By DeNeen L. Brown
She summoned the superintendent to a meeting in Baltimore. For Clark, the rest of the conversation remains a blur.
"She might have told me which schools," Clark recalls. "But I can't remember her saying anything else. I remember saying I would be there the next day. I just sat there," embarrassed, that under his tenure, the state would make that threat.
An ordained Baptist deacon, Clark falls back in moments of struggle and stress on a comfort his mother showed him long ago growing up in Indiana. He unlocks his desk and opens the left drawer. He finds the smooth, black, pocket-size, leather Bible and unzips it. In the silence, he flips the gilded pages, lets the book fall open, looks down.
"If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove."
For three years, Clark, 55, has been trying to move a mountain, the troubled Prince George's County school system. Instead, the mountain has moved him, changed him in ways that are irreversible. Curled his thick shoulders under the weight. Stopped the ink in the love sonnets he used to write. Robbed him of hours with his family. And directed an avalanche of blame toward him.
Clark started in the system in 1971 and to this day says he is a teacher at heart an observation that may be revealing as he comes to terms with his stewardship. He's viewed by colleagues, teachers and parents as a scholarly visionary, but one who falters in getting programs running. He is known for his compassion, but some who have watched him think he may be too nice, as he has allowed poor principals and administrators to stay in the system. He despises politics, and as a consequence his big, booming voice has often been silent during debates in county and state politics.
Clark knows he is running out of time. His $125,000-a-year contract expires July 1999.
By February, Clark and the board will make a decision, each about the other. Clark will decide whether to ask for another four-year contract. The board will decide whether he is the person to fix the schools in the five years before the deadline the state set for improvement. Whatever happens, Clark doesn't want anybody to say he coasted this last year.
"You can say I was ineffective, but don't ever say I was not trying.
"The question," he says, "is whether the mountain has become a hill or whether I've gone deeper into the valley. Because sometimes you think you've climbed the highest peak only to get to one point and realize you are halfway up the summit. I'm hoping the peak is in sight. ... The air is getting a little thin, though."
Three months after the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland named him 1998 Superintendent of the Year, a majority of the school board rated him a 2 on a scale of 0 to 4 in an initial evaluation. His lowest marks were in management and operation of the school system.
Angered by leaks of the evaluation, Clark fired back a response.
"I am the Superintendent of this school system," he wrote. "I am not threatened by an evaluation that identifies areas for improvement. Any leader who does not recognize the constant need for growth and change does not have a vision for the future."
Vision and Politics
Clark's announced vision when he took office was to improve the county schools by raising what he called "education outcomes," meaning student performance; restructuring the management teams that supervised schools; and drawing in the community to aid in the reforms.
He had made two unsuccessful attempts to become superintendent in 1984 and 1991. Finally, in 1995, the community and the board picked him over two outsiders. Clark described himself as a conciliator who could build bridges with parents, business people and elected leaders and spark changes in an already flagging system that ranked near-bottom statewide in academic performance. He asked for three years to scale the summit, and three years later, the reviews are rolling in.
Clark has had successes.
Scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test in 1996-97 rose six points, the first increase in eight years and the largest one-year gain in 15 years. Scores for minorities also rose, and more students took the college-entry test.
Clark also is credited with emphasizing intensive reading programs for students reading below grade level, structuring the overall budget to finance smaller class sizes and giving principals leeway to manage their schools' finances.
School board member Kenneth E, Johnson (Mitchellville), who was on the board that hired Clark, says he is impressed by Clark's achievements. "But we still have a ways to go."
Yet he acknowledges several of his innovative concepts came up short because he did not execute them well.
Scores on the high stakes test for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders known as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, fell slightly last year, putting the county farther behind the statewide average.
Clark's breakdown of central management into smaller clusters failed to reach its potential because some team leaders "just sit back and don't do anything," says school board member Doyle Niemann (Mount Rainier). "If I was going to fault the superintendent, it would be that he has not acted aggressively enough to get rid of people not doing their jobs."
A special tutoring program Clark introduced foundered because volunteers were scant. Clark now says that to sustain that program, the positions should have been paid slots. Likewise, he says, after he personally reorganized the staffs of six schools, he got disruptions without improvements.
School board Vice Chairman Verna Teasdale (Bowie) continues to credit Clark as "genuinely a visionary. But sometimes a visionary can see the things that they want to accomplish so clearly, they don't recognize others don't see it as clearly and there needs to be a lot of planning that goes into creating the vision."
"I think he is a nice guy," says County Council member Isaac Gourdine (D-Fort Washington), who chairs the council's education committee. "But niceness doesn't get things done."
For Clark, who openly disdains politics, consensus building has become even more complicated as Prince George's continues to change socially and economically and the constituencies involved with the schools become more demanding.
The two superintendents who were his immediate predecessors, Edward Felegy and John Murphy, dealt with a longtime core of business and elected leaders, many of whom have been replaced as the county has both grown and become majority African American.
In the midst of an increasingly politicized environment, Clark says, "I try to be as sophisticated as I can."
But it may not be enough. "Clark is no different from his predecessors. The climate is different," but Clark should adapt by becoming a tougher personality, says a board member, who asked not to be identified because of the pending evaluation of Clark. "In this environment, when they are besieged by the state, they need George Patton."
Clark was not that forceful during a recent session in Annapolis. In fact, he was overlooked.
In a packed hearing room, the Prince George's leaders involved with school funding had gathered to make their case. It was clear their testimony could make or break the request for school construction funds. Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore) called Prince George's leaders to the table: County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D), School board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland), County Council Chairman Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville). Clark was left waiting.
He went to the table anyway. When he was not recognized to speak, he stormed out.
"I raised my hand to speak, and the gavel fell," Clark says. "I thought it was disrespectful."
Journey to the Mountain
Tall and imposing, with rich brown skin and a black-and-white beard, Clark has an easy smile, and when he talks in his deep Barry White voice, people listen. Conversations with staff are peppered with phrases like "this is high stakes," and "I need this now." The words are spoken more matter of factly, not with emphatic flashes of anger or angst.
In his office, the walls are decorated with a black-and-white picture of a segregated classroom, scales of justice, a painting of Martin Luther King Jr., a sketch titled "Tell the Truth" and prized paintings of black Buffalo soldiers.
The many plaques describing his achievements are in a box, and it is hard to tell whether the box is packed for coming or going. Lying on top is a stuffed monkey. Clark picks it up, explains with a smile that this is his symbol of management.
Ask his staff members and they can tell you about the monkey. When they come in, they know, "Don't bring me any monkeys. When you come in, don't tell me, 'We have a problem.' Say, 'I have a problem and this is how I think we ought to resolve it.' "
Clark puts down the monkey. "I have my own problems," he says.
The increasing presence of poverty in the schools, declining test scores, the drain of qualified teachers, the patchwork of struggling reforms those are Clark's problems, some inherited, some created. He is worried. He had promised himself that as long as he was sitting in the superintendent's chair, he would project a professional image, he would look the part, he would have the information. Becoming the county's first African American school superintendent, Clark carried the accomplishments of a race on his shoulders. Nothing he would do would bring embarrassment upon that chair.
How did Clark get to this mountain?
Follow Interstate 70 west to Indianapolis. Turn down McCarty Street and come on a view of Eli Lilly, the giant pharmaceutical company. Drive west on Kenwood to what remains of Senate Avenue and Michael Park. The houses are gone, the parks disappeared, the schools vanished.
"It was as if we didn't exist," Clark says.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company