SOMETIMES FRANCES Reed's third graders tell her, "I saw your father on TV last night." They are talking about her husband of 27 years, D.C. School Superintendent Vincent E. Reed, but maybe they are right at that: He does have a fatherly air. Back in the '50s at rough, hugh Jefferson Junior High, he kept his old fraternity paddle in his office. Paddlees got to initial that paddle. It was considered a great honor.
Occasionally you suspect he wouldn't mind using it on certain members of the school board.
"The thing that bugs me, We've got too many people on the board who feel the system exists to give people jobs, rather than to educate children," he says.
More than one board member has demanded that he hire some friend, sometimes even threatened to get his job if he didn't. And more than one board member has been told to get his ass out of the office ("I pick my fights, but the one issue I'll battle with 'em all the time, tooth and nail, is control of personnel"). Reed recently was reappointed to 1982.
There are schools boards and school boards, he says, but this bunch is something special. One of them wanted his picture up in all the schools in his area. Another demanded travel money across the country and was insulted when Reed insisted on knowing if the trip was on board business. He didn't get the money. And was told to for pity sakes change his shirt. (The 11-member board has granted itself $10,000 a year in junket money, more than all Reed's 10,500 employes are allowed.)
The board, Reed says, spends nearly all of District's Title 4 federal aid money on itself, and it is an old story that it provides each member (salary $18,725) with a full-time office, secretary, research assistant, console telephone, and a pool of secretaries and aides as well. The board's budget of $1.1 million is the highest in the metropolitan area. By contrast, Reed's salary of $55,400 is the lowest for an area superintendent.
School boards are notoriously political springboards, but Washington's may be more so than most. Mayor Marion Barry was school board president until 1974, and it was under him that the staff expansion escalated.
But the board is only part of Reed's problem. The city budget crisis is forcing him to layoff 1,333 of his people. And there is the strong teachers' union headed by William Simons, a respected opponent (though an ally in the crunch). And most of all, there is the reputation of the D.C. schools, with a history of shockingly low national test standings and a dismal record of eight superintendents in 12 years before Reed took over in 1975.
The storms rage: His critics say he lacks ideas, congressmen hurl rhetoric over his demands for more guards in the hallways . . . but there he sits, heavyset and bright-eyed, a cool survivor, this 52-year-old former All American tackle and Golden Gloves boxer. You might almost think he enjoys it.
"People say that 10 years ago I couldn't have made it with this board. I was a volatile man. I once knocked down a board member in public. But this job has really sobered me. I can see a drastic change in my whole personality. I can take a lot of craziness. I know where I'm going. I know I'm going to lose some battles. But I think I know what the kids need."
One night his doctor phoned him after a long board meeting. "I saw you on Tv," the doctor said, "and if you don't get out of that job, man, I can't be responsible for your health."
It's true, he's not always as cool ashe might wish. People who see him in action say his ego is easily bruised, his flashpoint low. This couldn't be much help in those high-octane board sessions.
Probably more than any other single thing, the fact, solid as Gibraltar, that keeps Reed in office is that for the last two years D.C. test scores have risen appreciably. He credits his competency based curriculum (CBC), which simply requires a certain minimum of information for a pupil to be promoted a grade.
"It's working pretty good," he says. "The teachers are into it now. Even with the 17-day strike last year we had improvement. I can see light at the end of the tunnel."
But the gains, he adds, are not exactly gigantic, and he is not exactly jumping up and down about it. There isso much to do. As he himself says, this is not the time for promoting grand schemes to make every child a little Shakespeare but for putting one foot in front of the other, making small, gradual -- but real -- gains.
"You don't build the roof first," he says. "You need to build the foundation. You shouldn't oversimplify education of course, but I think you have to be pragmatic and constantly re-establish priorities as you see what the community needs are."
Says Simons: "I have to give him credit for straightening out a lot of things in the system. We're on opposite sides of the fence, but there's mutual respect. We never stop speaking to each other."
His critics attack Reed because he's not a Barbara Sizemore, his imaginative but rigid predecessor. Yet when he does come up with an innovative giant-step, the board is as apt as not to shoot it down.
For example, he has twice proposed a model (or academic) high school, whose defeat seems at long last to have aroused the somnolent D.C. voters to rage against the board. The two questions Reed is most asked at PTA meetings are: how to get that model school? And how to get rid of the board?
He doesn't go that far, but he is adamant about the school. And the reason for his passion lies perhaps in his past.
He comes from a family of 17 children in St. Louis, Mo. He was the 14th. "My mother was a fanatic about education.She finished high school the same year I did; I gave her her diploma andshe gave me mine. She went to night school for 23 years, taking hat making and stuff like that, the kind of thing women did in those days in the home. My father graduated from high school in 1911, something few black men did at the time. My daddy was an insurance man, drove a laundry truck. He liked people jobs, selling. A bright guy. He wouldn't buckle down to an 8-to-5 situation."
The children wore hand-me-down clothes but never went hungry. Mrs. Reed refused to go on welfare, which would have meant putting her children in the famous gray knickers and gray turtleneck sweaters and feeding them from no-label cans. She put $80 a month into an insurance policy ("Blacks couldn't get the same kind of insurance policy as whites at that time, but this white guy, Mr. Landis, understood, and he entered her as a white client") in case her husband should die.
"It was a real matriarchal family. She did all the whipping. Every day in my life, the kitchen and bathroom were mopped. We kids had a daily work roster. I had to wash my drawers and shirt and put them on the line every night."
