Robert S. Peterkin, Cambridge's new superintendent of schools, is one tough administrator.
A product of the New York public schools and a veteran of the Boston system during its difficult desegregation, Peterkin has been hailed as one of Massachusetts' outstanding public adminstrators and one of the best teachers in Boston.
But the greatest challenge to the former deputy superintendent of the Boston school system lies ahead, as he begins to oversee a school system virtually neglected for the last nine months.
Not only must the 39-year-old Peterkin confront the usual problems facing an urban school system-demanding parents, federal regulations, distribution of resources--but he must also contend with the seven-member School Committee which voted not to rehire his predecessor, William C. Lannon.
After weeks of heated debate last winter, the School Committee voted not to renew Lannon's contract in August, thus ending the Superintendent's nine-year tenure.
Now after two months as the leader of Cambridge's 8000 public school students. Peterkin is showing signs that he could be just what this system needs.
Peterkin's first major accomplishment as superintendent has been to reconcile differences between his office and the School Committee, according to Committee Chairman I conard J. Russell, the mayor of Cambridge.
"There is unity in the board so that [we] can put aside petty differences," said Russell.
"He's solving problems on his own, and doesn't let minor problems become major," the mayor added, citing the confrontational, often political, nature of the school committee in the past.
"Let's focus back on the issues and not the politics," the new superintendent said last week. "I've found this committee giving support, trying to get over last year."
Another delicate issue which the Lannon administration failed to deal with effectively is the tough question of allocating resources equitably throughout the school system.
Peterkin said that schools can be equal in numbers of buses and dollars spent per student, and still not handle the various needs of this diverse community. Cambridge's new superintendent says he intends to examine the system's different programs and to evaluate which ones are less effective.
Cambridge schools have been recognized nationwide as innovators in open schools, magnet schools, and alternative programs.
One such program currently embroiled in controversy, however, is the city's computer magnet school, the so-called "school of the future," which opened last year without computer hardware.
Other computer programs in the city suffer from mechanical breakdowns, lack of trained staff, and insufficient computer space, according to teachers who testified at Tuesday's committee meeting.
"Let's take a step back and get a plan," says Peterkin, recognizing the need for someone to coordinate Cambridge's introduction to computers.
Peterkin compares this system's rush into computers with Boston's desegregation, saying, "Judge Andrew Garrity ordered the Boston school system in June 1975 to create magnets by that September." Peterkin is quick to point out that bad feelings can often be prevented with sufficient planning.
Addressing the annual Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week. Peterkin emphasized that he will work to strengthen the bonds between Cambridge schools and the city's businesses and universities.
Peterkin says Cambridge's businesses can improve this city's schools by suggesting methods of organizing schools, dealing with troublesome employees, and motivating teachers.
Local university can assist the schools by training teachers, taking school departments under their wing, admitting more local students, and training principals in effective management skills.