Peggy Cooper Cafritz cracks her knuckles. She rolls her eyes and calls on a colleague who is criticizing her. "Yes, Mr. Wells," she says with a deep sigh.

The impatient president of the D.C. school board sits near the center of a horseshoe-shaped dais. She moves her head of close-cropped graying hair to and fro, her glasses up and down, her chair back and forth.

When it comes time to announce the next item for discussion, she holds up the agenda and winces, unable to read it. "I doodled all over the agenda," she says, smirking.

For much of her life, Cafritz, 55, has been an impatient activist, an outsider goading for change and often getting results. Now she's inside the system but still acting like an outsider. The transition has not been smooth.

After only two months in office, for instance, Cafritz proclaimed that half of D.C. public school teachers were unqualified or incompetent, creating an uproar. For months, she publicly refused to acknowledge the school system was running a multimillion-dollar deficit -- despite evidence from the city's chief financial officer.

"She really is a one-man band," says school board member Tommy Wells.

Says board vice president William Lockridge: "She's dictatorial."

Those who have known Cafritz during her years of activism say this is her MO. "She is accustomed to power, to having things her way," says Michael Malone, who has been friends with Cafritz since the late 1960s. "What really appeals to her is she can use that power to help other people. . . . She's used to being able to say what she wants and make it happen."

Cafritz acknowledges that political skills don't come naturally to her. "My absolute biggest problem in meetings is cracking jokes and making comments and remembering that I'm not at home," she says.

Home -- as in Mobile, Ala., her home town -- was where Cafritz first started practicing her brand of cantankerous activism. The patterns set there and the lessons learned profoundly shaped the woman who influenced public education in Washington long before she joined the school board.

During the summer of 1964, Cafritz was still in Mobile. A slender girl with curls down to her waist, she had just graduated from high school.

Around 7 one evening, she and three friends pulled their big maroon car into a White Crystal drive-in restaurant to test a new federal law forbidding racial discrimination in restaurants obtaining supplies from out of state.

They buzzed for service. No waiter responded.

Instead, eight or nine white teenage boys approached Cafritz's open window. One asked, "You all's Mexicans or you all's niggers?"

Cafritz, sitting in the passenger seat, told him they were black.

Two of the teenagers spit on her. One tossed soda through the car window. Soaking wet, she was too paralyzed by fear to roll it up.

Other teenagers were on the trunk and hood, rocking the car back and forth. Nearby, two police officers sat in their car, watching.

After about 20 minutes, Cafritz and her friends managed to pull away. She returned home scared -- and more resolute.

"We were confronted with those realities every day," says Alexis Herman, a distant cousin who grew up with Cafritz and served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. "It made her more determined. . . . Peggy was always someone who would push back where she thought there was basic unfairness when things were simply not right."

Cafritz was born into one of the wealthiest African American families in Mobile. Her parents named her Pearl Alice Cooper but always called her Peggy. They later had her name officially changed.

Her parents were both college graduates and her father worked for his family's insurance and mortuary business. When Cafritz was in grade school, they employed a maid and lived in a large brick house. Her parents traveled in the same social circles as Duke Ellington.

Yet she could not escape the impact of racism.

Cafritz attended an all-black Catholic elementary school, which was inferior to the Catholic schools for white students. During the annual Christ the King parades, she and other black students were forced to march in the rear and then sit in the least desirable seats in the stadium at the end of the parade route. They could take communion only after white families and had to sit in the balcony at the movie theater.

She fought back in ways big and small. She and Herman rode in the front of buses and bathed at white beaches, Cafritz says. They would go into stores where they were not allowed to try on clothes, take them off the rack and leave them at the register.

Two of her brothers broke racial barriers. A.J. Cooper became the first black mayor of Prichard, a suburb of Mobile. J. Gary Cooper became the first black officer in the Marine Corps to lead an infantry company into combat and later was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives.

