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Basic Training

`Children First!' is the rallying cry in General Becton's campaign to remake the D.C. schools. But there are times when the system he inherited won't allow it

By Peter Perl and Debbi Wilgoren
The Washington Post Magazine, May 11, 1997

The concept seemed simple and, for the D.C. public schools, unprecedented: Workers should be able to account for their time on the job. From now on, all 2,000 custodians, security guards, building engineers and cafeteria employees would have to report what they did. Every week, in writing, on a basic one-page form.

After former U.S. Army Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr. took command of the city's schools last November, he vowed to get rid of those workers who had "retired in place." By February one of his deputies, former U.S. Army Gen. Charles E. Williams, had come up with the Daily Accountability and Performance Report.

As they did every Friday, Williams's key staffers assembled at precisely 9:45 a.m. in a ninth-floor conference room in school headquarters for their progress report on efforts to rebuild the system's decrepit infrastructure and ineffectual bureaucracy.

Williams, as chief operating officer, had encouraged each of his divisions to adopt mottoes to build esprit de corps and to reinforce Becton's overarching theme for remaking the District schools: "Children First!" As the squad leaders -- including four newly hired career Army officers -- reported to Williams, they began this way:

"Good morning, sir. Our motto in security is: Security is everybody's business . . ."

"Morning, sir. My motto is to prepare facilities to put children first . . ."

"Good morning . . . Our motto in administrative services is: A total commitment to keeping the children first."

Betty Wiggins, the chief of food service, looked down at the motto she'd typed out: "Working action plans will allow us to put children first." But she spontaneously bagged it for something snappier. "Our motto is: Feeding the future by putting children first." General Williams, as most people address him, smiled.

He is a short, compact, intense man of 58 with a background in engineering. He piloted a helicopter in Vietnam, rose through the ranks to regional command of the Corps of Engineers and, after retiring from the military, ran the $4 billion New York City School Construction Authority. At this late-February meeting, he was particularly eager to hear about the first weeks of Daily Accountability.

Everyone agreed that it was a good idea. Wiggins, though, reported that she was having her managers fill out the forms rather than her nearly 600 workers, as intended. Williams looked at her quizzically.

"I have folks who cannot read," she said. ". . . I have mentally retarded people and people who just can't read and write."

Williams recoiled slightly. "We have people who can't read?"

"Yes, sir."

"How do they know if they are putting salt or pepper in something?"

Wiggins frowned and shook her head.

"We also have the same situation with custodial people and engineering," said Harold Johnson, chief of maintenance and facilities. "They cannot read, and they have problems writing."

"They cannot read?" Williams looked stunned.

"Yes, sir," Wiggins and Johnson answered. Others at the table nodded.

Williams spoke firmly. "I have as big a heart as anyone, but we are not running a training factory here . . . I have to have the names, and we have to do something."

Wiggins explained that she had as many as 17 retarded people on the payroll, including some "who sit and don't do anything."

"Betty," Williams said, "that was a government dump, and we can't operate a program that way anymore."

Williams clearly was shaken, but characteristically positive. "This shows the value of the accountability report," he declared. "This is good news. This is how an accountability system works."

Afterward, his managers would estimate that one-tenth to one-quarter of the support staff was illiterate. They would adapt the new system to account for this.

Only later would Williams have a chance to reflect on the fact that most of these functionally illiterate adults were a product of the school system he and Becton had pledged to fix.

The takeover of the District of Columbia public schools was a dramatic act -- a coup of sorts.

Six months ago, the D.C. financial control board declared a "state of emergency" in the schools, fired Superintendent Franklin L. Smith and stripped the elected Board of Education of virtually all its powers. In their place, the control board installed a chief executive officer and a nine-member transitional board of trustees.

Just like that, the control board shattered a power structure that had been failing for years -- a system in which administrators had diverted money from schools to a bloated central office, principals had been pressured to hire cronies and relatives of school board members and other city officials, and teachers had faced no more accountability than the students to whom they had given unearned promotions.

Rebuilding such a system would take time: For each of the headline-making displacements and replacements, there would have to be countless incremental changes in the way the schools operated, changes that added up to nothing less than a cultural revolution. For that mission, the control board chose Becton.

He is a man suited to emergencies: Career Army, combat veteran of three wars, Becton at 70 is a calm yet restless man who has retired and unretired three times. In the 1980s, the three-star general left the military after 36 years, only to take over the scandal-racked Federal Emergency Management Agency. After a solid tenure at FEMA, he retired again -- until he was asked to take charge of foundering Prairie View A&M University in Texas, his alma mater, which was suffering many of the failures the District's schools now face. After five years, he was widely credited with improving the school's academic and financial status.

Becton, the son of a janitor who never made it past third grade, attended top public schools along Philadelphia's Main Line because his family lived in an apartment building his father cleaned. He sent all five of his own children to District public schools when he was stationed here in the 1960s. And, as he told a Black History Month assembly at a middle school in February:

"I have ridden in the back of that bus, and I have sat at that segregated lunch counter, and I have traveled many miles with my family looking to buy gas and to use the restroom . . . and I was taught that if we got that education, you can never lose it. Let me say that again: If we got that education, you can never lose it."

