Linda Lane takes helm of city schools with confidence

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Linda Lane didn't even have her coat off when she struck up a conversation with sixth-grader Chelsea Patterson outside the school office.

By the time the new Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent's coat was on a nearby chair, she was learning that Chelsea is taking Spanish, asking her in Spanish how she was and noting that Chelsea has taken two years of Spanish compared to Dr. Lane's six months.

Her chat was so warm that one onlooker thought she already knew the girl.

"No, I did not know her, but know that someone reaching out to you in a friendly way can improve how you feel. Friendly secretaries who make you laugh, people on the street who say hello," the 61-year-old superintendent said later.

"Emotions are contagious, so we have to tend to the emotions we send to those around us."

As Dr. Lane walked through the halls of Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 in Shadyside, she said hello to teachers and to student after student, stopped to talk to groups of students getting books out of their lockers and called out, "Have a great day."

In a chemistry class, she asked a 10th-grader what his grade was.

"I think a C," he replied.

Dr. Lane's eyebrows went up. "Why a C?"

She got a frank response: "I really wasn't trying," he said.

"You can change it," she told him. "It's one thing to be smart. It's another thing to show it."

In her first weeks at the helm of the 25,236-student district, Dr. Lane has been building relationships -- inside and outside the district -- as she takes the reins of a system facing declining enrollment, uncertain budget prospects and a need to improve academic achievement.

Familiar with the district

While she became superintendent Jan. 1, she had served as deputy superintendent of instruction, assessment and accountability for about four years.

"She really has a grasp on the substance and the scale of the challenge that's in front of us," said Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, an education advocacy group.

Dr. Lane got a jump start on her new job in December by visiting legislators in Harrisburg and meeting with a districtwide parent "Excellence for All" committee.

Maria Searcy, a Perry Hilltop parent who belongs to the Excellence for All committee as well as Advocates for African American Children, likes Dr. Lane's style.

"I've never seen her not try to answer a question or just to skate around it like a politician does."

Ms. Searcy recalled a meeting where there were a lot of people with doctorates and Ms. Searcy, who has a bachelor's degree, remained quiet.

Dr. Lane turned to her and asked her if she had anything to add.

"I felt like here's my opportunity to say what's on my mind," said Ms. Searcy, who then shared her concerns.

Ms. Harris, who saw Dr. Lane in various community forums before she became superintendent, said she has seen people come in angry "but they're not by the time she's done talking with them."

Legislators will be particularly important in deciding state funding for city schools.

Next month, Gov. Tom Corbett will release a state budget many expect to provide less money for school districts.

At the same time, the district has been successful at winning grants, including a $40 million grant to improve teacher effectiveness from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

When the board last week reviewed a proposal to replace a retired grant writing consultant, Dr. Lane told the board that, in the face of financial challenges, the district will become "even more heavily reliant" on grants.

The district also faces declining enrollment, something that led her predecessor, Mark Roosevelt, to close more than 20 schools.

Dr. Lane said she'd like to say that school closings -- which she views as "one of the most painful things a community can go through" -- are a thing of the past, "but it would not be responsible for me to say that."

She also said she must do more work outside the district's Oakland headquarters, including building relationships with people who help support the district's work -- such as A+ Schools, B-PEP, Urban League of Pittsburgh, governmental agencies and foundations.

A productive partnership

Mr. Roosevelt recruited Dr. Lane from Des Moines, where her career spanned nearly four decades as an elementary school teacher, executive director of human resources, chief operating officer and deputy superintendent.

After Des Moines passed over Dr. Lane when it chose a superintendent in 2006, Mr. Roosevelt, who had attended the Broad Superintendents Academy with her in 2003, encouraged her to come to Pittsburgh.

Mr. Roosevelt, who served for more than five years, left the district at the end of December to become president of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Dr. Lane and Mr. Roosevelt come from distinctly different backgrounds but forged a partnership here.

Dr. Lane's family traveled from Texas to West Virginia so she could be born in a non-segregated hospital; her father, James Bowman, was the first black assistant superintendent in Des Moines Public Schools; and she earned an education doctorate from Drake University, where her 2006 dissertation looked at the disproportionate school suspension of African American males.

