Stanford, John 1938–
John Stanford 1938–
Retired Major General John Henry Stanford had no previous experience in education leadership when he interviewed for control of the Seattle public schools. But 30 years in the military taught him how to lead, and it was this experience which caught the eye of the Seattle public school system. In 1995 he was selected to be the first black superintendent of the Seattle public schools, a system serving more than 47,000 students. His mission: to restore public trust in the city’s school system and to keep what is left of the middle class from fleeing to the suburbs. During his term he has instituted a number of groundbreaking reforms and has begun to transform his school system.
A native of Darby, Pennsylvania, John Stanford was born on September 14, 1938. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He then earned his master’s degree in personnel management and administration from Central Michigan State. He received an ROTC commission to second lieutenant on June 10, 1961 and began his 30-year career in the U.S. Army.
During his illustrious military career, Stanford held a variety of positions. He began as a platoon leader of the 2nd Air Reconnaissance Battalion in Europe and was promoted to first lieutenant in December of 1962. In 1966 he completed tours of duty in both Korea and Vietnam, returning to Vietnam on another assignment in 1969. He further held such prominent positions as military assistant to the Undersecretary of the Army during the Carter administration (1977–1979); executive assistant to the special assistant to the Secretary of Defense (1981) and special assistant and executive secretary to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger during the Reagan administration (1981–1984). He was ultimately promoted to the two-star rank of major general on May 1, 1988 and in 1989 was appointed director of plans, programs, and policy of the U.S. Transportation Command, Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.
Stanford ended his impressive career with the military on August 1, 1991. Upon leaving, Stanford went to Fulton County, GA, an area which includes the city of Atlanta, where he served as Fulton County manager. In this role he managed an employee force of more than 5,000 and oversaw a budget of approximately one-half
Born John Henry Stanford, September 14, 1938, Darby, PA; married to Patricia Corley; children: Steven and Scott. Education: B.A., political science, Pennsylvania State University, 1961; master’s degree, personnel management and administration, Central Michigan University; Infantry Officer Basic and Ranger School, Fort Benning, GA, 1961–62; Army Aviation School, Fort Rucker, AL, 1963–64; Transportation School, Fort Eus-tis, VA, 1968–69; U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 1971–72; Industrial College of Armed Forces, Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, D.C., 1979–80.
Career: Various leadership positions, U.S. Army, 1962–1991; county manager, Fulton County, GA, 1991–95; superintendent, Seattle school district, 1995-present.
Awards: Master Army Aviator Badge; Distinguished Service Medal; Ranger Tab.
Addresses: Seattle School District No. 1, 815 Fourth Avenue North, Seattle, WA 98109.
billion dollars. His work with the county epitomized his skill with logistics as he cut the bureaucracy, lowered taxes, and attracted new business into the region.
As he recounted to Timothy Egan of the New York Times, Stanford did not plan on accepting the Seattle superintendent’s job. In fact, he went back to Atlanta after his interviews ready to bask in the limelight of the 1996 Olympics. Once he returned home, however, he received hundreds of letters from parents asking him to take the position. “It won him over.”
Some may question why the Seattle school system found the retired major general to be their ideal candidate. Stanford himself told Jet that he was hired because of his proven leadership abilities. “That’s my strength, to lead in this business of education. I bring a business leadership approach to solving educational problems.” As he proclaimed to the school board during the interview process, “Give me a mission and I will get it done.” Clearly, he remains replete with military efficiency and focus, despite the fact that he now considers himself in a“talk-about-it”rather than“do-it”organization like the Army—and he still habitually clicks his heels when meeting people.
Stanford inherited a Seattle school district that was afflicted with many problems common to urban city school districts. Between a swollen bureaucracy and a greedy teachers’ union, little money flowed through to the classroom. The previous superintendent, in fact, had left amidst allegations of misusing public funds. At the same time, Seattle’s immigrant population was continuing to grow, test scores were uneven, and buildings were aging and costly to maintain. Public school enrollment, moreover, had dropped in half, from 100,000 students to 47,000 students in the last 30 years. While smaller family size contributed to the downsizing of the student population, the migration to private and parochial schools also played a significant role. In fact, statistics in a 1996 Forbes Magazine article showed that half of those teachers with household incomes around $70,000 send their children to private schools. As Terry McDer-mott of the Seattle Times aptly expressed, “Schools are forever dealing with the consequences of other people’s actions.”