For high school, Cafritz's parents sent her to St. Mary's, a Catholic boarding school in South Bend, Ind., where she was among a handful of black students. (Cafritz says a bishop barred the family from the Catholic schools in Mobile after her parents tried to enroll one of her brothers in a whites-only school.) After a white student from a nearby school invited her to the prom, he was forced to uninvite her when his school learned she was black.

She responded with activism, joining the Urban League and lobbying St. Mary's to admit more African Americans. And she decided to become a lawyer to fight for civil rights, an idea she first developed in elementary school after acting as a lawyer in a school play.

The emotional and financial strain of sending his children away to school weighed heavily on her father, Cafritz says. For years, she attributed his suicide in 1969 -- while she was in law school -- to the effects of segregation in Mobile, although she now sees the causes as more complicated.

"It took me a long time to deal with that," Cafritz says. "I had to find a place to put it, a place for it to be."

Because of an intense interest in politics, she wanted to come to Washington for college. She chose George Washington University for an unconventional reason: She sensed that the Greek fraternity system was discriminating.

"I had no desire to look any further," she says. "I felt that I had to change that."

Soon after arriving on campus, she organized a protest. Ultimately, the university told its sororities and fraternities to drop discriminatory rules or shut down.

Cafritz founded the Black Student Union and was involved with so many other activities that she flunked out -- only to be readmitted after filing an appeal. She went on to law school at George Washington, graduating in 1971.

By the mid-1970s, Cafritz was studying the hiring practices and story content of The Washington Post. As an employee of Post-Newsweek television stations, she produced a two-part documentary describing discriminatory hiring practices and coverage by the paper.

Cafritz has served on a number of high-profile panels and boards -- the D.C. Arts Commission, the American Film Institute, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and the Smithsonian -- where she persistently pushed to increase racial diversity in membership and programming.

People who worked with her say she forced her agenda, and she often was successful.

"When she makes up her mind to do something, look out," says Jeannine Smith Clark, who preceded Cafritz as chair of a Smithsonian advisory committee in the 1980s. "I think she truly believes what she is doing is right and she goes about it in -- what do you call it? An alpha-type style."

Birth of an Arts School The most famous high school in the District was conceived during a late-night phone call in the spring of 1967. Cafritz was on one end of the conversation, from her apartment in Foggy Bottom. Michael Malone, her boyfriend at the time and a high school French teacher, was on the other end, at his apartment near Dupont Circle.

They were talking about starting an arts education program for local children who showed promise but had no outlet. She would meet these students when the Black Student Union sponsored a program for low-income D.C. children at George Washington, and at a city summer camp that she ran.

"You could do this," Malone told her.

"I don't even know where to start," she responded. "I don't know where to get the money."

They hung up and she kept thinking.

Cafritz and Malone started small. By 1968, Cafritz raised $30,000 -- enough for a summer arts program for 90 students. The program grew year by year as Cafritz raised more money and obtained more space.

Cafritz learned how to get big donors on the phone. Desperate for money from one foundation that would not take her calls, she identified herself as Ethel Kennedy and got the director on the line.

The disagreements with the D.C. public school system about starting a full-time arts school were maddening, those involved say, and included disputes over books, negotiations with employees and issues of teacher certification. In 1974, Duke Ellington School of the Arts opened, replacing a traditional high school in Georgetown.

"Peggy had the energy and personality to go deal with those things," recalls Michaele Christian, who went to high school with Cafritz, worked on the after-school program and now serves as president of Ellington's board. "She likes dealing with people in power because they can accomplish things."

Yet Cafritz's style continued to generate tension.

"She is very smart but not necessarily inclined to listen to other people's views," says Maurice G. Eldridge, who oversaw the school for a decade before leaving in 1989. "It's not that she has the wrong or bad ideas or impossible ideas always. It's that getting people to buy into them takes a different approach with people and certainly some measure of respect for them."

The after-school arts programs and Ellington got Cafritz noticed. She was invited to the White House. She met artists and actors. She was appointed to prestigious boards. Ellington became one of the few schools that the city could brag about in a system better known for failing its students then educating them.