As soon as he took the job, Becton issued his pledge to put "Children First!" He also began to discover just how complicated that would be:

The school system's aging inventory of more than 200 buildings needed as much as $2 billion worth of overdue repairs and had nearly 9,000 backlogged work orders. The personnel department could not even locate all of its 10,000 or so employees, some of whom were nonexistent or dead. The finance system had kept two sets of books, hid a growing deficit, secretly shifted funds among accounts and left at least $6 million worth of bills unpaid.

Thirty-five "acting" principals held on to their jobs without ever having gone through the legally required competitive selection process. An estimated 32 percent of teachers were uncertified in their subjects. Teachers were held to such low standards that only 16 among some 4,500 were rated unsatisfactory last year.

About 70 percent of high school juniors tested below grade level. The dropout rate was 40 percent, by some estimates. Standardized test scores were among the worst of U.S. cities -- and declining. And the longer students stayed in District schools, the further their scores lagged.

From his 12th-floor command post in a downtown headquarters off Pennsylvania Avenue, Becton set out to remake the system.

He imposed a new corporate structure, modeled in part on the 1995 Chicago school takeover, with chief officers for academics, operations, finances and human resources. A militaristic chain of command took effect. More than 40 administrators -- and more than 140 other employees -- were removed. Conversations were peppered with new acronyms -- indeed, a whole new language that bespoke discipline, organization and unswerving dedication to children. Becton was putting in 12-hour days that included frequent and sometimes stormy public appearances.

In his first six months, Becton says, he was pleasantly surprised to find more good people in the system than its reputation suggested. "All they need is a little Leadership 101," he says.

The system, however, kept throwing up other surprises as well -- diversions from Becton's initial assault. Fire code violations sparked a new round of court-ordered school closings. Stabbings and fights erupted at one high school, then another, and at a junior high. Teachers walked out at Anacostia High to protest a colleague's arrest after a confrontation with a student. At an elementary school in Southeast, nine unsupervised fourth-graders were involved in a sexual episode, and a teacher was arrested on charges that he had made sexual advances to a 14-year-old student. On top of those crises, many students and parents greeted with anger and suspicion Becton's plans to close up to 16 schools, including some of the city's best.

Becton cautions that he is a manager, not an educator, and that educational reform takes years. The handful of American cities that have had takeovers or consolidations of school systems in recent years -- Cleveland, Chicago, Newark, Jersey City -- may have improved their administrative systems, but they are still awaiting demonstrable academic progress. Despite these and other efforts at education reform, there is no national consensus on what works.

In Washington, the promise of reform has raised expectations. Some people are seemingly frantic to stop the decline. Others -- supporters of a democratically controlled school system -- are angered by the takeover and by the mostly closed-door proceedings of the emergency trustees. But even some residents who backed the takeover are losing faith.

Their reaction suggests one of the most pressing complications underlying this revolution: Its leading general is a creature of the control board, which is a creation of Congress. Becton's powers are sweeping, and he answers to no elected officials. He has pledged to hand a new school system back to the elected school board and a new superintendent by June 30, 2000.

"If they don't succeed, I don't know where we go next," says Mary Levy, a longtime school-activist lawyer. "We have tried democracy, and now it is dictatorship. If dictatorship doesn't work, then what?"

The heckler was waiting.

"I am optimistic. Optimistic because the D.C. community is interested in schools," Becton declared in a robust baritone that filled the auditorium where 175 members of the Chevy Chase Citizens Association had crowded. When he preaches about schools, Becton has a commanding, bottomless voice, a voice like the Lord's in a biblical movie. He slices the air with his large hands for emphasis.

"Our employees are beginning to respond," he said. He had recently canceled a wasteful $14 million janitorial management contract, entered into an improved food service arrangement through the Department of Defense, and, that very day, hired a new director of special education and talked with federal officials about restoring a $17 million science grant terminated a year ago because of the school system's incompetence.

Becton was just beginning to beseech the good citizens to volunteer as helpers and mentors when the heckler shrieked: "Fix the boiler!"

Becton appeared startled, particularly because the jeer came from a proper-looking gray-haired man in the second row. Becton continued to outline the demand for tutors, computer assistance and countless other needs at schools across the city, including nearby Lafayette Elementary.

"And they need a boiler that works, too!" the old man yelled.

"Okay! We'll talk about it!" Becton shouted, his face hawk-like. But he refused to change the subject just yet -- to give in to what his team would call an "ankle-biter," which is their term for the naysayers, the citizens who have been burned by the system's failures and will not yet hazard any confidence in its fifth superintendent in 15 years.

He stressed to the overwhelmingly white Ward 3 crowd that he was committed to improving schools citywide, so that Rock Creek Park would no longer represent a "barrier" to quality between east and west. All children, he said, quoting the author Graham Greene, encounter "a moment in childhood when a door opens" to learning, and the system must be ready to serve all equally.

