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The Times-Picayune

Schools Chief Tailor-Made For Tough Test; Amato Specializes In Turnaround Jobs

By Aesha Rasheed

February 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Times-Picayune. All rights reserved. 

Anthony Amato is drawn to tough challenges.

In his rare free time, he can be found hiking up the sides of mountains or exploring the depths of the ocean. But those are mere hobbies, not nearly as tough or rewarding as his chief passion: urban education.

As he started his new job as superintendent of New Orleans public schools Monday, Amato said he was undertaking his most daunting mission.

"This is probably the biggest challenge in the country right now, but it's also one of greatest opportunities," he said.

Though he has yet to sign a contract with the Orleans Parish School Board, Amato began moving into his fifth-floor office this week at the school system's Gen. de Gaulle Drive complex to get a jump on things. Today, he will tour eight campuses, taking in some of the district's lowest-performing schools.

Throughout his 33-year-career, Amato, 55, has made a habit of walking into challenges other people would have thought were lost causes.

As a principal, he took on one of the worst middle schools in New York City. As a district superintendent in the city, he took on a district mired in scandal and languishing at the bottom of the city's 42 subdivisions. As superintendent of the Hartford, Conn., public schools, he took the helm of a system so troubled that state officials seized control from the locally elected school board.

He has done this because he could not imagine letting children suffer in failing schools. For many children, an education is the difference between life and death, he said.

"It's the kid rush that moves me," he said. "It's that look that I see in their eyes."

In overseeing schools, Amato managed impressive turnarounds, yanking up student performance, cutting down dropouts and repairing troubled business departments.

He says a similar revolution is possible for New Orleans schools.

He predicted that he'll restore confidence in the system to the point where voters will back a bond issue in less than two years to repair dilapidated buildings.

Precocious tutor

Amato got his start teaching when he was just a boy.

Back then, shuffling between poor schools in the Bronx and Puerto Rico, he had a sense that he and his grade-school classmates weren't getting a decent education, Amato said. Unable to stand by while his classmates fell behind, he took the confused kids and tried to tutor them.

"I wanted everybody to succeed," he said. "What was happening in my classroom -- to my classmates -- was wrong. I don't know how I knew, but I knew. And I wanted to do something about it."

Back then he didn't call it teaching; he just figured he was helping friends. During afternoons spent helping friends with math and reading, the seeds were planted for an education career. He first became a teacher in part to help pay his way through medical school. He wanted to go into family practice and open a free clinic in his old neighborhood, he said. But as a teaching job led to administration, his medical school dream was transformed.

"I realized that it was really the same thing," he said. "I wanted to help people, and this was helping people."

And he began to see transforming failing schools as a science.

If history is any indication, he has come close to mastering that science.

After five years under Amato's leadership, reading proficiency at the Bronx middle school where he was principal jumped from 11 percent to more than 50 percent.

A similar story, on a larger scale, can be told across New York City's District 6, where Amato was superintendent for 12 years. The district, which encompassed one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, had posted some of the worst student test scores before Amato's tenure. By the time he left, the district's test scores ranked near the middle of New York City's 42 school districts.

But Amato's most dramatic success has been the reform of Hartford schools, earning him national acclaim for urban school reform. His achievement there was a key reason Orleans Parish School Board members chose Amato out of more than 40 applicants.

Blueprint for success

In Hartford, Amato took on a system much like New Orleans', plagued by underperforming schools and students, financial mismanagement and political strife. Two years before he was hired, Connecticut officials had taken control of the 26,000-student district and appointed a slate of school board trustees.

Under Amato's leadership, the district made a sharp improvement: test scores climbed, dropout rates plummeted and parent participation improved.

He predicts similar outcomes for New Orleans schools.

He's focused on three top priorities: training teachers to use the tools they have to best reach students, repairing the district's crumbling facilities and putting in place clear directions for running every aspect of the school system.

"The good news is that the supplies are there," he said. Many classrooms have much of what they need to be successful, but not everyone knows how to use what's there, he said. "The bad news is that there are no systems in place to show people how to use those supplies."

From school to school, principals and teachers are using vastly different strategies of teaching and management, he said. Some are effective; others are not. And students who move from school to school have no consistency.

"I'm not talking about lock step, but we all need to be able to understand each other," he said.

In order to repair the city's aging school buildings, Amato knows he'll have to persuade voters to support a bond issue, and he knows he can't do that until he proves himself. But he called the shabby condition of many schools "a slap in the face" of public school students and vowed to push toward a bond next year. "By November 2004, we're going to have enough credibility and enough momentum that people are going to want to stand up and do the right thing," he said

To do that, Amato said he'll bring a transition team of people who know his working style and understand how to get things done quickly.

"It's not that I don't believe there are people here who can do the job. It's just that in many cases I don't have a lot of time to look for them," he said. He added that the transition team would not be large -- two or three people -- and won't all necessarily come from outside the New Orleans area.

Key among the positions he'll need to fill are administrators in the district's business department, which has been riddled with scandals and possible corruption.

Amato said he has dealt with such problems before, and the business departments can be turned around with the right leadership.

"There are a lot of good people here just dying to do the right thing. They just need good leadership," he said. He has already started looking for the right leaders for those departments, he said.

Meanwhile, Amato has yet to finish the performance goals that will be part of his contract with the School Board. Those goals will be based on the board's reform plan but are being written by Amato.

On Monday, Amato was surrounded by a legal pad full of notes, a calendar and the beginning of his chart of goals and timelines. When they are complete, the goals will be specific and will have clear deadlines.

"If I'm going to hold people accountable," he said, "I have to first be willing to hold myself accountable."

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