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.
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."
But some people in Trotwood were surprised to see Calloway ascend to the top job in Detroit. That's because the Trotwood school board in 2003 placed her on administrative leave and then bought out her contract after teachers descended on the board en masse to complain about low morale and what some described as an atmosphere of "fear and intimidation."
"Morale is the lowest and the atmosphere the worst I have seen in my 27 years of employment," local teachers union president Pat Lekan told the school board on Jan. 22, 2003, according to a Dayton Daily News report. Lekan also said some teachers were prepared to transfer out of the district to escape Calloway's authority.
News coverage of the controversy seems to put district constituents and union-represented teachers in opposite camps. At the same school board meeting, Ernest Hill, a grandfather of nine kids in the district, said test scores under Calloway had climbed for the first time in years. Another parent said the discipline Calloway had restored to school hallways and classrooms was replaced by chaos after she left.
In a follow-up email interview, Calloway did not respond to WORLD's questions about the Trotwood controversy. But members of the Normandy School Board in St. Louis acknowledged that Calloway is "very strong willed."
Normandy board member Nancy Hartman said, "Some people would say she's difficult to work with. But her undying focus is on what is best for the children. Sometimes adults might have sensed her frustration, her getting impatient with the adults, but it was because she was so focused on improving things for the children."
Made up of 23 municipalities, the Normandy district is home to one high school, one middle school, and seven elementary facilities, one of which contains three separate schools. The majority of the approximately 5,600 students there are African-American. In the early 2000s, according to school board vice president Ed James, the district dropped from full accreditation to provisional accreditation due to a spiraling dropout rate, low standardized test scores, and shabbily maintained facilities.
In hiring Calloway, James said, the district hoped to get back on track for full accreditation when it is reevaluated in 2009. He remembers Calloway's first meeting with the Normandy school officials. She stood before a whiteboard and drew arrows representing curriculum, staffing, testing, facilities, and other areas. "Every arrow was facing in a different direction," James said. "We were functioning, but everyone was functioning in his or her own little niche. Dr. Calloway pulled together more of a team concept."
In his estimation, Normandy is now on track to accreditation. He credits what he sees as Calloway's ability to get to the root of a problem and put procedures in place that treat both cause and symptom. Asked how Calloway's faith manifested itself on the job, James said she "brought a sense of compassion" to the position of superintendent, and that her Christianity showed in her "work ethic and commitment."
In early 2007, Hartman, who attends St. Ann of Normandy Catholic Church, organized a faith-based community rally to convince Calloway to stay in St. Louis. Hartman also spoke with the superintendent privately. "Even though she had made a lot of progress in Normandy," Hartman said, "she told me she was going to have to leave here before she could see the fruits of her labors because she felt she was being called to serve the children of Detroit."
In that city, not only are the hurdles high, but some say change in the school district must be sweeping and immediate; incremental changes are not an option. "If they don't improve now, people are going to keep moving out of the city because children are not learning what they should be and curriculum is not what it should be," Ana Arias, a parent who is considering private school or a move to another district for her three children, told the Detroit News.
DPS, she said, is "running out of chances." How does Calloway plan to attack the district's problems?
"I'm not going to attack anything," Calloway objected during a telephone interview with WORLD. Then she said: "I'm going to work to create an environment where the language and the priorities all center around students and their achievement. The current environment seems to be one where it's more business as usual. We seem to be caught up with political issues, attachment to programs, to buildings, to the way we used to do business."
Does she have experience breaking down entrenched bureaucracies to promote change?
"I don't like your verbs. I don't break down anything."
She is successful in "building cooperative bridges," she said. She plans "to work with people, engage participation, make decisions based on data, and be consistent in the message that process determines product and that student achievement is the product. As a leader, that is my challenge-not making people change, but having a consistent, data-driven focus as to why we should change."
Calloway's language was similarly direct when she spoke on July 11 at a Detroit Federation of Teachers "welcoming reception" held in her honor. "I do not believe in charter schools; I do not support charter schools," she said, speaking to several hundred DFT members. "As long as I am superintendent, charter schools will not be welcome in Detroit."
Calloway's adamant stand against charters may-or may not-put her at odds with Detroit's oscillating mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick. In 2003, Kilpatrick accepted an offer of $200 million by philanthropist Bob Thompson to build 15 new charter schools. But Kilpatrick abandoned the plan after fierce opposition from DFT. This March, the mayor again came out strongly in favor of building more private, faith-based, and charter schools in an attempt to tourniquet the city's student attrition and to attract parents considering moving to the area.
But in July-the same month Calloway arrived and proclaimed her opposition to charters-Kilpatrick backpedaled again. "I'm not going to Lansing with any [charter] legislation until I see that we can work as a community to get this done," he told the Detroit News. It appears Kilpatrick is giving Calloway time and room to work. Still, he did not retreat from school choice entirely: "If we can't make it happen here locally, then I, as mayor, need to do something. We need to quit defining ourselves by one school system," he said.
In the followup interview, Calloway did not respond to WORLD's questions about her reasons for opposing to charters.
Calloway's initial three-year contract calls for an annual salary of $280,000, plus $30,000 in performance bonuses, with an automatic two-year renewal, making her one of the highest-paid public officials in the United States. Calloway negotiated the contract at a time when principals were accepting pay cuts due to the district's anemic budget, alienating and angering some principals.
But there are two views on the salary issue: The Detroit job may be the least desirable in the entire nation-and therefore more expensive to fill. "It's a PR battle rather than a budget battle," said education analyst Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency in Sacramento. "Trimming Calloway's salary might facilitate hiring an extra teacher or two. But then you're asking someone to take what may be the worst education job in the country and do it for less than they might get running some other school system that has a lot fewer problems. It's hard to really join one side or another on this."
If Calloway is commanding a high salary, she will also demand high performance-both from her subordinates and herself, said Normandy board member James. "She takes on a lot of work, and expects everyone to hit the road running at the same pace that she runs. Sometimes you have to build up that speed and endurance."
How will Calloway fare in the big city? "My grandfather always used to say you're either conceited or convinced," James said. "I think she's convinced. She has a lot on her plate, but I think she's up for the job."