A mother from Woodrow Wilson High School stood to say that the PTA recently had laid out $10,000 to pay four teachers who were inexplicably not getting paychecks and $5,000 to pay for the school's photocopying. Near tears, she sought Becton's assurance that teaching staff would not be cut. "I don't want sweet talk," she said. "I want details."

Becton conceded that school payroll and finances were a mess and vowed that they would be fixed, with more resources going to classrooms. He noted that the superintendent's staff already had been cut by 40 percent. But to solve fundamental problems would take money, he said. "We need relief."

"That's why you're here!" the old man shouted. "To give us relief."

Becton assured them that academic experts were working to revise curricula, draft new guidelines for teacher and principal evaluations, and tighten standards to eliminate social promotions and graduations.

"How long will all this take?" someone asked. "Are we talking five years? Ten years?"

"No! No!" Becton answered. "I am 70. I am not going to be around here five years. I hope to see changes in things you can feel and touch. I don't know when we will see changes in test scores."

The heckler had had it. "General!" he thundered. "Will you go personally and inspect the boiler? I want to know! Will you come out there?"

"No, I will not! No!" Becton thundered back. "But I know who will go! Another general, who works for me . . . and if Chuck Williams says the boiler will be fixed, it will be fixed."

There was a murmur in the crowd at his mention of "another general." True, Becton had recruited no fewer than six career military officers for his staff, but now he sought to reassure his audience: "Please don't be fretful because we have military people working for us . . . There are only two prerequisites for my team -- unwavering commitment and ability."

Becton drew applause at several points, the loudest when a woman stood and said: "I just want to thank you, because we know you didn't have to take this job."

At the end, a crowd pressed in on Becton, as usually happens at his public appearances. Many offered encouragement; many others wanted something. Could he help them? Would he visit? How could their school get a substitute? He pointed out several of his assistants in the audience. He could not do all these things himself. He told them he relied on the chain of command.

The system's 20 top educators sat around a rectangular table to plot the future for principals, teachers and 79,000 students. Even the nonmilitary wing of the new school hierarchy -- no career soldiers here -- at times talked like an army under siege. They were anticipating fierce attacks if they actually changed the rules.

"The beating will be a vicious one. Systemic change cannot happen tomorrow," warned Mildred Musgrove, a longtime principal Becton appointed as the CAO, or chief academic officer.

Musgrove was presiding at a daylong retreat at the Sumner School in Northwest, where officials from her office were drafting new goals and strategies. The overall aim, they agreed, was to help all children "to become literate, productive and responsible citizens." To achieve that, the schools would have to raise academic performance, daily attendance, standardized test scores and the graduation rate -- while reducing the dropout rate, the level of violence and the deterioration of buildings and programs.

But achieving some of these goals would be painful, Musgrove said, because it would mean denying students promotions and graduation unless they met standards and, ultimately, firing those teachers and principals who could not perform.

"We have some of the best-looking policies around. It's all written down," Musgrove said. "Now we are saying we are going to enforce it." She predicted, for instance, that 50 percent of third-graders might not meet national standards on new, more demanding standardized tests. "We will take a beating," she repeated.

Musgrove, who has been working in the D.C. system for 27 years, is among a pool of candidates from which Becton is expected to select a permanent chief academic officer, who would become Becton's likely successor as superintendent. A precise, diligent woman who favors bright colors, she wore three rings on one hand and two on the other, along with a gold lapel pin that spelled "Children First" -- a piece of jewelry she had acquired five years ago, long before Becton's arrival.

The educators -- almost all holdovers from the Smith administration -- broke into groups to draft specific targets and dates for changes in curriculum, testing and evaluation of faculty.

"Remember, it has to be in 7-Eleven language," said Maurice Sykes, the deputy CAO, "so the people in the 7-Eleven understand what we are talking about."

The discussions stretched through midafternoon, when, with 90 minutes left, Becton arrived and quietly took a seat. Work groups were joking and bantering, and some people didn't even notice him at first. The session was considerably longer than Becton's no-nonsense meetings, and a few eyes began to close in the late afternoon, including the general's.

Musgrove asked Becton to speak, and he thanked everyone warmly for their efforts. He called on them to help change the basic culture of the schools, particularly by helping principals resist outside interference and devote themselves to excellence. School insiders, like these 20, knew very well that principals for decades had been asked to hire political cronies, overlook incompetence, ignore school boundaries and forgive even serious misbehavior by some students.

"I am concerned about principals who are forced to deal with an emergency control board, the elected school board, the city council," Becton said. "We got people thinking, `Becton and company are going to go away in the year 2000, and I've got to please these political people.' "

These principals are "stuck between a rock and a hard place," the general said. "I don't want to put them in jeopardy, but I want to help the system . . . and we are going to make it work."

He departed then, and left it to the education people to figure out exactly how.

"General Becton said teachers are going to get a pay raise, and principals, too," Melvin Blackwell told his boss. "But nobody talks about us."

