Everything Percy A. Mack needed to know he learned in kindergarten. Well, almost: It was actually his first-grade teacher, Mrs. Harris, who helped young Mack overcome reading struggles that let him catch up to his classmates and learn the importance of perseverance.
Those lessons weren't far from the ones Mack gleaned growing up in Savannah, Ga. In a tight-knit community that churched, schooled and collectively raised the kids on the block, he learned the importance of a strong work ethic and the value of a good education. A graduate of Savannah public schools, Mack has spent his life working toward the success of the urban school system. At past urban outposts, he started programs like the "4.0 GPA Academic Letter Sweater," a 1950s-sounding initiative that took the school-is-cool theory and applied it to clothing for grades (A's only, of course).
Although he's always worked at urban schools, he's seen the greatest climb up the urban education ladder in his current job. "Our kids really have struggled academically," he says. "A lot of it comes from poverty. But kids can still do very, very well."
Under his guidance, they are.
Dayton, then: "In 2001, no one was really with us," says Mack, who that year was named deputy superintendent. The district needed direction for raising achievement in literacy and mathematics, improving student conduct and reducing truancy. More important, it needed civic cooperation to accomplish all of the above.
Dayton, now: Truancy teams scour neighborhoods to bring skippers back to school, and at 90 percent, attendance is at a 10-year high. In his first three years as superintendent, Mack's plan to improve literacy sparked an increase in third-grade reading scores at a rate that was 31 percent faster than the state average. Grade-four performances on the same test have increased 12 percent. From having two Gates Scholar students (only 1,000 students in the country receive the accolade) to its Early College Academy-where at-risk students take both high school and college courses-Dayton is setting the standard for urban renewal.
Dayton, how? "It takes everybody," says Mack, from parents to the faith community. Improved delivery of instruction, a new student code of conduct, focused professional development and a range of specialized schools have helped Dayton live up to its renewed focus on "academic achievement for all students."
Fait accompli: Mack led the district in the passage of a November 2002 bond issue funding the local share of a $630 million project to rebuild or renovate 34 neighborhood schools. The issue was approved by an unprecedented margin: 64 percent of district voters. The renovations will be complete by 2012.
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing editor.