The on-hold "music" at the Durham County Superintendent's office is a pre-recorded list of events parents should know about, like kindergarten open houses and magnet-school meetings. Is it southern hospitality, or one more way for Ann T. Denlinger, superintendent of Durham's Public Schools, to keep parents in-the-loop about their kids' school system? Likely the latter. After all, the district's responsibility is to put kids first ... but Denlinger says it wasn't always that way.
"It's absolutely critical that everyone be held accountable for improving student performance, whether it's the bus driver, a maintenance person, teachers or superintendent."
Central responsibility: "It's been a challenge to help people understand that our responsibility is to keep students and their needs at the center of decision making," says Denlinger of her tenure in Durham, which is up at the end of the school year.
A new era: Before her arrival, people were doing good things, but there was no focus or measurable scale of improvement. To begin a new era, she put teachers to task in 2002. After a six-month review of five years' of data, she asked for a feasible date by when they believed urban Durham's drastic achievement gap could be eliminated.
Reaching the goal: In a series of public forums, Denlinger announced that by 2007, 95 percent of students would read at their grade level. That was a far cry from 1997, when the district was in the 50s, and one school had only 12 percent of its fifth graders reading at-level.
No need for worry: "There's no blame game, or making excuses" she says if the district doesn't hit its self-imposed goal of eliminating its achievement gap by 2007, although it is on track to reach its goal.
Media backlash? No way. Says Denlinger, "I think most people admire and appreciate" what the district is trying to accomplish. I had a fellow superintendent [use the word] 'moxie.' They could criticize us if we weren't trying. But we're giving it our best shot."
They thought she was crazy: "In the beginning, a significant number of people were saying, 'Right (laugh): She's just saying this with some other motivation, because we're not going to accomplish that and we all know it.' I could see it in their eyes! But I was absolutely convinced [with] a clear measurable goal we'd make more progress than in the absence of a goal."
Then they believed: It didn't take people long to see that re-organizing the central staff, using money differently, changing the schedules at the middle and high schools and focusing on early literacy were all ways Durham was going to up its test scores, for real. Says Denlinger, "We've seen support of the community increase tremendously."
Half is better than nothing: Since 1997, the bulk of Durham's schools are now above the 95 percent reading level, and two schools are at 100 percent.
How she's done it: "I see my role as a person whose responsibility is to get the best information from everyone," says Denlinger of her work style. "I solicit advice from my staff before making major decisions: I think it's been a very good thing for our school district. I've worked with some very smart people here. ... I've had the benefit of their thinking."
Fond thoughts of compliments: "When I was a principal, my teachers would always refer to me as a 'teacher's principal.' Now that I'm a superintendent, the principals refer to me as a 'principal's superintendent.'
High praise: Three years ago one of her teachers was interviewed about Denlinger for a local paper. One comment has stayed with her since: "Dr. Denlinger teaches us, the principals, and we teach the teachers; and the teachers teach the students." "What that principal was saying was she viewed me as the lead teacher, and in my heart-of-hearts, I'm a teacher," says Denlinger. "It was the most wonderful compliment."
Jennifer Esposito is a freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.