Blackwell, chief custodian at the Marie Reed Learning Center in Adams-Morgan, was complaining to George T. Coleman that he had not had a single raise in his $14 hourly pay for eight years. "And they wonder about morale! . . . That is not good for morale. Custodian has to do cleaning, maintenance, toilets, floors. I don't want a $10 raise. I want 50 cents! They don't care about morale. People need a raise!"

"It ain't going to happen," said Coleman, a serious, muscular man who has been a school building engineer since 1970 and supervises 126 people in 22 buildings.

"It is not fair," said Blackwell, who, at age 50, had been working for the schools since 1968. School officials were saying they'd be placing more demands on custodians. A pay raise should go with it.

"I know," Coleman replied, "but it just ain't going to happen."

"You are losing good people."

"That's the way life is." Coleman shrugged.

"I am putting in my resignation!" Blackwell declared.

"I respect that," Coleman said. "That's your right."

The two men were waiting to escort their boss, Harold Johnson, around the Marie Reed building on a Saturday morning. The longer they waited, the angrier Blackwell got.

Finally, Johnson arrived in casual clothes and a baseball cap. He is an earnest, bespectacled man of 30 who has been working in construction since he graduated from Coolidge High School and the University of the District of Columbia. Johnson speaks of the achievements of his boss, Gen. Williams, in awed tones. As Williams's chief of facilities and maintenance, he oversees repairs of fire code violations, school certification inspections and the nearly 9,000 backlogged work orders.

"Mr. Johnson," Blackwell said the moment Johnson entered. "I am putting in my retirement papers on Monday."

Without hesitation, without question, Johnson replied: "Okay, good."

Done.

"Every day we are getting rid of people. I am signing dismissal orders every day," Johnson said afterward, his face betraying no emotion. "I am going to enforce policy. There is no time. We are in an emergency situation, and if you can't do the job, take an early out."

Johnson said he wished Blackwell well. He estimated that nearly half his custodial work force of 900 was not qualified to do some of the work required. Virtually all were classified at a Grade 3 level -- which pays $11 an hour and specifies not only cleaning, but also minor repairs such as doorknobs, light fixtures, tiling and small carpentry jobs. But, he said, only half could perform Grade 3 tasks. The rest could do only basic cleaning and should be classified as Grade 2, at $8 an hour.

He said he planned to reclassify jobs based on workers' actual skills, and to require performance. "Why should we have tax dollars pay for this learning curve?"

Shortly, Johnson and his deputy, Sam Sakati, a newly hired construction engineer, visited Browne Junior High in Northeast, where the school system's lone in-house roofing crew was repairing a flat tar roof. The seven-man crew had finished only two jobs in the last two months, and there were 125 other roof repairs overdue.

Johnson leaned out an upstairs window and yelled to the crew over the noise of machinery. "What job do you have next?"

"Don't know," shouted the senior worker, a gray-haired man.

"You don't know?" Johnson yelled.

"No."

Johnson was furious. The previous roofing supervisor had been dismissed, and the current one, who was not present and also was not a roofer, wasn't keeping to any schedule. "This is unacceptable," Johnson muttered.

He called over the senior roofer, who identified himself as Mr. Coleman, and said, "Mr. Coleman, we have 120 roofing jobs. I need you to look at the work orders and get it done. Mr. Coleman, we are just not going to have this kind of dysfunctional apparatus." Johnson turned to a co-worker of Coleman's and asked whether he thought the man would make a good crew boss. The guy said yes.

"Mr. Coleman, what pay grade are you?" Johnson asked. Coleman said he was Grade 10, Step 5. Johnson told him that as of that moment, "you will be supervising . . . We will take care of the paperwork on Monday." A battlefield promotion.

Herbert Tillery waved his arms and shouted into the wind as he leapt from his car to run up the steps of Anacostia High School. There stood special education teacher Selvyn Banner, gazing at the bright sky and looking unconcerned.

"You've got students coming out the windows!" boomed Tillery. He used to command the Fort Leavenworth military prison; now, he is Williams's chief deputy, in charge of security.

"So what?" asked Banner. He glanced at the west wing of the red brick building, where more than a dozen students were slipping out a first-floor window, chancing an eight-foot drop, and racing for the freedom of Good Hope Road nearby.

Banner had joined 40 other Anacostia teachers -- two-thirds of the staff -- in refusing to work on a clear, cold Wednesday morning. They were protesting the arrest a day earlier of a colleague on an assault charge after a scuffle with a longtime problem student. Now most of the teachers and union reps were inside, huddled with the principal and administrators from downtown to discuss their grievances. Banner was taking a break.

Gen. Becton had stopped by briefly. Tillery, a native Washingtonian who graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High in 1966, had joined the meeting for more than an hour.

Tillery was on his way back downtown when he noticed the students, who had tired of waiting in the auditorium and cafeteria while the adults argued in another room. By the time he crossed the cement plaza in front of the school and reached Banner, the teenagers were out of sight.

