them confidently that I could lead their schools to success but I could not run the schools alone; I would need their help and I would actively invite their participation. I told them that the academic achievement of every child would be my highest priority, and that I would ask parents, businesses, and community groups to help us to raise the levels of achievement.
I told them that, despite the enormous problems the district was facing - aging buildings, declining test scores, a woefully insufficient budget - despite the fact that someone had said, "Why would you want to be a superintendent of schools? Why do you care? It's too late for public education," despite all those things, we can do it. We can reach and teach all children.
This is not a clever slogan, nor simply a rallying cry. It is the schools' responsibility to teach and reach each child. I know this in my heart because I was one of the "unreachable." I failed sixth grade.
This should not have come as a big surprise to my family or me: for years I'd been fooling around in class, not doing my homework. But when Miss Greenstein came to my house at the end of the year for a "private conversation" with my parents, and when I saw my parents' faces as they showed her to the door, I was devastated. I felt ashamed. My parents had never graduated from grade school. They each worked two jobs (my father as a truck driver and train engineer, my mother as a cook) to keep our family together and, more than anything, they wanted better for their children. My two older sisters were diligent; they were the scholars my parents wanted. Now I felt like I was breaking their hearts.
But my mother wasn't about to let her expectations for her only son die. She purchased a set of World Book Encyclopedias for me. The next school year, and every year after, from wherever she was working, she called me every afternoon - usually two or three times - to make sure I was doing my homework. It was hard for her to check the quality of my schoolwork since she couldn't do the work herself, but she made sure that it was done, and she talked more often with my teachers.
I submitted to the discipline and survived the embarrassment of repeating sixth grade; my work became regular, if only average; it wasn't until eighth or ninth grade that I felt any excitement about going to school.
But the experience of failing sixth grade was pivotal. Miss Greenstein had recognized that I wasn't ready to move on - I was immature and unmotivated, I needed a kick in the pants - and her justified action provided it. . . .
At the time I was humiliated; I thought my life was ruined. Today I know the truth: I would not be where I am today if Miss Greenstein hadn't had the courage and love to do what she did.
I say courage and love because that's exactly what it took. It took courage and love to look my parents in the eye and tell them - just as it takes courage and love to do the other things a school system must do if it wants to do what's best for its children. It takes courage and love to say to teachers, "You must put aside your adult concerns."
It takes courage and love to remove a teacher, secretary, or principal who has been a member of your team. It takes courage and love to say to a child, "You will not graduate unless your work improves." . . . Our school districts need this kind of courage and love because without them, we will never graduate children who are prepared to thrive in the competitive, knowledge-based world they will inherit. If we can't do what is difficult now, we subject them to far greater difficulties in the future. . . .
Ten philosophical shifts
After he started as superintendent, Stanford wrote, he learned from interviewing staffers that the Seattle district had a host of "philosophies" that he found troubling because they implied some students - poor or minority students - couldn't be expected to learn as well as others.
"The philosophies were not meant to be damaging; they were held by people who loved the children they worked with and labored with day and night to help them learn," Stanford said. "They were just part of the accepted culture, the result of years of work within a system that had too few resources to deal with increasingly difficult problems."
But the trouble with all these philosophies was that they got in the way of academic achievement! Expecting only middle-class children to achieve meant that thousands of minority children were allowed to fall through the cracks. Holding lower expectations for minority parents meant that those parents weren't encouraged to give their children the help they needed at home. Regarding sports and the arts as frills meant that thousands of children for whom those subjects were the only reason to come to school had no gateway to academic learning.
These philosophies were perpetuating the district's biggest problems; they were at the heart of its inconsistent behaviors. And as long as they were allowed to continue, they would undermine any effort to turn the district around.
Seattle's first step was to make ten philosophical shifts that would shape all of our thinking as we reengineered our schools.
Philosophical Shift No. 1: We would stop focusing on adults and begin focusing on children. Every action and every decision would be measured against a single inviolable yardstick: Is this in the best interest of children? Does this promote academic achievement?
Philosophical Shift No. 2: We would stop believing that some children would learn and start believing that all children would learn. No children, regardless of socioeconomic status, would be written off. We would expect every child to achieve, and every teacher to promote that achievement.
Philosophical Shift No. 3: We would stop believing that students alone were accountable for their performance and start holding students, teachers, principals, parents, and the community accountable. We would establish measurable goals for student achievement and hold everyone accountable for helping students meet them.
Philosophical Shift No. 4: We would stop believing that we could reach all students with our traditional curriculum and start diversifying our curriculum to meet all students' needs. We would expand our offerings in the arts, sports, sciences, technology, language, and careers in order to meet all students' needs and interests.
Philosophical Shift No. 5: We would stop abandoning teachers and start giving them total support. We would aggressively give teachers the support, training, and recognition they needed to achieve victory in the classroom.
Philosophical Shift No. 6: We would stop running schools bureaucratically and start running them entrepreneurially. We would give our schools control over their budgets, staffing, and instructional methods and expect them to compete in the marketplace through excellence.
