Robert Peterkin has a job that may be one of the most difficult in the country. And he is leaving it for one that might prove even harder.
Since 1988, Peterkin has served as the superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools, where he has faced the entire range of headaches known to urban school administrators, from political infighting to racial conflict to underprepared students.
Next fall, Peterkin, formerly Cambridge schools superintendent, is returning east, this time to head up an innovative School of Education program designed to train future generations of city school superintendents.
The Urban Superintendents Program began this year with 10 students and is the only graduate training available specifically for urban school administrators, says John Williams, an associate professor at the Ed school who is serving as interim chair of the program.
Educators say the special training is critically needed at a time when urban school superintendents are quitting or being fired in record numbers.
The average urban school superintendent serves only two and a half years today, compared with five years in the 1970s, says Samuel Husk, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools in Washington.
Despite yearly salaries often exceeding $100,000, 27 superintendents in urban school systems left their jobs in the last year-and-a-half, Husk says. Of this group, more than half were "bought out, forced out or forcefully retired" before their contracts had been fulfilled.
"Some people would argue that the job is just impossible because of the conflicting interests that need to be served," says Williams.
Peterkin says that in addition to academic work, he plans to prepare future administrators for the stormy political relationships between school boards and superintendents that often lead to early resignations. Through a required internship, students will be exposed to the formidable political realities of education administration, Peterkin says.
"This country pretended until recently that education wasn't a political arena," he says. "Local boards were looked upon as strictly educational experts when in fact they were politicians--no worse or better than any other politicians."
Tom Payzant, the superintendent of the San Diego City schools, knows well the dangers of steering a big city school system. His eight years in San Diego make him one of the longest tenured urban superintendents in this country, he says.
Payzant, a 1968 Education School graduate and an advisor to the Urban Superintendent's program, points to the sheer size and diversity characterizing urban populations as important factors behind the political battles raging in urban American school systems.
There are more than 55 different first languages spoken by the students in the San Diego school system, Payzant says. More than 20 percent of the students attending public schools do not speak English as a first language.
Board of Education members often turn over quickly, sometimes leaving superintendents working with a different board from the one that elected them. A new body frequently wants signs of immediate improvement, and "very often they will focus on the superintendent as the first order of change," Payzant says.
"It is very much a job where you are caught in a cross-fire of different interests," he says.
Back in Milwaukee
Although Peterkin is widely priased in Milwaukee, he has not escaped his share of controversy there. His innovative proposal to set up special schools for Black males has drawn both approval and condemnation. And his decision to leave his post for the Harvard job has generated some negative reaction.
Some Milwaukee educators say Peterkin sold them on a vision for the improvement of their schools, and is now jumping ship before seeing his plans through.
Although Peterkin will have fulfilled his three-year contract when he resigns this June, his announcement came only three months after he had announced a five-year plan for the improvement of the Milwaukee schools.
Since coming to Milwaukee in 1988 from Cambridge, Peterkin has worked to increase community involvement in a school system that is riddled with all the woes of inner-city life. His efforts at reform have been broad-based, encouraging active contributions from parents and business leaders in the community, says John Hays, principal of Milwaukee's South Division High School.
One of Peterkin's first moves as superintendent was to decentralize the school system by creating six districts, each with its own community superintendent. Peterkin says this will allow the school system to raise educational standards by increasing local control of the schools.
At this stage these changes have yet to bring improvement in the classroom, however, and with Peterkin's departure the future of this vision is uncertain, says Robert Peters, principal of Custer High School in Milwaukee.
"It's very difficult to pinpoint just what positive things have happened," he says. "He really has not had enough time."
During his term in Milwaukee, Peterkin has also shown a penchant for gaining approval for original reforms. This fall the Milwaukee school board adopted his proposal for two African-American immersion schools, an idea that had received national publicity earlier in the year.
The schools, which will open their doors this September, are meant to provide a special curriculum for the education of young Black males. The plan was proposed by a member of the school board in response to the alarming rates of failure for this group of students in the Milwaukee schools. "In our experience less than 10 percent of Black males at the high school level had a B average or better," says Peterkin.
Peterkin, who is Black, says he originally opposed the immersion schools proposal because he had spent 25 years attempting to integrate schools, while this plan would encourage segregation. But Peterkin says he decided to back the plan after being convinced that the novel curriculum could help Black males stay in school and eventually join an integrated society.
The special curriculum includes classes on gender and Black culture as well as weekend and summer programs. Peterkin says he was instrumental in winning approval from the school board for the plan, but the interest of the community will determine its future success.
But some political obserers in Milwaukee say they doubt whether Milwaukee's next superintendent will be able to carry the plan through to completion.
"It's such a complex, difficult thing that he's proposing," said Robert Koechley, an advocate of minority educational interests and volunteer teacher from Madison, Wisconsin. "I don't know if it's a good idea or a bad idea, but what makes me sad is that once he's gone we'll never know."
Koechley says both Harvard and Peterkin should share responsibility for what will be a setback to improvement in Milwaukee's public schools. "I think Harvard is detestable for doing this," he says. "Peterkin was a rare ray of hope. This is something that requires a special person's leadership."
Several educators who have worked closely with Peterkin feel differently about his decision to enter academics. The principal of North Division High School, which serves Milwaukee's poorest district, says that while Peterkin's departure came as a surprise, it will not derail efforts to improve the schools.
"My basic feeling is that we're losing a person who can be replaced but never duplicated," says Cecil Austin.
Hays, the principal of South Division High School, says that when he came to his job three years ago his school was in a state of "crisis." Parents were picketing outside to show displeasure with the quality of their children's education, he says.
With Peterkin's help, Hays says he has been able to rally the support of the community and implement programs to meet the needs of the 40 percent of the North Division students who are Hispanic.
While Hays is quick to admit that the substantive change of retraining teachers has hardly begun, he says these reforms will continue with or without Peterkin.
"This is not a one man show," Hays says. "I see [Peterkin's departure] as a disappointment. I don't see it as leaving us hanging."
And Peterkin himself readily acknowledges that his time in Milwaukee was short, but he says that the reforms there are as much the work of the community as his own. "A school system isn't simply vested in whoever happens to be the superintendent at that time," he says. "These are initiatives that will carry on."