"What's your name?" demanded Tillery, standing only a few inches from the teacher but talking loudly enough for a cluster of nearby reporters to hear.

"Who are you?" the teacher replied.

"I'm Herbert Tillery. I'm the deputy COO. I work for General Becton. Now, what's your name?"

Banner was unimpressed. "I'm an ET-15," he said, giving the civil service code that identifies him as a classroom teacher.

He turned and walked back through the metal detectors at the school's entrance. "I'm an ET-15."

"You've got to learn these little things that will help you survive," said Helena Jones, assistant superintendent. She was sitting as tall as any of the men at the table as she chaired a meeting of her middle school principals. "I call it a survival kit."

Know everyone who works in your building -- and make sure they're all qualified and officially assigned there. Order textbooks on time. Learn the union contract -- and let your teachers know that you have. Put money aside for emergency supplies. Declare hall duty everyone's duty -- librarians, guidance counselors and teachers alike.

"Those people who don't want to work for kids? What we need to do is work -- and work very hard -- to get them fired," said Jones, an award-winning former principal who was promoted last December as part of Becton's first shake-up of senior staff.

Her words bounced off the pale-green walls of what used to be the gym at Logan School, closed 19 years ago for lack of students and turned into an administration building. Around the table, nine middle school principals paid close attention. Jones had been their colleague. Now, she was their boss. Wearing a purple dress with bold jewelry that exuded energy as well as authority, Jones drilled them on what they must do to keep their jobs.

Becton has made clear that he plans to weed out poor principals before the next school year through a new evaluation process. This reshuffling will be a major thrust of the takeover because a strong principal, more than any other single ingredient, is vital to the creation of a good school. Principals who survive the cut will be expected to remove poor teachers from their schools during the coming academic year.

As principal of Roper Middle School, Jones, 52, created success in spite of the school system. She took over classes when teachers were sick, brought cleaning supplies from home or borrowed them from a neighboring church, and begged businesses to donate computers and mentors for her mostly impoverished students. Last month, she was chosen by the Reader's Digest Association as one of 10 "American Heroes in Education" from more than 700 nominees.

Her new job is to help Becton transform the bureaucracy so it will assist principals -- but still hold them accountable. "They are not going to put up with nonsense," Jones said of the new management. "In terms of your budget, you have to stay on top of it. Because if you don't stay on top of it, they will."

Jones introduced her assistants, school veterans Ed Moseley and Ursula Cossel, as secret weapons: Moseley as a troubleshooter who can walk any piece of paper through the maze of downtown headquarters and Cossel as a former Washington Teachers' Union activist, weaned on the grievance process. Jones encouraged the principals to consult Cossel on dealing with recalcitrant teachers, and to call Moseley any time they get the runaround downtown.

Some of the principals appeared hesitant, especially when Jones told them they had to start evaluating teachers honestly -- even if they never had before. Most teachers are accustomed to years of top ratings, one principal said. They will fight any change in their assessments.

"Yesterday has absolutely nothing to do with today. It's a brand-new day," Jones said.

"That idea still has not sunk in with a lot of people," said Tyrone Hopkins, principal of the Thurgood Marshall Educational Center in Northeast.

Jones was smiling. "I think it will."

This job is Jones's first in the school hierarchy, although she has been offered at least three others in her 30-year career. In the past, she didn't believe the bureaucracy could help children. Now, because of Becton, she does.

She said she believes it because of the way the general said "Children First!" at his initial meeting with principals. By now, it had become a cliche. But as she sat last November in the auditorium of the Rabaut building, another closed school now used for office space, Jones heard it as a clarion call.

"It was said with such sincerity. And I knew how difficult it was going to be, in a school system where children didn't always come first," she said. "And by my believing that he meant it, I wanted to help him. To help him to put children first."

Gen. Williams loves surprises. Every Tuesday and every Thursday, he visits three District schools unannounced to see what shape the buildings are in.

On a visit to Wilson High in Northwest, the general was unhappy to see piles of trash and unraked leaves, McDonald's debris, obscene graffiti and cigarette butts. "The grounds are not policed," he said to Suzanne Conrad, his issues manager, who took detailed notes as she trailed him.

Every problem the general encounters results in a "tasker," written that day, ordering someone to do something. On some matters, Williams sends out "Buc slips" (a variation on "the buck stops here"), which demand a more detailed reaction and a response. When the COO wants to know his total staffing, he orders a "personnel scrub," and when he wants to know who was responsible for what, he has a "complete accountability scrub." Determining the success of an operation requires an "AAR," or after-action review. His nonmilitary staffers often have to find an Army veteran to translate Williams's lingo.

The COO particularly enjoys walking up to employees, asking their names, and asking them to describe their jobs. He expects crisp answers. Touring Wilson High, Williams confronted security guard Ricky Kelly.

"Do you know who I am?" the COO asked Kelly. This was not a difficult question because Williams was wearing a burgundy warmup jacket that said "General Williams" in white stitching on his chest.

"Mr. Williams," said Kelly, a 12-year school veteran.

"You know who I am?"

