Reginald Mayo can barely find time to breathe. He's busy overseeing a $1.1 billion school construction program, steering through the growing pains of a pre-K initiative and building Connecticut's largest inter-district magnet program. Yet, once a month, this superintendent trots into the cafeteria to share a sandwich and woes with grandparents raising youths today--"a lonely, lonely group of people," he says.
They bend his ear about family custody lawsuits, baffling behavior issues and more. He knows he can't fix 99 percent of their problems. "But at least they have someone to listen," he says.
The forum is vintage Mayo, assures Peggy Moore, principal of Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School and vice president of the School Administrators' Union. As a former district parent, Moore recalls that Mayo's home number was listed in the phone book.
A Fierce Nurturer
In the beginning, that home was in the projects of Richmond, Virg. But a 13-year-old Reggie was caught gambling and the manager evicted his family.
His mistake was a saving grace: Mom took a cleaning job that scraped in enough for digs in a middle-class area.
But even attending a better school wasn't an instant boon, since Mayo was not a test-taking whiz. "I succeeded because people told me I could. I didn't have a lot of barriers saying, 'You're a failure, you're dumb,' " he notes. That can-do attitude seeped into his bones, and, coupled with a hard work ethic, got him through college.
He graduated with dreams of entrepreneurial riches--but no assets. "So I did something I said I'd never do: substitute teach," his story goes. "You don't have the patience for it, Reggie Mayo."
He was wrong. Before long, he was teaching science full-time in New Haven while working a night job for 18 months to get ahead financially.
He set his sights on administration, and by 1992 he had earned the top post in the district. Along the way, he learned to tell a good story, often referring to himself in third person.
Perhaps it's a defense mechanism to blunt the sting of criticism when he strays from the script. For instance, he dove into pre-K before it was fashionable. When he told a state leader of intentions to use Title 1 dollars for a Head Start program, the response was, "Are you crazy? You have enough to do with K-12." But Mayo knew he had to give disadvantaged children a chance. Today, even infants and toddlers have a place in New Haven's schools.
No Child Left Behind has most recently fired Mayo's protective ire. "If you say anything against [it], people say, 'That guy has low expectations, he doesn't believe in kids' potential.' That's crap. I do believe that. But I also know [that] ... relying on only one test measurement is far too negative when you also need a work ethic, common sense, the ability to get along with others to succeed in life. Think about how [NCLB] would have affected a Reggie Mayo," he says.
When an activist group urged him to publicly favor NCLB, he balked. Not even an "it's good for minorities, so let's stand behind it" guilt trip swayed him.
"He's tenacious," notes Mayor John DeStefano. "Leadership doesn't result from a title. People watch their leaders very closely to see if what they do matches what they say. Dr. Mayo doesn't pretend to be anything other than what he is--someone who cares about the district and takes responsibility for it."
The accolades for this attitude, including being named a national finalist for AASA's 2004 Superintendent of the Year honor, are piling up for Mayo.
But his agenda isn't to rack up plaques. Yes, he could track the classroom impact of his grandparents forum, for instance, but he waves off the notion. "My main thing was getting these people to feel they could cope ... for another month, then come back and get rejuvenated," he says. "That's all I was interested in doing."
Julie Sturgeon is a Greenwood, Ind.-based freelance writer.