Ed School Program Seeks To Train New Generation Of Urban School Leaders

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.