International: military man takes on problem city

29th November 1996 at 00:00
John Stanford chops up his time with his hands, like the military man he is. Five minutes of talk, then we are out to his white Grand Cherokee Jeep to plunge into the Seattle school system.

An 8.30am school visit, a 9am inauguration of a fund for children of gay and lesbian parents, a 10.30am school visit, an 11am reading, a 12 noon student assignment meeting. The busiest man in Seattle, his staff call him, and they furnish him with printed itineraries, directions and maps on his daily reconnaissance of the schools he now runs.

It is more than a year since Mr Stanford, who has a 30-year military career, capped as a Major-General involved in planning the logistics of the Gulf War, but with no experience in education, started the job of rebuilding Seattle's 100-odd public schools. But he has all the enthusiasm and vitality of a new recruit.

His appointment seems to mark an increasing faith in the military in American public life. Washington, DC recently followed Seattle's lead in appointing another former general to lead its own troubled schools.

Mr Stanford, 57, was hired on a $175,000 (o115,000) salary to shake up a bureaucracy handling 46,000 pupils and struggling with a 15 per cent drop-out rate, constant funding shortages, painfully bad test scores and a worrying level of violence. On leaving the military, he had worked as a county executive in Atlanta, Georgia.

He has responded with a raft of ideas and changes: reintroducing school uniforms; quarterly reports from teachers on each child; moving one-third of the headteachers in order to put the best in the most challenging jobs.

He can boast at least some progress: after a period in which one-third of Seattle parents sent their children away to church or private schools, public school enrolment has begun to recover.

"We don't call him the General," his public relations officer says. But plain Mr Stanford is often compared to General Colin Powell, particularly as he is black, though like Powell he avoids any appeal to race.

Asked what bond he feels with Seattle's minority students, who, in an overwhelmingly white city, account for more than half of the public school population, he says his concern is for all the students. Asked if he ever faced any discrimination, he answers with a flat "no", which means end of discussion.

Mr Stanford tells reporters he does not read his own press clippings. His staff, however, provide a small book of them - about 150 photocopied pages from the last year alone - and many are almost adulatory in tone. This year he was given a prime speaking slot at the Democratic Party's national convention, where he announced "a good education is the best defence for our children".

There are a few whispers that Mr Stanford's honeymoon period is coming to an end. His management style is to fire out solutions and ideas, promising to slay sacred cows and give "world-class leadership". However, some off-the-cuff proposals have backfired, like report cards on parents and offering nicotine patches to kick the habit of teenage smokers. His tenure is approaching the stage when people are beginning to demand results.

"I understand that leadership takes its power from the lead, that I don't have all the ideas, all the answers," he said, weaving through the traffic.

"My leadership technique is to take an idea, throw it out there, try for the right answer to the problem as I see it. I don't do the analysis paralysis. I just decide and I do it."

One thing is for sure: Mr Stanford has already brought a little star power to the schools and some good public relations in its battles for more funding from the state.

Children greet him in the playgrounds with "Hi, John Stanford" and one elementary school girl asked for his autograph.

Seattle has learned the value of someone who, amazingly, has made the job of school superintendent sexy. He has occasionally landed at schools in a military helicopter and he has enlisted corporate sponsors from Boeing to McDonald's.

"Love 'em and lead 'em" is the motto on a brass plaque on his receptionist's desk.

In promising radical reform, Mr Stanford is blessed with a state - Washington - and particularly a city - Seattle - that prides itself on tolerance, innovation, left-of-centre politics and an almost proletarian chic.

His new financial management system, for example, promises that dollars will follow students, not based on simple numbers but linked to the degree of social and economic disadvantage pupils suffer, which is measured by bilingualism (ie the children of recent immigrants), those eligible for free lunches from the state, and disabilities.

The pride of his first year is the Meany Middle School. With 76 per cent of its children from minority groups, the school was notorious as a place where achievement by most measures "had been failing", he said.

Mr Stanford closed it down, then reopened it as a top-grade "magnet school", where he promised a laptop for every new pupil (something, however, he has not yet managed to deliver).

Existing teachers had to reapply for their jobs to his new hand-picked principal. Only 12 of 31 staff made the cut. His promise to close schools if necessary has been one of his most controversial policies, and so far Meany is the only example.

But he warned: "I may have to do it again."

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