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An Interim to Save the Day?

How many times is it that the guy who isn't campaigning, doesn't want the job, and must be drafted, is the one who saves the day?

Will it turn out this way at the beleaguered City School District, long afflicted with one superstar superintendent after another? Maybe.

Manny Rivera, recruited from somewhere-or-other out of town, serving his second gig in Rochester, landed a better job as Boston's superintendent of schools. Boston is bigger than Rochester, and students need more work, since they talk funny over there, like the Kennedys. Only, before Rivera could take the reigns, he found a still better job, as education czar with Governor Spitzer. So Boston is scrounging for a new chief, just like Rochester.

Meanwhile, while scrounging, they have to have someone to preside. So they turned to Bill Cala. Cala just retired from the neighboring affluent Fairport school district, with plans move to Kenya and work in education there. That's the kind of guy he is. But while he's getting his plans firmed up, maybe he will come and hold down the fort at the City School District, until they find another superstar. Yes, Bill says, he will. So he is the interim superintendent.

Did they figure he would be merely a low-key-preserve-the-status-quo guy? That's not him, as Tim Louis Macaluso reported in City Newspaper. A few weeks on the job, and Cala charitably says: "This district isn't organized like any I have ever seen." No, it isn't. We've long suspected it. Each year they demand more money. Each year they show poorer results. When incoming mayor Pete Duffy asked for operational facts and figures (seeking accountability, since the city has to fund the schools) they absolutely bristled. And stonewalled. They didn't tell him anything other than "keep that money coming."

So Cala aims to make changes. "My biggest concern, the reason this is necessary," he says, "is we are not focused on kids. And that's the only reason we're here. There's no other reason to come in through those front doors." School 45 Principal Vicky Gouveia agrees that "the system was working to favor the needs of adults, not children."

Several weeks ago, we learned that the City School Districts graduation ratelast year was 39%. Yet the then-superintendent was named National Superintendent of the Year for 2006! Doesn't that say it all? And, alas, it suggests that it's not just local administrators who've yet to focus on kids instead of adults.

(Incidentally, the Democrat and Chronicle recently reported that this fellow's predecessor, another superstar, was just sacked from his moving-on-up assignment, the Washington DC. School District.)

"I can tell you right now that I'm looking at a leaner organization," Cala says. "Right now, there is no one in charge of curriculum and instruction, which is astonishing to me. It is divided up among many people.....what is most problematic is seeing how there can be two separate lines of communication about kids, with information that isn't shared. [!] People are working in their own separate silos, and that's got to change."

Each decision he makes, he says, he puts through a simple screening process: "How does this help the kids? If I do this, does it help them? Is it neutral? Or does it hinder them? That's all that really matters, and I want everyone here to use the same set of guidelines. What am I doing? What am I spending my time on that helps kids?" How can you not like this guy? Surely the man must know how to speak educatese, but there's no sign of it here.

Most do like him, but a few don't. One critic from the school board association points out that big city school districts are "incredibly complex." Maybe Cala, from the bucolic suburbs, doesn't realize that. But, in general, you should watch out for people who carry on about things being "incredibly complex." What you look for is someone who can simplify them.

Not everyone thinks Cala should be making structural changes. He's only the interim super, after all. Let the permanent super make the changes. Cala's unimpressed. He'll be doing the next guy a big favor. "It will make the job more attractive. I know that I wouldn't want to walk into this. Besides, I am addressing the problem in phases. I have 27 years of experience. I know how educational systems should work, and I know what's best for kids."

So maybe, just maybe, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it is not an oncoming train. Most likely the district, wowed as usual by theories instead of results, will again hire some overpriced clod who speaks fluent educatese, but at least he will inherit less of a mess than he would have before.



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