"You're my boss."

"Right."

Williams asked, "Have you noticed anything changed?"

Kelly, unsure what he meant, answered hesitantly: "I lost a thousand and fifty hours of sick leave." This happened when security was taken over by a private company a year ago. But it was the wrong answer.

"No," Williams said. "In terms of the recent changes in school management. Have you noticed anything changed?"

"No," Kelly said.

Williams sighed and took a different tack.

"If there was a fight down the hall, what would you do?"

"I would respond to it," said Kelly. Williams frowned and stared hard at him, seeking more.

"I would respond," Kelly repeated slowly, ". . . and radio for help."

"Okay!" Williams smiled, clapped him on the shoulder and said, "We are trying to change the image of the schools. And you are fundamental."

"Front line of defense," Kelly said, smiling.

"Front line of defense," said Williams.

Williams's staff has been unhappy with the $6 million annual security contract it inherited with MVM Inc. of McLean, a company that had never done school security. Williams and Tillery want the security staff of more than 200 to be better trained and more active. MVM recently placed in charge of D.C. school security a retired Army major who, it so happened, used to work under Gen. Williams. The COO smiled coyly in recounting this personnel move, but said he nonetheless had "problems" that he intended to have MVM rectify or lose the contract. Security and maintenance were the key topics for Williams a few days later, when he lectured more than 100 principals for 40 minutes. "There is nothing here I have seen that we cannot fix," Williams told the principals. "Nothing. Nothing. Nothing!"

He told them he had encountered far larger and deeper problems supervising school reconstruction in New York City. Williams was generally given high marks for his three-year stint there, but he did not tell the principals that he left the job with a year remaining on his contract because of political and financial disputes involving the school board, city officials and state legislators.

The District principals, veterans of many speeches from many new school administrators, did not applaud Williams when he was introduced. Nor did they applaud when he finished. Some murmured and even snickered when Williams told them how all support staff would be filling out Daily Accountability forms.

In a question-and-answer session, several principals told Williams they opposed his taking control of support staff; historically each principal has been the complete boss of the building. But Williams was steadfast: "Maintenance people will have to be supervised by maintenance people."

"Change is never overnight," he said. "But I will tell you right now, and not sugarcoat it: We are going to have a grip on facilities management. We are going to have a grip on security personnel. Period. Period. Period!"

Some principals began to applaud.

"You have tried to manage your school, your facilities and your security. And that is too much," Williams said. "Let me look you in the eye and tell you: The system is broken. We know how to fix it. I have supervised thousands of people, and let me tell you, you don't have any problem."

More principals had begun to applaud, and now the applause was getting loud.

"Unfortunately -- and some of you were witnesses -- there was a fight this morning on the first floor." Cardozo High School Principal Reginald Ballard was addressing an assembly of nearly 1,000 people packing the auditorium. "And during that fight, one student stabbed another student."

Gasps went up from the audience -- and laughter in one section, prompting a stern warning from Ballard. He recounted what had happened, explained that it would reflect poorly on the school and appealed for mature behavior from the young men and women. Then he asked if there were any questions.

"How did we let someone into school with a weapon?" asked one student. Hundreds applauded.

"Why don't we have more security?" another asked. More applause.

"Why does it take something bad to happen to get more security?" asked another.

"That is a legitimate question," Ballard said. "And I can't answer it."

This time, there were boos.

Standing in the back of the auditorium were two men who were supposed to be able to answer those questions: Ron McLeod, a retired Army officer who is chief of school operations, and Ralph Neal, a popular longtime principal at Eastern High, recently promoted to assistant superintendent for high schools.

But neither had any answers that morning.

McLeod, who is 60 and usually upbeat, looked around the auditorium and said to Neal: "Look at these kids. They are just kids. Just babies. See these thin faces? They're just kids . . . They need a little love."

Neal shook his head. "A lot has changed in the last few years. Kids are changing. They are raising themselves."

"My mother went to this school" around 1930, McLeod reminisced. It is a very different place now -- with knives and metal detectors, and with signs marking the main staircase in four languages: Down. Bajada. Xuong. Descente.

Several weeks later, McLeod and Neal were at Becton's staff meeting when District police brought in their traveling exhibit of weapons confiscated from schools. There were 38 knives, ranging from kitchenware up to sword size; brass knuckles; three handguns and a rifle. The police officer showing the hardware to Becton's staff said all of it had been recovered this year, and it was only a sampling of the full haul.

"You've got to be kidding," said Becton. "Should we display this?"

"It would be counterproductive," said Tillery, the former prison warden, "because some students would want bigger weapons when they see this."

Tillery, Williams and McLeod outlined to Becton a security plan, part of which involved training all school personnel, teaching and support staff, to take a stronger role in making schools safe.

In the 12th-floor meeting room, they had also set up a new metal detector, which beeped as each staffer entered. Williams's people said the schools' current detectors often malfunctioned, largely because they were bought with no service contract and were poorly maintained. The machines at Cardozo, for example, were useless because they had been cannibalized for parts. The administrators proposed buying 80 new ones for about $200,000.