Finally the time when Vincent wanted to become a boxer. He was big for his age, and his father thought it would be a great idea. It was the era of Joe Louis.
"We all ate dinner together, at a table spread with newspapers. One night I told her I was gonna be a fighter and quit school. She said fine. At the end of dinner, she said if anybody had extra food to make sure Vincent got it because this was his last night at home. "He's quitting school, so he's grown, and that means he has to get out on his own. He'll be leaving tomorrow."
That night Vincent's older brother Billy, with whom he slept, said their mother wasn't kidding. He went to bed wide-eyed. Sure enough in the morning she came to get them up and "she had my stuff packed in an old cardboard suitcase. She said to let her know where I was. . . ."
Vincent stayed. He was 14 years old.
One of the six children his mother had in college at the same time, he went to Iowa University, West Virginia State College, Howard, Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania and Virginia State, eventually getting an honorary doctorate from Southeastern University. (He uses the Dr. because, he says, his staff expects it of him.) He served as a lieutenant in the Korean War.
Coming to the D.C. school system in 1956 as a shop, math and family living teacher at Jefferson Junior High, he rose through the ranks, becoming principal in the late '60s. By 1969, he was assistant superintendent of personnel in the system, moving up from there to become acting superintendent in 1975 and taking over formally the following March.
"I've been in almost every position in the system, and if you think you know something about it, you don't know a thing until you get in this seat. I know so many people who've been in it 20 years and think they know it all but don't. What amazes me is how well the kids do, how they adjust to the constant changes."
Now, about the model high school: he sees it as no isolated, gilded showpiece but as part of his overall program. "It would have been a psychological shot in the arm to the community. It certainly wasn't set up to serve the white people [who at 3 percent of the high school student body would hardly fill a classroom, he has pointed out] or the elitists. It was for the youngsters who want to excel. We've done very little for the bright kids in this system."
The argument that every school could have such a program is impractical, he says. There isn't enough money.
"Some board members said it hadn't been thought through, which I didn't like. We had been working on it for a long time. I heard the same thing when we opened the arts school at Ellington: They thought it would rob the top kids from the other schools. We heard the same thing when we opened the math-science school and the school without walls and the aerospace-marine science school. None of that happened. What did happen was that we got a whole lot of kids who were motivated to study."
The model high school, voted down this spring, is by no means dead. Talked out of bringing it to a vote a few years ago, Reed is determined to make the board take a public stand on it again.
"I'm gonna start some semblance of it in a couple of schools in September, even if the board doesn't give me a place. I have the prerogative to go ahead and set up a program. I think I'm gonna do it in Roosevelt."
He will advertise for teachers and screen them, as he did at the Woodson math-science school. "The board accepted it then. They even went for entrance exams there, which we won't have for this one."
Another Reed feature that has been criticized is the large number of women on his top staff. He has a female vice superintendent, budget director, employe-employer relations director, personell director, research and evaluation director, adult education director and staff development director.
"I got a lot of flak for that," he says. "But I'm just trying to hire the best talent I can find, and this is the biggest untapped source of talent. I don't have a problem with females. If they can stand my language -- and they all do: When people walk out of here they know vividly where we're going. I don't mince words. It saves time."
He admits that his directness can be abrasive. He is impatient. He can be a little rough at times." He is not always reliable on details or figures. bBut he also says he hasn't time for the sort of pettiness that demands personal members.
Sizemore spent part of a Rockefeller grant of $35,000 to send the Woodson male chorus to Europe (it was to appease board member Virginia Morris, he believes) but left behind a $25,000 bill, for which the foundation threatened to blackball the school system. It was Reed's third day on the job. He called in some Washington businessmen (he is a Kiwanis member), and they underwrote the money anonymously.
Friday afternoons he is almost impossible to reach. He plays bridge with cronies, and these sessions are in some staff circles a matter of great prestige.
When he first took over the job, he used to roam the downtown department stores in the afternoons on occasion in search of malingering employes. He would tap them on the shoulder and quietly ask them to get back to work. He doesn't have to do that much anymore, though he still visits schools unannounced.
He still works a 19-hour day, from the first 7:30 a.m appointment to the final post-midnight call, but he has stopped the weekend appointments. He likes a drink now and then but never smoked. He and his wife go bowling now and then. She picks his movies ("The Big Red One" is on her list). A Redskins fan, he attends as many games as he can. But no parties. l"I've got a beautiful wife, a teacher here for 25 years, and we have a few friends we see, but that's all. We're quiet people."
Once he came out $3,000 ahead on a Cafritz grant for summer school. He tried to give it back. Asked if he could use it for anything else. "The guy said, 'I can't believe this.'"
"Surround yourself with a good staff, that's the secret. People as bright as you are, or brighter. I don't need anybody dumber than I am. If they're as dumb as I am, they're in trouble."
The night he announced to the board that the District had raised its test scores for the second year straight -- a historic event -- "They sat there for nearly five hours and talked about nothing but who had the right to hire and fire principals. They never mentioned children. These are people who are deciding the destinies of our children. And five of the 11 don't give a damn about education."
If the schools aren't straightened out, he believes, Washington will go down the drain, for young families will refuse to move back into the city.
In his office, Vince Reed surrounds himself with student art and his own ceramic creations. He also fools around with photography. He and his wife have no children, but just above his head is a framed picture of a laughing white boy with big ears and a solemn black girl with big eyes.
"I found it in a magazine and blew it up," he says. "Aren't they beautiful? To me, that says everything about American children."