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New public schools chief invites parent involvement

(Published July 17, 2000)


Staff Writer

New Superintendent Paul L. Vance, coming out of retirement to lead D.C. Public Schools, speaks assertively about what he expects to accomplish and wants parents to know they will be expected to work with him to turn the city’s schools into exemplary learning institutions for their children.

"You don’t just say you’re making outreach to parents and parents are partners – what does that mean?" Vance said, ridiculing the platitudes often spewed by educators.

"Parents are stakeholders and they need to know that they’re vested in the decision-making and the decision-making doesn’t go forward unless they’re a major part of that," he said, punctuating his words with decisive hand gestures.

During a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with The Common Denominator conducted within days after he was named July 5 by the D.C. financial control board to take over for departing Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, Vance made clear that he intends to take a no-nonsense approach to running the District’s 70,000-student school system.

Vance, 69, retired last year after eight years of running the suburban Montgomery County, Md., public school district at what he then thought was the end of a 47-year career

(See VANCE, page 6)

as a public school educator. Many of those years were spent teaching mathematics, science or social studies and serving about 10 years as a principal at all grade levels, all in his native Pennsylvania, before moving on to become a deputy superintendent in Baltimore. The affable Vance was enticed out of retirement to lead D.C. Public Schools on an interim basis while a new permanent superintendent is sought.

During a press conference announcing his appointment, Vance said he prefers to exclude the term "interim" from his title but he intends to remain in the job no longer than two years and will not be a candidate for long-term appointment. Vance was recommended to the control board by both the elected school board and the control board’s appointed education advisers. He assumes full authority July 17.

Vance said he wants D.C. parents to know "foremost and above my responsibilities as superintendent, I’m a parent and a father and I’ve gone the route with three children – one 22, another 20 and one 17."

Vance’s daughter Lindsay will be a high school senior in the fall and has already been accepted to attend New York University after she graduates.

"I know how important school is and schooling is. I know how important a great education is for them and their future, and I intend for that (thought) to be my preoccupation and my conversation and my deliberation with the leaders of the various levels of governance," he said.

The new superintendent said he does not expect to have the same difficulties dealing with the District’s unique, multiple levels of government about which Ackerman complained – largely because of his many years of experience dealing with various government officials. Among his numerous career highlights, the highly respected Vance was selected by Maryland’s governor in 1998 to chair a state task force on the implementation of charter schools. Unlike the District, which leads the country in the number of charter schools operating, Maryland has not implemented a law allowing them to exist.

Vance acknowledged his initial public discussion of charter schools in the District came before he was aware that the city’s public school superintendent has no role or authority in relation to the public charter schools.

"I felt that I was compelled to find out to what extent comparable (to the public schools)…curriculum was being implemented, what curriculum, what was happening as a consequence of that, how well the children were or were not learning (in the charter schools)," he said.

"Then I was informed that the superintendent had no standing in matters of that nature, but it seems as though we (at DCPS) have the assessment resources of the curriculum department, of an accountability department, of academic department heads, and we have an active and growing information technology system here – why replicate that (in the charter schools)? Why duplicate that?"

Vance said he does not intend "to continue to engage in the polemic philosophical discussions about charter schools (because) they’re reality…I think we have to move from there, and the other factor that is important to me is that those are still our children and I have to be as equally concerned about them as I am about those who are under the jurisdiction of the public school system."

Having been an educator and an outside suburban observer of the D.C. schools for so many years, Vance acknowledged mild amusement over the District’s preoccupation with getting school years to open on time — something he has always considered to be a routine matter.

"School systems normally run well," he said. "I’ve never known there to be so much hullabaloo over the opening of schools. Schools close (for the summer), schools repair themselves while they’re closed, schools reopen and youngsters come to school and on the first day of school it’s as if school never ended. And looking at that, I’m fascinated with why that hasn’t happened (in the District) in the past."

Vance characterized solving D.C. Public Schools problems as needing "to peel away all the layers of that onion and find out why" the problems haven’t been corrected over the years. He acknowledged that the schools are needing to create "a quick fix" for many problems, but he talked of "institutionalizing solutions."

Among major problems Vance mentioned must be dealt with on a priority basis are the cleanliness of schools, student busing problems, and the question of ensuring the safety and palatability of food being served to students.

"Once you fix it, it has to stay fixed and that’s where the quality of your staff comes in," he said. "And I just think that’s easy to remedy if they can’t do it. They (must) work acceptable.

"We can’t ever go back. I mean, we can’t ever go back even one day."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator