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ON CALIFORNIA

Is There a Doc in the House?

March 06, 1994|PETER H. KING

CLOVIS — They come with their pilot programs, acronyms and sound bites, promoting vouchers, or taxes, teacher power, principal power, more computers, fewer tests, secession, prayer, metal detectors. California is bursting with public school reformers--most long on theory, short on practical experience and, more to the point, tangible successes.

Which brings us to Floyd Buchanan. He is 70 years old, a grandfather of eight. He lives by a golf course in semi-retirement, but when talk turns to schools the eyes behind the trifocals still burn.

"Education," Buchanan says, sitting in a home office cluttered with plaques and mementos, "has always been a mission for me, just as if I had gone into the ministry, or became a doctor."

Buchanan, in fact, is known to this town outside Fresno simply as "Doc," a reference to his UC Berkeley education. He moved here in the late 1950s. Clovis was just a cow town then, with a reputation for tough cops, good rodeo, card rooms and little else. Today, it's a boom town of 50,000. Most of the new residents come from Fresno, drawn in large measure by Floyd Buchanan's handiwork--the public school system.

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Buchanan served as superintendent of the Clovis Unified School District for three decades. He built the district from nothing, putting into practice what were considered, then, some pretty strange theories. For instance: basics. "My position," Buchanan says, "was that if kids couldn't read, couldn't do basic math, couldn't write, then all the other grandiose things educators had in mind for them wouldn't happen." And empowerment: "Leadership is vision and support. You point to the top of the mountain, and tell your teachers and staff: 'That's where we want to go,' and then you get on your knees and say: 'How can we help you get there?' "

He marshaled resources, bought the best equipment, built the fanciest schools--and expected results: "Administration," he says, "is the art of removing the excuses." He unlocked playgrounds and promoted parent involvement, bonding schools to community. He installed dress codes and aggressive anti-truancy and maintenance programs. Graffiti vandals who targeted Clovis schools found their mischief painted over by morning, which sort of took the sport out of it.

And he unleashed an educational philosophy, applying the dynamics of athletics to academics. As coaches motivate, Buchanan believes, so should teachers. As football heroes become campus heroes, so should the champions of math quizzes, spelling bees, choral clubs. As score is kept in sports contests, so should it be kept in class. In Clovis, competition became king. Students competed with themselves, classmates, other schools. There was pressure to win--but also to learn from the losing.

"In education," Buchanan says, "we should teach kids what to do when they lose, to get off their duffs and get back in the fight. If we can teach them not to be quitters by the time they finish the 12th grade, they should make it through life just fine."

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By any measurement, the package worked. Amid a tax rebellion, Clovis voters approved school bonds. Test scores and real estate values floated upward, together. As new people poured into Clovis, however, so did new ideas--about competition, about "Doc." And three years ago, Buchanan was put to pasture. What has followed since has been a pathetic series of power struggles and purges, scandals and back-room politics, much of it orchestrated by Buchanan himself. Doc, people whisper, just doesn't know how to let go. Can anyone blame him?

On this day Buchanan seems unsure what to do with himself. He talks of writing a book. He talks of running for a county schools post. He talks for hours about his ideas and programs, of creating "lighthouses" and salvaging California schools: "Instead of becoming overwhelmed, you get a little toehold somewhere, and you fight back." He tells stories. Once a teacher challenged his decree that 90% of the students should test at grade level. Let's see you do it, the teacher said. So he spent four months in her classroom; the scores doubled. "Give me a classroom today," he says, "and I could do it again."

The eyes burn anew as he suggests this, but most likely Buchanan's legacy must remain as written, which, after all, is not so shabby. For the primary lesson Buchanan brings to the reform clamor will remain untainted by any epilogue. It's not about educational strategy, but about hope, and the power of one. It is this: Every so often someone can come along with the right mix of instinct, know-how, ego and courage, and make something happen, something big. Who knows? Maybe in that crowded, noisy field of reformers are one or two players who actually know their stuff, and how to pull it off. And wouldn't that be a nice surprise.

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