- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 1999

NEW ORLEANS - It's hard to say which is more extreme: the problem with the New Orleans public schools, or the current solution.

The problem: The 82,000-student, 121-school system is easily one of the worst in the nation.

More than half the elementary and secondary schools failed a new state performance review, and most of the rest received "below average." The school buildings look like they could be in a developing nation the toilets are clogged, the windows are broken, the paint is peeling. Many lack air conditioning a necessity, not a luxury, in New Orleans.

Truancy and tardiness are such a problem that one principal took to locking the school doors after the first morning bell rang.

The solution: After more than two years without permanent leadership, the Orleans Parish School Board last summer hired a retired Marine Corps colonel to head up the troubled system. Col. Al Davis is the first noneducator to become superintendent of a Louisiana school system, and one of just a few around the country.

"I was thinking outside the box when I applied for this job," said Col. Davis, who served 27 years in the Marines. "And the board thought outside the box when they hired me."

The state changed its certification requirements to allow the school board to hire Col. Davis who, at the end, was the only candidate after the other finalist dropped out. Because he is not an educator, Col. Davis calls himself the "CEO," not the superintendent.

In recent years, several urban school districts in crises have turned to nontraditional leaders. Military officers, lawyers and former government officials are running systems in Chicago, Milwaukee, San Diego and Philadelphia, to name a few.

An Air Force major general runs the schools in Jacksonville, Fla. John Stanford, former Fulton County, Ga., manager and before that, an Army major general, left Atlanta to run the Seattle schools in 1995. He died in 1998.

"Hiring noneducators is a minor trend, not a trend sweeping the nation," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the D.C.-based Council of Great City Schools. "But once you sit in that [superintendent's] chair, it doesn't matter where you came from. The little bit of history suggests nontraditional superintendents aren't any more or less successful."

Col. Davis, 49, seems to have won over the few critics he had when he was first hired. He combines a goal-oriented, military approach with a soft heart. He calls himself a "missionary for children," and says he has "wept" over the deplorable condition of the schools. He promised to go without air conditioning in his office as long as schools under his watch don't have it.

Donna Contois, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Col. Davis has helped restore enthusiasm for fixing the system.

"Colonel Davis has already increased the demand for higher standards in this community," she said. "I've always said, any school is only as good as a community demands that it be."

Tonette Sylvester, whose 11-year-old goes to Mildred Osborne School, said parents seem more willing to get involved in the schools now that Col. Davis has taken the reins.

"The support is there now," she said. "Teachers and parents have more hope."

While he is an outsider to education, Col. Davis is a New Orleans native and a product of the schools here.

On a recent morning, Col. Davis visited Clark Senior High School in uptown New Orleans to meet with his student advisory committee. Col. Davis finds time every day to visit a school, often unannounced. The rundown building, armed with a metal detector, saddened him: This was where he attended middle school. When he was here, in the early 1960s, the building was brand new and violence was not an issue.

"Our schools are 12 years older than the national average," he said, noting it will take $1 billion to fix the problems.

"We have let you down," Col. Davis told the students.

The juniors and seniors hand-picked by their peers to represent them on the advisory board were reserved and polite when asked to be positive and point out things that were working in their schools. But when told they could talk about problems, every hand shot up and the room became animated.

Col. Davis asked them to comment on violence. A.D. Berry, a senior at Frederick Douglass Senior High School, said security guards are no help when a fight breaks out.

"The guards let them fight," he said. "They say, 'I don't want to be caught up in that.' "

Col. Davis walked out to the street and looked back at his old school.

"This is my hometown," he said, getting into a car with an armed driver. "This system was one everyone was proud of. But over the last 20 years, we have abandoned it."

The state's new standard of accountability the current buzzword in education reform has focused attention on just how bad things have gotten. Schools are graded based on scores from state and national standardized tests and on attendance and dropout rates. The first results, for elementary and secondary schools, were a blow for New Orleans. Fifty of the 57 Louisiana schools that failed the test were in New Orleans. They will face closure in a few years if they do not improve.

Of the 103 elementary and middle schools in the city, only 12 were rated as above average. Forty-one were rated below average, and none made it into the two highest categories. High schools are being evaluated now and those results will be released next fall.

"Orleans schools are very poorly performing, but it's partly because they've gone years without a director," said Leslie Jacobs, a state education board member who is credited with spurring the reform movement in the state's schools. "The New Orleans schools could definitely compete with any school system as being the worst in the nation."

Mr. Casserly agreed.

"The system has a long way to go," he said. "Davis has got some major challenges ahead of him. That is a school district that has not seen the improvements many others have seen in the last few years."

Another blow could come this spring, when fourth- and eighth-graders statewide take the LEAP 21 test, a so-called "high-stakes" yardstick similar to tests being given in a few other states around the country. Those who fail will not advance to the next grade unless they attend and pass summer school.

Col. Davis is so concerned about his students' passing that he has called on the whole community to get involved. He held a volunteer rally in November to encourage citizens to sign up to tutor students. More than 1,300 people showed up, and another 600 have called wanting to volunteer.

Col. Davis has won a lot of praise by continually involving the city in his efforts to improve the schools.

Col. Davis' popularity makes him uncomfortable. He says he can't change the system alone, and he resists being called a hero. He's been known to say, "I'm not a messiah."

"When kids ask for my autograph, I don't give it to them," he said. "I say, 'Sign your own autograph. Be your own hero.' "

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