Since he began working in the Seattle schools in 1995, Stanford’s focus has been on children. As he told Damon Darlin of Forbes, “We lost our way when we became more interested in the employment of adults than in the education of children.” His philosophy, he told Jet, is“to love them and lead them … to be the children’s czar”as superintendent. Consequently, Stanford’s initial agenda focused on day-care, health counseling, immunization, and other programs and services to ensure that each child in Seattle received a quality education. “I’m the president of Destiny, Inc.,” he declared. “I produce destinies for children.” To publicize his mission and gain public attention, he immediately visited all 97 schools in the system, meeting with children, teachers, and parents. He also established a dialogue with what he termed in his discussion with Darlin“the enemy camp,” meeting with the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the radical community activists at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
And what did he ask of them? Parents were his first target. “Education, first and foremost, is a family responsibility,” Stanford repeatedly reminded parents. He commanded them to read for 30 minutes a day to their children, or to another child if they had no children of their own at home. He perpetually reminded his audiences of how far he had risen because of his passion for reading, despite the fact that his parents had only a grade school education. To draw parents further into the school system, he created a“customer service center”at the district level to answer parental concerns, and he has also proposed offering parents an opportunity to learn English in the schools.
Stanford’s view of responsibility for the health of the school system does not, however, focus solely on the home. He also sees a prominent burden resting with corporate America. Towards this end, he rallied the business community to donate books and money to restock the schools’ aging libraries, raising more than $1.5 million in 1996, up fivefold from the previous year. Even the Seattle-based rock group, Pearl Jam, contributed money. He further convinced Wells Fargo, which was just expanding into the Seattle area, to contribute $100,000 to fund a program to train school principals in management techniques. He also considered allowing corporations to advertise in the schools, despite fears of commercialization of the classroom—an idea which was later rejected. Stanford accomplished all this in his first year on the job.
Stanford, moreover, did not stop with publicity. He shuffled a third of the principals to new assignments and disbanded an evaluation system inversely related to the number of expulsions in a given school, a system which built in leniency. He also established three“unrecover-ables”for principals, as set forth in an article by Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times “No. 1 is to follow a policy that would lead to the catastrophic injury or death of a student. Unrecoverable No. 2 is the failure to plan for the academic achievement of every student. Unrecoverable No. 3 is the failure to lead.”
In other bold moves Stanford ordered administrators to work their normal jobs four days each week and to spend the fifth day working directly in the schools in some capacity. He added high-profile assistants, including another general, Julius Johnson, as his chief of staff. Johnson, a retired brigadier general, served two tours in Vietnam, one as a Special Forces commander. Thomas Weeks, a city councilman, heeded the call as well and relinquished his government position to join Stanford’s staff as the director of the district’s human resources department.
And what about the role of the teachers under Stanford’s regime? Every teacher must now develop a syllabus and contact every parent at the beginning of the year to ensure that parents know what the student has to learn each week and when he or she will be tested on it. Systemwide“alignment,” moreover, guarantees that students in the same grade are learning the same material. Teachers are also being retrained to emphasize writing in all of their classes and to integrate reading into every subject.
From the very beginning, Stanford’s impact has also been felt directly at the classroom level. First, he ended cross-town busing, which he determined had become largely irrelevant as many white families had already moved to the suburbs. While 66 percent of Seattle’s student population in 1977 was Caucasian, that percentage dropped to 41 percent by 1997. Stanford has argued that busing creates hassles for parents without improving minority achievement.
Stanford further proposed that all public school children wear uniforms, that parents be graded on how well they encourage and support their children, that anyone associated with a gang be denied a driver’s license, and that children who cannot pass a grade level be retained. He also began a reward system to prevent violence, with classes earning $100 for each incident-free month. Up to $ 1,000 per class will be made available for field trips, class parties, or other projects at the end of each school year. He even went so far as to vow that Seattle will have a literacy rate of 95 percent by the end of his three-year contract.
