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COVER STORY : Raising Compton's Bottom Line : New Administrator Has a History of Turning Scores--and Heads

March 10, 1994|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jerome Harris, the new state-appointed administrator of the Compton Unified School District, scanned the angry crowd in the school board meeting hall.

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In the front row sat school board members who were doing a slow burn because the state has taken away their powers and given them to Harris. Behind them were parents frustrated over schools that are falling apart and employees bitter over layoffs and proposed pay cuts.

Facing this sea of distrust was Harris, who four days earlier had been a college professor in Brooklyn. Now, at his first school board meeting, he was about to say something that was sure to make some people even angrier.

"What we're doing to kids in this system is almost criminal," he said as the room grew quiet.

Using an overhead projector, he displayed a graph that used several lines to represent student achievement in California. The lowest line showed student achievement in Compton.

"It's hard to see because it's right on the bottom," said Harris, dressed immaculately in a charcoal suit, pressed white shirt and red bow tie.

Harris then projected graphs measuring student achievement in others ways, such as among black students and among Latino students.

"Here's Compton. It's on the bottom," he said and then twice more. "It's on the bottom. It's on the bottom. . . There isn't nobody learning--not much."

And the problem, he said, is with the adults, including those in the boardroom. To think otherwise would be to suggest that black children can't learn, that Latino children can't learn, that poor people can't learn.

"And if you believe that, you shouldn't be in the room."

John Jerome Harris was not about to walk out of the room. When Harris is in charge, he says that all children will learn. And he doesn't particularly care what it takes or which adults he offends if they prove to be obstacles.

For teachers, this has meant standing up to teach--because Harris believes you can't be inspiring from a chair. Principals have had to tolerate impromptu, frequent visits from the top man. And school board members who hired Harris discovered an administrator who sometimes treated them like underlings. Such traits helped get Harris fired in Atlanta, and have earned him such labels as "arrogant" and "domineering."

But like him or not, Harris has done what some researchers say is virtually impossible. The 62-year-old school administrator has gone into urban school districts filled with poor, minority students and raised student scores on standardized tests.

Improving those scores "is probably the toughest thing to do in education," said one researcher.

That track record helped persuade the California Department of Education that Harris was the man to turn around Compton Unified, a district of 27,300 students where test scores are typically the worst in the state. The scores showed no improvement in the latest round of statewide tests, which were released this week.

Compton Unified came under state control last July, as a condition for granting the struggling school system an emergency loan. Initially, the state's main job was to restore the district's financial health, but the Legislature subsequently ordered officials to improve Compton's academic programs.

The state placed a retired superintendent in charge of the Compton schools while conducting a nationwide search for a long-term administrator.

After years of criticizing the performance of Compton Unified, state education officials now are on the spot to show that they can do better.

Enter Harris--who took over as the long-term administrator last month.

In Brooklyn, Harris was superintendent of Community School District 13 from 1974 to 1988, during which time its test scores rose from the bottom of the pack to the middle of the heap in the New York City school system.

Test scores also rose in Atlanta during Harris' two-year tenure as superintendent. They declined after he left in 1990 and became an education consultant in New York.

Ironically, the Atlanta school board fired Harris just one month after the district trumpeted gains in student achievement.

"He treated school board members like they were his employees and some of them took exception to that," explained one Atlanta school official. Other critics said Harris ran the district like a virtual dictator and demanded too much from employees.

Harris said he merely tried to change what needed changing.

The North Carolina native has an engaging, folksy style that is unusual in the profession of education, where administrators toss off mind-numbing jargon like it was a job requirement. But his smooth manner belies an uncompromising orneriness.

"When I was growing up we could blame 'the Man' and say that 'the Man' did this to us," Harris said after taking the Atlanta job. "Now we have black mayors, black superintendents and black school boards . . . but they have not made a difference, not in Chicago, Newark, Detroit, Cleveland, nor in Atlanta. I can no longer blame 'the Man.' In Atlanta, now I am 'the Man.' "

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