Philosophical Shift No. 7: We would stop hiding from the media and begin seeing the media as our partner. Schools do a million things right every day. Because we needed the support of the public to do our job, we would work proactively with the media to get our positive stories out.
Philosophical Shift No. 8: We would stop embracing the status quo and start embracing change. We would stop offering programs that were not in the best interest of children even if eliminating those programs angered groups of constituents.
Philosophical Shift No. 9: We would stop serving children out of a sense of duty and start educating them out of a sense of love. We would love every child entrusted to our care, because children don't learn from adults who don't love them.
Philosophical Shift No. 10: We would not expect the public to support us because they ought to. We would make a concerted effort to build the public we needed. . . .
Focus on the goal
Back in 1960 when I was in ROTC flight training at Pennsylvania State University, I was thrilled about learning to fly. I couldn't wait for the day when I'd get my chance at the controls. Finally the day of my first flight came and, with the instructor at my side, I clumsily navigated the plane through the sky. My heart sank, however, when it was time to land the two-seat Cessna 150. I could see the runway far below me, a narrow line, impossibly small. How could I ever get back there? As if sensing my insecurity, the plane began to yaw.
The instructor said, "Keep it on the centerline, Stanford. Nose down, sixty knots, land on the runway numbers." He took the controls and showed me how. As we were taxiing to take off again, he looked me in the eyes and said, "Now, this is nothing but a machine. You control it; don't ever let it control you." Those were words to live by.
I've thought of the center line frequently since then; in every job it's helped me keep my focus. When crises or politics have begun to distract me from the vision, remembering the centerline has helped me steer my actions. For a school district, too, there is a centerline. Buses, roofs, contracts, boilers, and other adult issues may distract us. But if we can keep our eye on the centerline, our children will learn. . . .
Schools needs partners
Three years ago I had a vision of what our schools could become, and now, just three years later, they are starting to achieve that vision; they are truly becoming hubs of community-wide learning. But watching that progress is sparking new visions. Why should we limit our partnerships to businesses and nonprofit organizations? Why not partner with the city and county too?
Why, for instance, must schools and county mental-health organizations be mutually exclusive? Where is the need for mental-health services greater than among the teenage population?
Stress, peer pressure, and self-doubt are rampant; the risk of suicide is high. Yet most teens, seeking independence from their parents, have few, if any, stable sources of adult guidance. Why not place county mental-health facilities in our middle schools and high schools?
Why shouldn't schools be licensed by the county to administer nicotine patches? Most smoking starts during the teenage years. High schools already teach the dangers of smoking; some even offer cessation programs. Why not go a step farther and do something even more effective?
And why not partner with the county to fight teenage crime? Why not use students' driver's licenses, one of their most prized possessions, as a crime deterrent? Get caught with a weapon, in school or anywhere; get caught associating with a gang; get caught riding in a car that contains a weapon, and you lose your driver's license (or your chance to get a learner's permit) for at least a year.
Such partnerships raise a fundamental question: What is the role of school? Is it just to teach our children the reading, writing, and 'rithmetic skills they'll need to get a job? Or is it something larger? If our role is to help children achieve, to help them be the best they can possibly be, shouldn't we be concerned with their mental and physical health, and with their ability to harm themselves and others?
Some people complain that our public schools are trying to do too much, but I think just the the opposite. I think schools can do much more. We just need to expand the way we define our role - and then form partnerships with our communities in order to accomplish it. . . .
Stanford era begins
One Sunday morning, just after I'd arrived in Seattle, my wife, Pat, and I were strolling in the public market when we passed a newsstand. I glanced at the Sunday paper and the headline caught my eye. In big letters it announced STANFORD ERA BEGINS. One of our sons graduated from Stanford University, and reflexively I picked up the paper, expecting to see a story about the college. To my surprise, my picture was beneath the headline alongside a lengthy story about the schools.
"Look at this," I called to Pat, and handed her the paper. She looked it over, then gave it back to me. "Don't get excited," she said, "it's a slow news day."
"No," I told her, "it's not going to stop. This city cares about its children. That's our name in the paper, but the story is really about children."
From the book "Victory in Our Schools: We CAN Give Our Children Excellent Public Education," by Major General John Stanford. Copyright 1999 by John Stanford. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
------------------------------- This week in The Seattle Times: -------------------------------
Today: John Stanford's introduction to Seattle, the new philosophies that he brought to the district and his vision for the role of public schools.
Tomorrow: How Stanford created the reading campaign that became one of his most lasting legacies and his views on teachers - positive and negative.
Tuesday: Stanford faces the most difficult change he had to make as superintendent and reflects on the need for high academic expectations.
Wednesday: The role of love in the military . . . and in the schools and the importance of using different approaches for different children.
-------------------------------------------- Memorial Newspaper Section, Poster available --------------------------------------------
-- Copies of a special six-page section in memory of John Stanford published by The Seattle Times are available free from The Times' downtown office, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. The office is located at 1120 John St., Seattle. The section includes letters and messages from readers touched by Stanford, a timeline of his life, news coverage of his memorial service and a letter to Seattle from his family.
-- A poster version of the front page of that special section, including the letter from John Stanford's family, is also available free at the same location.