That Stanford is determined to make children his primary objective is witnessed even in the seemingly small adjustments that he makes. For instance, the school district’s motto once read, “Every child can read.” Stanford quickly amended it to proclaim, “Every child will read.” “What we’re trying to produce here,” Stanford told Binnie Fisher of the Christian Science Monitor, “is a world-class, student-focused learning system, not a teaching system. The big question is, did the student get it. If not, then we have failed.” He perpetually exhorts his parents and teachers to consider that the humiliation a child may feel by repeating a grade will be nothing in comparison to that of not being able to find a job and“succeed out there”later in life. Thus, students now must take pass/fail exit exams in the third, fifth, eighth, and 11th grades.
Perhaps Stanford’s most innovative—and confrontational—move has been to introduce competition into the school system. “Principals as CEOs” has been his slogan. In sum, this theory empowers principals, giving them free reign to set policies and determine curricula but also holding them accountable for their decisions. For example, he insists that they compete for teachers and select their own staff. Under this system, principals have the authority to determine, in consultation with parent and staff committees, which teachers they want at their schools and what programs best fit the students in their neighborhoods. Interestingly, this policy undermines a long-standing system of allowing senior teachers to pick their assignments. In the same vein, principals bear responsibility for their schools’ security and maintenance, even down to the food served in the cafeteria. Each school, moreover, is provided with a distinct set of criteria on which it will be judged. Ultimately, Stanford believes, the schools have to sell themselves to the consumer.
In this world of free market choice, students living in the neighborhood have first choice for open spots at a particular school, followed by students who have a sibling at the school, those who live in the general area, and students whose race would promote desegregation goals at the school. Many schools schedule parent tours and enrollment fairs. Under the“weighted student formula,” special education and bilingual students, children from poor families, and students with a history of low test scores all bring more money with them when they enroll in a school. No students, no money. More attractive programs, more students, more money.
Under the Stanford plan, schools receive approximately $4,600 for each student they attract. “The onus,” as school board member Don Nielsen explained, “is on the principal and the staff to create an educational environment that’s attractive to parents in their neighborhood, or risk going out of business.” Meany Middle School exemplifies Stanford’s theory in practice. Working in tandem with school administrators, Stanford turned this troubled junior high school into a magnet school blending the arts, math, and science into a creative, interrelated curriculum. While its first year, 1996–1997, was marred by lack of strong leadership, poor communication with parents, and weak follow-through on programs, its second year showed marked improvement in the areas of discipline, teamwork, and overall attitude. As former principal, Marella Griffin, commented, “Transforming a school just doesn’t happen overnight.”
Like most superintendents, Stanford has not always been greeted with enthusiasm by his school board. Nationwide, in fact, the turnover in taxpayer-elected school boards often means the boards are at odds with superintendents over everything from personal leadership style to curriculum guidelines. Stanford has attempted to mitigate these tensions by enabling the board to function as a policy group. Together they proactively seek to develop strategies to improve the operation of their schools.
As might be imagined, the teachers’ union and local bureaucrats have been most ardently opposed to Stanford’s vision. The entire collective-bargaining agreement with teachers has now been superseded with a model“trust agreement.” Based on the revolutionary Saturn contract negotiated between General Motors and the United Auto Workers Union, it is the first of its kind in education. Under the agreement, teachers are guaranteed an“authentic role”in all decision-making, in exchange for which they agree to submit employment issues to mediation, with Stanford and the union chief in charge.
Despite the challenges which Stanford has faced throughout his career, including ones focused on national security, he does not take lightly the issues which he confronts in his newest role. “We have an interesting challenge with our children,” he explained to Murphy. “Only ten percent of their time is spent in school, but we have 100 percent of the responsibility, in conjunction with their parents, to turn these children into productive citizens in 13 years. And I must tell you, it takes rocket science to do it.”
Stanford still makes surprise tours throughout the school system several times each week. And he has not stopped the flow of innovative practices: high school campuses are closed for freshman, all high school students wear identification badges, peer mediation and intervention strategies receive renewed emphasis, summer school and after-school programs have been enhanced, a dropout prevention program for middle school students has been established, and school district/corporate compacts in environmental education, school-to-work, the arts, technology, and international language and culture have been created.
