Reviving Antioch is former Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Mark Roosevelt's latest test


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YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio -- The presidential Prius pulled up to a broad lawn bounded by red brick buildings in varied states of repair. Out stepped Mark Roosevelt, new president of the institution, at once new although 159 years old, that he is charged with reviving.

Antioch College, a venerable liberal arts campus closed by bureaucratic and financial ills in 2008, is remaking itself, officially starting the fall quarter this week with a pioneering class of 35. It is the vanguard of what administrators hope will eventually be a student body of roughly 1,200.

The driver of the maroon hybrid is remaking himself as well, guiding this entrepreneurial experiment in higher education after 5 1/2 bruising years at the head of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The compact sylvan setting offers a contrast to the sprawling urban environment where Mr. Roosevelt closed schools, negotiated new teacher and student standards, raised millions of dollars, and struggled to narrow the chronic achievement gap between minority and white and Asian students.

PG VIDEO: ROOSEVELT TALKS ANTIOCH

While the former Massachusetts legislator and gubernatorial candidate confesses to mixed feelings about his departure from Pittsburgh, he describes it not as a retreat but a new front in what he sees as an urgent national campaign for education reform.

A few months earlier, speaking to an audience in one of the refurbished Antioch halls, he noted that he'd spent much of his career focusing on that minority achievement gap in American education. Nonetheless, he said with some passion, the debate on that issue, while crucial, obscured a larger crisis: the increasingly mediocre performance of American students as a whole when judged against the rising standards of their competitors around the world.

"I'm either a pessimist or a realist,'' he said last week. "What's happened in American education [is that] standards have diminished. Content and knowledge have not been honored sufficiently, and we have not been honest enough with students about how their willingness to work [is needed] to contribute to that effort.

"What Antioch can be is a small laboratory for another way to go about it.''

That lab's product has yet to be fully defined. As he was about to accept the new position, Mr. Roosevelt told the school community that he hoped to preside over "a collaborative process of defining the new Antioch.''

Sitting in a light-filled office, one wall lined with some of the thousands of books he'd moved from Pittsburgh, Mr. Roosevelt acknowledged that progress toward that goal "was well on the way, but by no means done.''

The focus of the evolving curriculum would be the need for "environmental and economic sustainability'' in a rapidly changing and endangered world. The new students will explore aspects of that theme in a series of interdisciplinary seminars on broad subjects such as water, energy and public health, and food.

The newer approaches of the curriculum will abide alongside Antioch's traditional emphasis on cooperative education in real-world employment situations. While on campus, all students will hold part-time jobs, either at the school or in Yellow Springs, a picturesque town of 3,500 with a 1960s' vibe.

"About every other person looks like a competitor in a Jerry Garcia look-alike contest,'' is Mr. Roosevelt's deadpan description.

For one 12-week term each year, students will move off campus for full-time jobs brokered by Antioch.

"It's important for students to really learn well how to work, to understand the work culture,'' said Susan Eklund-Leen, a faculty member in the school's former incarnation and now a dean and professor of cooperative education.

Their first postings will be in the region. Later, according to the still gestating plan, many will move on to jobs across the nation. Before they graduate, Mr. Roosevelt said, they will have a resume covering six co-op terms including the opportunity to work abroad using the skills of the language minor that will be part of each student's curriculum.

One of the six tenure-track faculty members that were among the school's first hires will teach Spanish. The initial language offerings also will include French and Japanese.

Last Thursday, during their campus orientation, members of the new class, like freshmen everywhere, reveled in anticipation of the venture ahead.

Anya Gandy, wearing a Steve Prefontaine T-shirt that hinted at her background as a high school runner in Oregon, said she'd been offered academic scholarships to a number of Oregon schools and had been accepted at competitive colleges including Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pa., and the University of Rochester. She said she'd been attracted to Antioch by "the passion of the alumni.''

"We have the chance to create something new,'' she said. "It's an unparalleled opportunity ... worth taking the risk.''

For Guy Mathews, who played left tackle on the Cardinal Spellman High School football team in the Bronx, his fellow students were the attraction.

"Even on the first college tour, the kids here seemed more approachable," he said. "I thought this would be a great community to join."

Mr. Mathews said he planned to study political science and sociology, and, nodding toward Ms. Gandy, he added, "We're going to start a track team -- we'll hold all the records."

