Cover Story

Driven to educate

Back-to-school | Detroit's controversial new school superintendent Connie Calloway wants to change the face of blighted schools. "More than a hundred thousand kids in Detroit need a voice. Who would be their voice?"

Issue: "Tough love," Aug. 18, 2007

Two years ago, Connie Calloway saw an ad in Education Week: Detroit Public Schools seeks new superintendent. "I thought, 'Wow. Who would take on that challenge?'" said Calloway, who was then serving as superintendent of the mostly black, low-income Normandy School District in St. Louis, Mo.

The Detroit district was-and is-known nationally as an educational disaster area, perhaps the country's worst. Standardized test scores are in the tank. As crime, poverty, and civic disarray push families out of the city, an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 students leave the district each year. The exodus is squeezing the district's budget, draining away millions annually. Now-at 116,000 kids-if the student population drops below 100,000, the district could lose its state classification as a first-class district.

Financial woes have already led district officials to lay off 555 teachers. Still, an entrenched bureaucracy has continued growing even as the district's teaching force has continued to shrink. Detroit Public Schools is in debt to the tune of $210 million, and the state could take over management of the district if it doesn't get its financial act together. Meanwhile, a complex maze of fiefdoms and political grudges that stretch back decades has repeatedly choked reform efforts in the cradle.

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Calloway tucked away that issue of Education Week, but not long afterward, an envelope appeared in her mailbox. It was a letter from DPS asking qualified superintendents to consider applying for the position. That's when she began to feel a tugging on her heart.

"I knew when I received that letter that I would be Detroit's superintendent," she told WORLD. "But people of faith will understand when I say I spent a great deal of time talking to my Lord about it. I told Him, 'I'm OK where I am. I'd like to retire here in two years. Is this assignment for someone else?'"

But the longer she prayed, she said, the more that answer appeared to be no. "Every time I went to my private place of prayer, the more clearly I saw my calling . . . more than a hundred thousand kids in Detroit needed a voice. Who would be their voice?"

In July, Calloway, an unabashed evangelical, became that voice. But her fiery faith comes with a personal style that, depending on the observer, ranges from passionate and demanding to intimidating and difficult. Will her no-nonsense style unify opposing forces in the DPS system, or deepen divisions between them?

Born in Alabama and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Calloway comes from a family that values both education and their Christian faith. "I don't have a memory of not being in church," Calloway said. The only time she or any of her three sisters stayed home from First Abysinnia Baptist was when they were too ill to attend. (Perhaps explaining why Calloway's sister, Mary, holds the record as the congregation's longest-serving collector of Sunday school offering envelopes.) Calloway's father was a civil servant and her mother a postal worker; both instilled in their girls a love for learning.

"Before African-Americans were allowed to have library cards, the whole family would go to the public library together," Calloway recalls. "We couldn't check books out, so we would walk down to the library and read as much as we could before we had to leave."

Calloway remembers when the rules changed and she got her first library card. "I was more excited than when I got my driver's license!" she said. "For any adult who can remember a time when they did not have that simple privilege that was extended to other people, the experience will either commit you to the process of education or drive you from it."

Observing her parents, "master teachers who taught us values and principles," Calloway chose the former path. One summer, for example, they assigned her to teach her younger sister, Myra, to read. "I was fascinated" by the process, Calloway said. Later, while exploring careers at Sarah Lawrence College, she visited various experimental school models, including "the Little Red School House" and a Montessori school. After that, she said: "I was totally hooked."

Calloway went on to teach in public schools in Cleveland and Boston, and to earn master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University and Ohio University, respectively. She also taught preschool in Ghana, West Africa, and served as a college instructor for military personnel in Germany.

In 2000, Calloway took over as superintendent of Trotwood-Madison City schools in Trotwood, Ohio, where, according to her official biography, she "moved the district out of 'academic emergency' for the first time in the history of the district."

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