Superintendent of Cambridge City Schools Robert S. Peterkin will take office as superintendent of the Milwaukee school system on August 1, aides in his office said yesterday.
Peterkin, who has headed the nationally recognized Cambridge City Schools since 1984, was unanimously chosen by the Milwaukee Board of School Directors last Friday.
"He's the right man at the right moment," said Mary Bills, a member of the Milwaukee board. "Our urban system is at a crossroads. We lost a large portion of our middle class, and there have been attempts by state legislators to invoke cost controls on our schools," she said.
"We can either become a Detroit, a New York City, a Cleveland, or we can establish new ground and figure out how to educate urban children. Peterkin is up to the challenge we face," said Bills.
"Peterkin has educational courage," said Bills. "While there is a great tendency for school districts to rely on test scores from multiple-choice exams, Peterkin stresses critical thinking skills, problem solving, and comprehension."
The Milwaukee board was especially impressed by Peterkin's concern for the needs of minority students, said its president, David A. Cullen. "He was very responsive" to a report by the Concerned Black Teachers that indicated that Blacks and other children of color still did not perform as well as their white classmates in the same schools.
While Peterkin could not be reached for comment, Cambridge School Board members voiced praise of the superintendent. "There's consensus among the Board that Bob Peterkin is an exceptional educational leader," said freshman member James J. Rafferty, a Cambridge attorney.
The school system has 7300 students and a $68 million budget.
Cambridge's voluntary desegration program, similar to the "magnet schools" system used in several large cities, was recently singled out for praise by Secretary of Education William Bennett. The program, which offers students a "controlled choice" among various programs, has provided a model for other urban school districts.
Henrietta Davis, another freshman on the School Committee, said Peterkin promoted equity in education. "He believes that all children can learn," she said. "He helped develop basic skills in children with difficulties." Davis added that the superintendent gave "more equitable allowances" to city schools with fewer resources.
The superintendent also promoted the two-year-old Cambridge Partnership, which involved business and educational leaders in the public schools, Davis said.
Unified Bitter Council
Peterkin took office in the wake of a bitter political battle that resulted in the firing of his predecessor, William Lannon, and School Committee members said he has unified the normally polarized board. Like the City Council, the School Committee has long been a battleground between the liberal Cambridge Civic Association and the more conservative, neighborhood-oriented Independents.
"Bob has been able to keep both sides happy by keeping lines of communication open and by keeping the amount of information available to both sides about the same," said Rafferty. "He has resisted playing politics. His consensus building, vision, and leadership will make his departure particularly acute."
Peterkin's departure will put a strain on the Cambridge School Committee, at least in the short run, said Davis. "It's very unfortunate that he's leaving at this time," she said. "This is a great interruption in the progress of the schools to go out and look for a new superintendent."
In addition, Davis noted that the School Committee is preparing to negotiate a two-year contract with the teachers' union and to make several hiring decisions, all of which need the help of a superintendent.
Davis said she expected the Board would choose an acting superintendent until a successor for Peterkin could be found.
But Rafferty said he did not forsee problems in finding a good replacement for Peterkin. The job of superintendent of the Cambridge schools is attractive because of the challenge and responsibility involved, he said. "We'll find a replacement, and there'll be a new Bob Peterkin."