Maisie Taibbi, a Pittsburgh Allderdice graduate, said a high school counselor had suggested Antioch as a good fit. And coming through the Pittsburgh schools, she was also familiar with the new president.

"One of the reasons was Mark Roosevelt; he's a rock star," she said.

In choosing these students and their 32 colleagues, Ms. Ecklund-Leen noted, among the qualities the admission committee sought were perseverance and tenacity.

"Mark calls it 'grit,'" she said.

During his time in Pittsburgh, Mr. Roosevelt faced criticisms, but received many more accolades for his efforts to revive the troubled system. His surprise departure disappointed a wide swath of the city's academic and civic leadership.

His new position brings its own significant challenges, but for all his accomplishments, he left behind a persistent array of challenges, some specific to Pittsburgh and some shared by urban districts across the country.

Last week, as he sat behind a desk that held a "Pittsburgh Promise'' coffee mug, he reflected on the question of how his decision to heed the headhunter's call to interview for the Antioch leadership squared with the concept of "grit'' that he aspired to in Pittsburgh as well as in his new role.

"That a very fair and difficult question, and believe me, I wrestled with it enormously,'' he said.

"What I said to friends and colleagues at the time -- to friends who asked me that question in very personal ways -- I had concluded I had done as well as I could for as long as I could. I was exhausted. I was depleted. So I made a personal assessment ... that my tank was empty and it was better to hand the baton to someone else than to try to keep going.

"I don't necessarily tell you I'm proud of that,'' he added. "I wish my tank had had more in it. And you could do some analysis of that as to what emptied the tank -- how much of that responsibility might have been mine and how much others'."

But he disputed the notion that his was an abbreviated tenure. He pointed out that his time in Pittsburgh exceeded the length of service of any of his colleagues in a training program for school superintendents that marked another transition in his life -- the shift from politician to educator that followed his loss as the Democratic nominee in the 1994 Massachusetts governor's race.

"Five-and-a-half years in an urban school district is like some longer period of time in other jobs,'' he said. "That doesn't mean that I don't have, you know, a little pain around that. I do, and self-doubt.''

Among the memorabilia in his office is a framed front page from the Oct. 19, 1994, edition of the Boston Globe. The lead headline is "Roosevelt Drives the Debate'' over a story about his ultimately unsuccessful campaign against incumbent Gov. William Weld. Mr. Roosevelt was chosen as the Democratic nominee after a legislative career highlighted by his role as the architect of a landmark education-reform law in the state.

He compared and contrasted the more recent shift to the other major transition in his professional life, the decision to get out of politics after his landslide loss in that race.

"I felt the same guilt when I left politics as I did when I left Pittsburgh. ... [but] I felt deeply alienated from politics, which I didn't when I left Pittsburgh. I have a tremendous amount of affection for Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

"I ran for governor when I was 38, so a lot of people, after I lost, said, 'You're 38, start working for the next time.' I didn't want a next time ... and I had to examine what I did want to do, and education was what I wanted to do.''

At 55, in a new venue, that's what he's doing, but as in Pittsburgh, the challenges go beyond the classroom. Major fund-raising and logistical issues remain to be surmounted to make sure that Antioch rises from what one faculty member called, "The Great Interruption.''

Even before he took office, he faced the complaints of former faculty members angry that their tenure would not be honored by the successor institution. Several administrators from the prior regime are members of the new staff, but the six tenure-track faculty hires were all new to Antioch.

The school is now embarked on what Mr. Roosevelt characterized as "the mind-numbingly complex'' process of obtaining accreditation. All 35 members of the new class of 2015 are receiving full scholarships funded by the school's endowment.

Next year, however, in a class tentatively targeted at 75, plans call for only 10 similar scholarships. The ability of the remaining students to obtain federal financial aid depends on the school's success in moving along in that accreditation process.

Behind the school's old administration building is an obelisk engraved with a quote, weathered but still legible, from Horace Mann, the revered former president of Antioch.

"I beseech you to treasure up in your hearts these my parting words: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.''

Before leading the school, Mann had been a Massachusetts legislator, a pioneering education reformer, and an unsuccessful candidate for governor of Massachusetts. The echoes of that biography lend an air of inevitability to the latest incarnation of Mark Roosevelt.

"Horace Mann,'' he said in a campus talk earlier this year. "I've been following that man around most of my life.''


James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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