"This is one of the metal detectors we want to put in schools," McLeod told Becton.

"No," Williams interrupted. "This is one of the metal detectors we will put in schools."

Lewis Norman stood amid a sort of archaeological record of decay, right in the Central File Room on the seventh floor of school headquarters.

Scattered about the 40-by-10-foot room were 35 cardboard boxes -- on the floor, on tables, chairs and ledges -- all filled with piles of paper dating back years. Some boxes were hand-labeled "RIF" and "EARLY OUT." Some bore no label at all.

Thousands more pages were piled into two-foot-tall stacks -- 14 in all -- spread across a large central table. These white and pink sheets were personnel actions -- each page represented a hire, a layoff, a demotion, a suspension, a transfer, a firing, an illness or a death -- and they had never been properly filed.

"They could not even do the filing!" Norman says, the pitch of his voice rising. "It is filing. It's filing. It's just filing." The schools' new chief human resources officer came from D.C. government to the schools last year -- initially on a temporary basis -- after Smith fired most of his personnel staff. Norman inherited a mess the likes of which he hadn't seen in 28 years in personnel.

He gestured around the room, which is the central repository for the entire system's personnel records. "And this, this has been straightened up," he says. A few months ago, "it looked like a TV movie where somebody has vandalized an office."

This chaos was largely why the school system had become a laughingstock. The files were so poorly kept, officials acknowledge, that many employees who appealed a firing would likely win because management kept such bad records.

After several months' work, school officials had completed a systemwide "personnel scrub" in which hundreds of managers hand-checked computer printouts to establish a tentatively accurate employee count of 10,449 full-time-equivalent positions.

Norman reported this historic finding at a staff meeting, but said he would need 10 days to verify it. The personnel system was still a shambles, he said, would have to be automated, and would need new forms before it could pinpoint who was working where, and in which jobs.

"Do you understand what he's talking about?" Becton whispered to Williams, who shook his head no. Nonetheless, when Norman finished, Becton declared, "Outstanding presentation," and everyone applauded.

Later, Becton says that what was outstanding was that Norman had made a commitment to produce an accurate employee count. "Nobody else has ever done that."

At the Division of Finance and Budget, there were rows of empty desks and old computers gathering dust. This was progress.

Abdusalam Omer, who leads the division, had a three-month head start on the revolution: The financial control board installed him before it took over the schools, in an attempt to wrest control of the system's accounting from Franklin Smith. Omer's revelations of missing money and unauthorized transfers helped set the stage for the superintendent's ouster.

After Becton arrived, Omer remained -- and soon fired 11 top managers and mid-level employees, concluding that they lacked the skills or the desire to fix a half-billion-dollar budget that had been corrupted and mismanaged for years. Since then, he has dismissed or forced into retirement 19 others, for the same reason.

In place of the departed are lots of vacancies and 13 new hires, among them Maureen Griffin, 24, a Connecticut College economics graduate. Since November, she'd been spending her working hours in a cramped, sun-warmed office surrounded by someone else's files, building a sophisticated spreadsheet on a modern Compaq PC that looks out of place amid the older hardware nearby.

Her new spreadsheet digests each school's population, taking into account different grade levels, student disabilities and language needs. Then it spits out exactly how each school should be staffed. By June, it's supposed to evolve into the system's first-ever school-based budget -- a concise explanation of how much money each school needs to pay teachers, buy books and supplies, mop the floors and serve lunch.

"My plan is to start from scratch. And Maureen's model is the beginning of it," says Omer. The chief financial officer is a slight, often nervous-looking man who emigrated from Somalia 25 years ago, at age 18, and eventually earned a doctorate in public administration and taught American government at the University of Tennessee. Before the control board sought him out, he had served as a budget analyst in Prince William County and in the District.

He speaks proudly of luring five "defectors," including Griffin, from private firms that had been hired to audit and reform city budgeting. The newcomers are better trained and more highly skilled than the people they replaced, and Omer is not shy about suggesting that other school administrative offices, such as personnel and procurement, will have to make similar changes for the takeover to succeed.

New computers have been installed in Omer's division, and linked so that workers can share information. An automated invoice-tracking system was created, along with direct deposit for employee paychecks. For 15 years, the system had issued hundreds of handwritten paychecks each month to employees who weren't listed on payrolls. This practice, which Omer calls "a setup for fraud," left at least $250,000 unaccounted for. "This is accepting defeat from the top, saying that we cannot manage our personnel," he says. "I'm going to shut it down. Forever."

On April 1, he did.

But even at Finance and Budget, the revolution was far from complete. There were still problems with accounts payable, delays in receiving federal aid for poor schoolchildren and myriad unanswered questions -- such as why 624 former employees were receiving early-out retirement checks, even though records show only 553 people signed up. The school-based staffing spreadsheet, although unprecedented, cannot identify the many schools that are short of teachers, because the old personnel computer and its data are too outdated to pinpoint who works where.

