R. Calvin Lockridge describes his new position as president of the D. C. school board as a straitjacket. He must shed his jeans for suits and ties, cleanse his language of four-letter words, mend fences with other school board members and the school superintendent and speak without grammatical errors.
The new image does not include removing the gold earring from his left ear.
School board observers are waiting to see if the new outfit suits Lockridge, who is known for this frequent hot-headedness, impatience, inflexibility and abrasiveness.
But both supporters and critics agree that behind this tough exterior is a man who is committed to improving the District public school system.
Lockridge is also described as har working energetic, aggressive and an excellent politican who will modify his militant image to achieve the success he yearns for.
"When an individual moves to a leadership role, his life has to change," Lockridge said recently in an interview.
"He can no longer be selfish and be concerned about his personal freedom . . . I cannot be seen in jeans as often as I was. I have to be on stage" and serve as a "role-model," especially for black youth.
"I see myself as a change agent, and that upsets people. I have clawed away to get to the top to make changes."
Lockridge will earn $21,225 as president of the 11-member board that oversees 106,156 students, more than 6,400 teachers and 190 schools.
It is a system faced with many well entrenched problems -- the lowest college board test scores in the Washington area, high truancy rates, charges that it has violated a court order to educate handicapped and emotionally disturbed children and a $10 million reduction in its proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.
In addition, the board has told D.C. Mayor Marion Berry it will not cut the schools' current operating budget by a suggested $8.4 million as part of a $28 million cutback in spending that the city wants to make.
The board is also under fire for its perennial squabbling and failure to improve education. In the November election, when six of the 11 seats were at stake, the mayor backed a slate of candidates in what he described as an attempt to bring unity and a new direction to the board. Some board members also believe it was an attempt to obtain control of the body. Four of the Barry-backed candidates won.
Under the Lockridge administration the board for the first time will have the power to negotiate salaries with its teachers. Many observers believe that with that bargaining chip the board can tie salary increases to some type of teacher evaluations, if it wishes.
In the past the mayor and city council have set teacher pay rates with review by the Congress.
Walking into this crucible is the 45-year-old, six-foot-tall Lockridge, who represents Anacaostia, the city's poorest ward.
As president, Lockridge will make committee appointments (with the concurrence of a majority of the board), preside at board meetings and serve as its spokesman.
The crucial question for many is whether Lockridge, with his impatience with bureaucracy and background in administration, will attempt to chip away at the power of school superintendent Vincent Reed.
During a wide-range four-hour interview at his home, which sits on a quiet block in Anacostia with a panoramic view of the city, Lockridge acknowledged that "it's going to be hard" not to meddle.
"That's part of the straitjacket, I will be on guard not to be involved in school administration," he said, seated in front of a coffee table covered with books and magazines on education.
Two years ago Lockridge cast the lone vote against renewing Reed's three-year contract. "I didn't think he had served the system well," Lockridge said. He criticized the school administration for not being creative in attacking the schools' problems and for not sharing information with the board.
The new president said he will expect the administration to bring the board several alternatives for solving a problem -- such as the proposed budget reduction -- and not just "to come to the board and say I want this approved . . . We will not be a rubber stamp."
Instead of "meddling" with the superintendent, Lockridge said, he wants the board to adopt criteria for evaluating Reed's performance and Reed's four-year-old system of competency-based curriculum (CBC). This controversial plan is supposed to teach children the basics of education -- reading, writing and arithmetic -- through a series of planned lessons to be followed by teachers.
Lockridge said he also wants the board to plan for the school system's future to ensure that it is not designing programs for poor black children when in a few years the majority of the students might be white and middle-class. Throughout the city, whites are moving into once predominantly black neighborhoods, forcing the displacement of the residents as the homes are bought and rehabilitated.
Reed said he believes that he and Lockridge will work well together. I'm glad to see him as president. He is a strong person dedicated to the children as am I . . . I think he and I will walk hand-in-hand" to serve the students.
The other power in the school system is the Washington Teachers Union. During last year's 23-day teachers' strike, Lockridge was the key strategist for the board majority that took a tough stand resisting teacher demands.
When Lockridge was asked if he could work with the union, given the reputation he has had since the strike, he said he would work with anyone dedicated to improving education -- be he questioned if that was the commitment of the union leadership. "They are committed to a good strong union." he said.
Lockridge openly discusses a major handicap to his effective leadership -- his speech.
He drops the endings of some words, mispronounces others and uses singular verbs with plural subjects.
He attributes the problem partly to a hearing impairment (he can't hear some of the endings), a tendency to speak rapidly and run over endings and the lack of a good background in grammar.
"People view me as having a street vernacular," he said, but added, "my speech has nothing to do with my thoughts or my leadership capabilities." His writing is grammatically correct, he said.
While he talked his wife, Mildred, the principal of Moten Elementary School in Southeast Washington, sat beside him. Several times she interrupted to gently correct his grammar. At other times he turned to her for help pronouncing a word.
His election comes in the midst of a board split between six of the incumbents and the four Barry-backed members. Incumbent board member Bettie Benjamin joined the Barry forces on the final ballot.
Now Lockridge says he wants to unite the board "around issues. I don't think people have to like each other to work together."
A native of a small farm in south central Tennessee, Rufus Calvin Lockridge holds a Master's degree in education from the University of the District of Columbia. Lockridge said he also studied education at Northwestern University.
He came to Washington in 1973 to direct a special city program for improving reading and mathematics skills of Anacostia students but was fired within a year when the program foundered.
Elected to the school board in 1977 from anacostia, Lockridge quit his job as an educational consultant and for the last two years his wife has supported the family except for the small salary Lockridge earned as a school board member. The couple has no children.