Mr. Roosevelt is the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard Law School graduate and a former Massachusetts state legislator whose first school job was the superintendency here.

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President John Tarka said, "Someone might want to think she simply inherited a template for leadership. That's not the case. She helped create the structure of what the district has to do in the next several years."

He said she has a "remarkable work ethic" and called her "one of the most conscientious people I ever met."

In December, about two months after Mr. Roosevelt announced he was leaving at the end of the 2010, the school board named Dr. Lane superintendent as of Jan. 1, amid complaints by some that the board made its choice without doing a national search.

But the reception to Dr. Lane has been so upbeat that she received a standing ovation from several hundred people before she even spoke at a meet-and-greet at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 in January. She got a standing ovation afterwards too.

At the session, Dr. Lane told a family story that showed how she has been shaped not only by her experiences as an educator but also as a parent.

When Dr. Lane's daughter, Alicia, was about 18, she repeatedly broke curfew. One day Dr. Lane and her husband, Coleman, told her if she didn't follow the rules and come home on time that night, she wouldn't be able to live there any longer. Alicia came home late, and her parents packed her up and moved her out.

"There are some battles as parents you've got to win. That was one," Dr. Lane said later. She said she has a good relationship with her daughter, now a 24-year-old phlebotomist living in California.

Her son C.J., now 37 and an attorney living in Miami, also presented challenges. He didn't hit his academic stride until he was in college, she said.

"I know it's not an easy walk for parents, and I'm sure they drove some of their teachers crazy. I'm sure they did," she said.

She drew on that personal experience at an out-of-town meeting when it was suggested that black kids who were not doing well academically don't have a lot of books in their homes.

"I didn't blow up, but I pushed back very strongly on that point. 'You know what my guess is? I probably have as many books and magazines in my house as you do. Both of my children are not achieving at high levels.' "

She said there are also families who can't afford many books and magazines and are still worried about their children's futures. Before concluding there is "some huge parent deficit," educators need to look at what children get inside the schools.

She doesn't rush to blame teachers, either, but she does believe some small changes can make big differences.

"I would have loved to have known quicker when my kids weren't doing well, quicker when they weren't turning in homework, quicker when they failed a test," she said.

When teachers connected with her son, "He would walk through fire for them."

As a teacher, Dr. Lane said she wasn't able to connect with every student, but she thinks every student can be reached by someone.

Perhaps that's one of the reasons she is particularly hopeful that the Promise Readiness Corps -- now in a pilot year -- will make a difference. Each morning, a team of ninth-grade teachers meets to make connections with students. The team discusses the needs of individual students, where they need help and how they can get help.

"In high school, I think sometimes we can misperceive that they are more independent. They don't need those personal relationships to the same extent. My position is they still do. They may look grown up. They may act tough. There's still a kid in there," she said.

Her predecessor gave himself only "modest marks" for his high school efforts, given that the test gains in eighth grade did not carry to 11th grade.

Dr. Lane posted her transition plan on the district website showing goals for her first 100 days, including setting high schools as a priority and reviewing existing initiatives.

While Dr. Lane had visited all of the district schools before becoming superintendent, she is making a special focus on visiting high schools.

Noting the racial achievement gap and moderate or lack of improvement in some grades, she wrote, "The question must be raised as to whether the reform is working to the extent anticipated."

Embracing the community

When Dr. Lane and her husband moved to Highland Park, they initially thought he might continue his career as a technician on high-speed printers.

Instead, the couple has found happiness with Mr. Lane retired and keeping the household running, from cooking meals to washing the car to attending some community meetings with his wife.

When she was sworn in on Jan. 26, he was there with two cameras around his neck. Her father was there also.

"People say, 'Is your name Lois Lane?' I'll say, 'No, but I am married to Superman.' "

In Pittsburgh, Dr. Lane sees opportunity.

"I think this district has come to a really critical, important place, and we have an opportunity to do some things maybe others don't have. We have to take advantage of that. ...

"I love this community. I love the district, love these kids. I'll give it all I have."

Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.


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