Omer believes the information flow will improve with the installation of two massive new computer systems, which will be tried on the school system this summer and eventually introduced citywide. But new glitches are inevitable.

Recently, a computer consultant asked Omer why the school system volunteered as the guinea pig in both projects.

"We want to be first because we have a very expensive commodity to deal with," he answered. "We're here to raise children. We will endure the pain. Because, anyway, we are in pain. We are in the Dark Ages, so the sooner we can come out and view the galaxy, the better."

Ultimately, the success or failure of the school takeover will depend on what happens at the front lines -- in the classrooms. On a spring morning, Maurice Sykes, the deputy chief academic officer, made an unannounced visit to Myrtilla Miner Elementary in Northeast to check on its progress.

Last year, the school system had classified Miner as one of the city's 10 most troubled elementary schools, a "targeted assistance school" in need of special attention because of low student performance. Miner has 434 students, 26 teachers and 24 aides and support staff. But it also has some 300 volunteers, including some of the faculty. Tutors come at 7:15 a.m. and 3 p.m. to offer kids extra help. Miner also has outside sponsors, such as Pepco and the federal Bureau of Land Management, whose employees provide time, money, equipment and encouragement.

Miner has shown only slight improvement in test scores so far. But no one has identified any clear way to get faster results, and so Miner represents the kind of community effort that Becton envisions duplicating throughout the city -- if experience shows that it will help children learn.

The building Sykes walked into was clean, warm and brightly decorated. It was an inviting place, the kind Becton has in mind when he reminisces, "When I was a kid, school was beautiful." Miner's principal, Angela Tilghman, grew up in the neighborhood, still lives there and puts much of herself into her school.

Sykes, a burly, bearded man of 50, has been an educator since the late 1960s, and he has studied various curricula and teaching methods. As he popped in and out of a dozen classrooms, he talked to children, read with them, sang with them, listened to them explain books they were reading, and he watched their teachers teaching.

In one class, a sign high on the wall urged students to be on their best behavior. Beneath that sign was chaos. The class was about to say the Pledge of Allegiance, but three kids were wrestling with the American flag. The teacher yelled for them to stop; only one did. Other kids were laughing, and a few were shouting at each other. One was drawing. A couple were looking at books, others just milling around. The teacher yelled again for the wrestlers to stop, and then looked helplessly toward Sykes, who said nothing but sighed as he left the room.

A few minutes later, Sykes walked into another classroom. It was calmer, quieter, yet busier. Nineteen kids were working in groups. Four boys were copying down vocabulary words off a "word wall," looking them up in the dictionary and writing out definitions. Three girls were writing down facts they learned from reading a story called The Mysterious Girl in the Garden. A child wearing headphones was listening to a book on tape. Several students typed at futuristic wooden consoles in which computers with angled monitors were mounted underneath tables with Plexigas tops. Two youngsters were competing on a program called "Word Volcano" -- and when one of them scored by filling in the correct word, he cried "Yes!" and pumped his fist in the air as if he'd sunk the winning basket.

Sykes browsed around the room, asked a girl to tell him about her story, admired a child's antiviolence poster, and helped a boy look up the word "flippant." It was only after all this that Sykes learned that this was a special education class.

Presiding was Linda David, 33, an 11-year teaching veteran, product of Prince George's County public schools and Hampton University. She is lively and serious, stern yet soft. Her learning-disabled students are 10 to 13 years old, but most read at or below third-grade level.

Yet Sykes noted that they were using vocabulary words around fifth- or sixth-grade level. "And they are more fluent on those computers than I am," David said, smiling.

David, whose parents are both teachers, said her emphasis on reading and on varied group activities required a lot of repetition, juggling and discipline. "I can see growth," she told Sykes.

Leaving the room, Sykes said: "That woman has 19 kids who are special ed and you would not know it. Whatever disabilities they are, doesn't mean they can't learn . . . She has high expectations for these kids. They have reading ability and they are not afraid to talk. Boys this age are rebellious or withdrawn. Hers are not . . . But our practices across the city are uneven."

Indeed, the practices within Miner are uneven, which Sykes later discussed with Tilghman and Patricia Harris, a 17-year teaching veteran assigned to Miner as a mentor.

Harris and Tilghman told him that the teacher whose class was chaotic had already been evaluated and warned about poor performance. The teacher was getting special counseling, including free time to visit other schools to observe high-functioning teachers. This teacher was also participating in a peer-review process, used at targeted schools, in which groups of colleagues periodically sit in on classes and then offer suggestions on techniques that work.

Tilghman had fired three teachers and encouraged the departure of half a dozen more in her five years running Miner. She and Harris told Sykes they were trying extra counseling to put this teacher on track quickly. Otherwise, they all agreed, the teacher would be gone.

But David is staying -- and whatever else is uncertain about education reform, it's clear that the school system's future depends in part on how many teachers like her can be recruited to the District, and kept there. "My husband asks me why I don't teach at another school," David said. "And I say, `Because they need me.' I get a lot of rewards. I get a lot of rewards teaching these children.".

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