In April of 1998 the school board also approved Stanford’s proposal to establish an international school in the fall of 1999. The student body would include a mix of native English speakers and those for whom English is a second language. Stanford’s idea is that the two groups would reinforce each other’s language development skills as well as provide direct cross-cultural exposure. Ultimately, the interactive curriculum is designed to expose students to Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, French, Japanese, and German.
With school needs perpetually in the forefront of his thinking, Stanford rejected a $500,000 incentive bonus offered to him in February of 1998 to ensure that he remain in his position at least until June of 2002. Stanford would not accept the money, for he feared it would divide him from teachers and principals who are paid much less. “I would ask the donors that the money they would have given me, they would give to [the district] for school purposes.” However, he has vowed to stay until the end of his term in July of 1999.
Critics fault Stanford for trying to do too much, too fast. Stanford, though, takes this evaluation as a compliment. As he explained to Rene Sanchez of the Washington Post, “We’ve wasted enough time not educating children…. At least the inertia is finally being broken.”
Seattle’s biggest concern now, though, is that new momentum for change is linked too closely—perhaps even exclusively—to John Stanford and could wilt all too quickly if he departs. “By the force of his personality and leadership,” summarized the Seattle Times, “he has pumped energy, a sense of purpose, and self-respect into a once-dysfunctional school district.” Broad-based community support certainly assists his cause. After all, for many, John Stanford is the embodiment of Seattle’s hopes and dreams for its school system. As Jolayne Houtz of the Seattle Times explained, “He seems to crystallize something of parents’ hopes and dreams for their children. People have invested their hopes for the future—of the schools, maybe of the community—in his leadership.”
This concern is magnified by Stanford’s latest battle: acute myelogenous leukemia. As Houtz commented, “When he was diagnosed with leukemia, it was more than just a personal crisis for him. It was also a blow to the community’s collective aspirations for its children.” Stanford began harsh chemotherapy treatment for his disease in April of 1998 and in August of 1998 underwent a stem-cell transplant with cells harvested from his sister, Carolyn Stanford Adams. This radical treatment will hopefully attack the leukemic cells faster than a bone marrow transplant because it puts actual healthy stem cells into the patient. The downside, however, is a higher risk of transplant incompatibility. Unfortunately, in October of 1998 Stanford’s leukemia returned once again. He will continue with chemotherapy and another infusion of his sister’s lymphocytes in hopes that his disease can be put into remission. Physicians say his overall chances of surviving five years or longer are roughly 20 percent.
If nothing else, Stanford’s illness has only increased his sense of urgency about his mission for the Seattle city schools. “I’ve had this vision of where I want to take this school district and what I want to get done,” he told Houtz. “I just don’t know how much time I have to do it.” His top priority once he returns to work full-time (hopefully in January of 1999) will focus on professional development and training for teachers and principals, to start training them in teams, as schools, across grade levels. Furthermore, he plans to complete his semi-autobiographical work on transforming education, Victory in Our Schools, originally scheduled for release in August of 1998 but postponed due to his illness. He may even cooperate with Hollywood filmmakers, who are discussing ideas for a movie based on his life.
As he continually looks forward beyond his illness, Stanford desires that the community also retain focus during this crisis. In keeping with his message, the Alliance of Education (an organization of business and community groups actively supporting the Seattle schools) joined with others in Seattle to start the Stanford Book Fund in April of 1998. In a resounding show of support for him, contributions from more than 1,700 donors reached $522,000 by the end of August.
While his physicians control the chemical side of his recovery, the psychological aspects of recovery, Stanford believes, rest with him. Thus, he quotes Albert Camus, “In the midst of winter, I have found in me an invincible summer.” The summer, Stanford says, “is the fire still inside.”
Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 1996, pp. 1, 10.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 12, 1998, p. A25.
Forbes, September 23, 1996, pp. 66–70.
Jet, August 28, 1995, p. 23; February 16, 1998, p. 24.
Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1996, pp. A1, A20, A22.
New York Times, November 1, 1995, pp. A1, B9.
Seattle Times, December 23, 1996; January 9, 1997; August 24, 1997; February 11, 1998; April 4, 1998; April 21, 1998; May 5, 1998; May 10, 1998; August 4, 1998; August 15, 1998; October 15, 1998; October 17, 1998.
Washington Post, May 5, 1997, pp. A1, A10.
Press Releases, Seattle Public Schools.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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