Since becoming school board president, Cafritz has removed herself from day-to-day involvement at the school and Ellington is hurting. Without her fundraising and with the drop in post-Sept. 11 giving, the school could not come up with enough money to continue offering all its classes.

To bail it out, D.C. school administrators agreed to give Ellington an additional $800,000 this winter -- at a time when the school system was cutting other programs. Some of Cafritz's colleagues went ballistic, convinced she had orchestrated the effort to save her school without their approval. She and administrators denied that she had been involved.

The Fairy Godmother Cafritz was in law school, living in a dingy building in Adams Morgan, when she met a 9-year-old named Arthur. The boy's mother was an alcoholic and his father had been killed in a motorcycle accident before he was born. Arthur was living on the streets and running drugs for one of Cafritz's neighbors.

One spring day, Cafritz returned home to find police arresting him for loitering.

"I decided that I had to keep Arthur," she says.

For months she took care of the boy. He had never been to school. Just persuading him to shower was a chore. During the summer, she brought him along to help out with the summer arts program.

By fall, a city official told Cafritz she would not be able to keep Arthur and could not be certified as a foster mother because she was single and a student. So she helped find foster parents and arranged to continue seeing Arthur. She still keeps in touch. These days, Arthur is working off-and-on for a moving company and doing yard work.

Arthur became the first of many children in difficult circumstances whom Cafritz has taken in over the years. Cafritz recalls 11 children who have lived with her for varying periods. In 25 cases, she says, she has helped pay for college tuition or summer educational programs.

Cafritz always wanted children of her own, too. She and her former husband, developer Conrad Cafritz, had their first child, Zachary, in 1984 after in vitro fertilization. The couple adopted their second child, Cooper, in 1991.

Cafritz says she helps so many young people because she believes they should have the same opportunities she had. She decides case-by-case whom to assist.

One such case was Derrick Savage.

When he met Cafritz, Savage was a 21-year-old car thief from Queens with a high school diploma and few prospects. Cafritz prodded him to go to college and agreed to pay part of his tuition. When he considered dropping out, she persuaded him to finish. When he earned B's, she demanded A's. Cafritz had him stay at her house for several months.

Ultimately, he graduated from Howard University and earned a degree in the American Film Institute's master's program, where she also helped with the tuition.

"She's been literally like my fairy godmother but at the same time she's been like the thorn in my [rear]," says Savage, now a 31-year-old filmmaker who wants to turn the story of Cafritz's life into a movie. "She's like a black Schindler."

Politics and Family After years of fighting with the bureaucrats who oversee D.C. public schools, Cafritz says she had not planned to occupy an office surrounded by them.

She says she started thinking about it seriously after voters restructured the school board in 2000. A staffer for Mayor Anthony Williams called Cafritz and encouraged her to run for president of the board, she says.

Cafritz says she grew convinced that she could do the job and bring about rapid improvement. Since taking office nearly a year and a half ago, she has spent much of her time arguing that the schools need more money. In the process, her relationship with Williams has gone through ups and downs, although she has a close connection with his wife, Diane, who served as her campaign treasurer.

Just days after complaining about his funding priorities in January, Cafritz wrapped her arms around him after a news conference. Williams awkwardly returned the embrace. He tells reporters that he "supports" her, but says he has not decided whether he will endorse her again.

At the same time, a key ally of Williams recently turned on Cafritz. Terence C. Golden, head of the Federal City Council, a business and civic organization, told her last month that she was a poor leader and should not seek another term. He warned her he was recruiting another candidate to run for board president.

Cafritz defended her record and told Golden that she plans to run for reelection in November.

Then she left the meeting and cried.

"When you sit there and somebody denigrates extraordinary work with absolutely no evidence, wrong facts, no documentation, no facts -- yes, I cried," she says. "I would have to be as hard as a rock not to cry. But I'm soft and tender. But nobody understands."

Cafritz's social connections to political and artistic power brokers have always been a mix of utility and personal friendship.

