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Tuesday, October 28, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Susan Byrnes / Times editorial columnist
The accidental leader can't do it by himself


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The other day, newly appointed Seattle Schools Superintendent Raj Manhas paused during a tour of Beacon Hill Elementary School to meet Bernice Stern, an 87-year-old volunteer who was helping a small boy read aloud.

Stern had two words for the new schools chief: "Do good."

I could almost feel Seattle's parents, teachers, principals, business leaders, politicians, community leaders and students nodding along with me.

Yes, Mr. Manhas, please do some good.

There's so much riding on this man, this accidental superintendent we hardly know, a former banker with little education experience who was plucked from Seattle Public Utilities just two years ago by former Superintendent Joseph Olchefske. In June, after Olchefske resigned, Manhas suddenly found himself temporarily in charge of the district.

This month, after spending $56,000 to conduct a failed national search for an educator, the Seattle School Board appointed Manhas superintendent for one year. The decision felt surreal. Did they really pick a man with little education experience who had been under their noses all along?

But the choice is beginning to make sense.

I like Manhas. It's hard not to. He's intelligent, humble and kind-hearted. He looks you in the eye when he talks and isn't afraid to admit he doesn't have all the answers. He has a strong track record as a manager and a demonstrated ability to lead all kinds of people in both the private and public sectors. He has helped put the district back in the black after a wrenching $35 million financial fiasco.

I'm not worried about Manhas' lack of educational expertise. A background in education is clearly a bonus, but it is no guarantee of success in this business.

In his short time, Manhas has earned the respect of teachers, principals, parents and community leaders. He is not going to baby-sit the district. He understands the urgent need for change and he's committed to making it happen.

But the truth is, there's little Manhas can do by himself.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a big, strong, committed community to educate 47,000 children well. It takes teacher dedication and parent involvement. It takes business support and a deep understanding of the best educational practices to improve student achievement across racial and class lines. It takes community organizations and after-school programs teaming up to help all students succeed.

So far, no urban community in the country has come close to proving it can be done.

In many ways, urban superintendents are set up to fail. A study released this summer by the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education found that 90 percent of superintendents in the nation's largest urban districts believe they simply don't have enough authority to improve student achievement and fix bad schools. The study found micromanagement by school boards, demands from teachers' unions and pressures from other interest groups all make the job nearly impossible.

On top of all that, federal and state laws mandate improved student achievement but offer school systems scant support to make it happen.

A solid education is more important than ever, yet we are failing to provide that education to almost an entire generation of minority students. Our failings practically guarantee these young people are going to face a lifetime of hardship.

Giving every student in every Seattle neighborhood a personalized, top-notch education means hard work and hard choices. Yet, when superintendents push, they usually meet resistance.

A teachers' union president once told me: You can't reform schools over the dead bodies of teachers. I'd add parents, principals and community interest groups to that truism.

It's no wonder the average tenure of a big-city superintendent is only a few years. What's Manhas to do in just one?

This has been a tough time for Seattle schools. The financial scandal uncovered deep mistrust for the district and unleashed a torrent of finger-pointing and name-calling.

The botched search for a new superintendent helped keep the negativity alive.

Manhas is no superhero. But if we let him, he can move us past the blame games and put us on a track to better schools. That is, if the adults in this city stop acting like children and start acting for children. All children, not just their own.

Susan Byrnes column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is sbyrnes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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