Cafritz's friend Debbie Allen says that if she dropped in for a visit on a random Sunday, Cafritz probably would be upstairs in her room, with several newspapers spread across her bed, watching television while talking on the phone with Gloria Steinem, Bill Clinton, Quincy Jones or Alma Powell, Colin Powell's wife.

But Allen says Cafritz doesn't work the phone for purely social reasons. She's often trying to raise money for schools or a needy child.

When Cafritz came to Washington, she gained entry to that world by creating arts programs for children. Then she married into the Cafritz family, known for office and apartment developments and for philanthropy.

Peggy Cooper met Conrad Cafritz in 1971. She says he called her to check on the background of someone in the entertainment world that he was considering doing business with. He asked if she wanted to meet for a drink. They moved in together in 1973 and married in 1981.

Her friends were surprised by the relationship. She's black and he's white. She's Catholic and he's Jewish. But friends say they initially got along well and shared a similar sense of humor.

Divorce papers filed in 1998 portray a troubled relationship. Her lawyers said in the court papers that he cheated on her and "referred to their relationship as a 'European Style' marriage with each being free to have sexual relations with others as they desire, despite Mrs. Cafritz's wishes to the contrary."

She also contended that he on occasion "demonstrated his contempt for her African American family and friends." She also said that he withheld sex for a number of years.

Conrad Cafritz declined to be interviewed for this story. In his own court filings, he disputed many of her allegations and added that his ex-wife "suffered from numerous emotional traumas and physical ills" before they started dating.

Although the marriage ended four years ago, Cafritz retains the trappings of wealth: She kept the name, money and a Northwest Washington home with eight bedrooms, seven full bathrooms and three half bathrooms, tennis courts and a pool. She has a secretary, cook, housekeeper and driver.

Cafritz receives about $600,000 annually in child support, alimony and investment income, according to a source familiar with her finances.

Her wealth, she says, allows her to say what's on her mind and not worry about losing a job or facing other repercussions.

"Somehow, in my life, I had always been immune to getting really hurt, you know?" she says. "I was free . . . because I couldn't be fired. My meal ticket, my family's meal ticket was never dependent on it."

Intelligent DBF Seeks . . . Cafritz is slouching in an armchair on the second floor of her house, in a room dominated by a big-screen TV that earlier had been tuned to the Oxygen channel. A door is open, letting in a cool nighttime breeze.

As usual, she is wearing a loose-fitting Chinese silk jacket, part of a large wardrobe of similar outfits from the trendy New York store Shanghai Tang. She has taken off her pointy cowboy boots. The cook has cleared away the plates from the salad, steak and apple pie served for dinner and she has smoked three Winston Lights, more than usual. Her children have retired to their rooms.

Cafritz is talking about her health, weight and steroids.

At the time she and Conrad Cafritz split, Cafritz says she suffered from serious back spasms. A doctor gave her a series of steroid injections to relieve the pain but she suffered unexpected side effects, she says.

Six years ago, she was slender. Now she is heavy, has a moon face and a "buffalo hump," a medical term describing a ridge of fat on her upper back, all of which is detailed in a lawsuit she filed against those involved in treating her.

"You just feel ugly," Cafritz says. "It affects how you feel about yourself."

She misses being romanced and wonders if her weight makes her unattractive to potential suitors. "That part of my life is really, really lonely," she says.

She asks her friends why nobody asks her out on dates. They tell her that she is "intimidating."

Cafritz shifts in her chair, leans forward and moves the place mat on the coffee table in front of her back and forth. She pauses and then smirks. "I think this ought to be a big personal," she says of this article.

She proposes this wording:

"Seeking smart, nice -- no, that's too disgusting of a word. Smart, kind risk-taker between the ages of 22 and 50."

Isn't 22 is a bit young?

"That's why I said 'risk-taker.' "

Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, shown in her school board office, was a prime force in establishing the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.D.C. school board chief Peggy Cooper Cafritz, above at her 55th birthday party last month, learned the value of education early: Her parents (shown here in family photos with young Peggy) were both college graduates. They also instilled in their children an appreciation of social activism.