The soft-spoken 37-year-old man in a gray suit smiled at the classroom full of Arlington County third-graders.

"My name is Kirk, and I come from Richmond," he said. "If you could change anything in your school, what would that change be?"

Virginia Board of Education President Kirk T. Schroder has asked that same question at dozens of Virginia schools over the past 20 months and listened carefully to the answers--not only from students but from teachers, parents and school officials.

Behind all these low-key visits and conversations lies a delicate mission: Schroder is trying to build public confidence in Virginia's program to hold schools more accountable for student performance, one of the toughest such plans in the country. And he is trying to placate critics who say the plan is too punitive, while striving to avoid the perception that he is making the plan any weaker.

Before Schroder was appointed by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) in February 1998, many teachers and parents, especially in Northern Virginia, saw the state board as the enemy. Then-Gov. George Allen (R) and his school board president, Michelle Easton, had enacted a program that required every public school to reach state targets on the new Standards of Learning (SOL) tests by 2007 or lose their accreditation.

Many parents and educators were seething over the battery of new exams for elementary, middle and high school students. And on the strength of Allen's and Easton's frequent mentions of school deficiencies, some thought the plan was designed to destroy public education.

Schroder has responded by being a conciliator, seeking to change aspects of the program that were causing the most concern. Under his leadership, the board has agreed not to count for several years the test scores of students with limited English. The panel also is considering adding essay questions to the SOL history exams, which have been criticized as being too fact-based.

Most significantly, the board gave preliminary approval Sunday to a series of changes that would make the system for judging schools more nuanced. If the proposal is adopted, schools that fail to meet the state's test score targets by 2007 will get some leeway if they are close to the goals; schools that greatly exceed the targets will qualify for waivers from state regulations; and those that are having major trouble with the exams will get advice from a state "review team" as early as next year.

"It is refreshing to have an open-minded person to work with like Kirk," said Alexandria School Board member V. Rodger Digilio, one of many Northern Virginia school officials who have been impressed with Schroder's flexibility. "He is committed to high standards in a way that should allow the program to gain acceptance and be successful."

So far none of Schroder's ideas appears to have upset supporters of the original Allen-Easton plan. But Schroder will face many other political hurdles during the rest of his four-year term, analysts say. Parental opposition to the testing program may grow between now and 2004, the year when students will have to pass the high school tests to get a diploma. And if test results do not improve significantly--only 7 percent of schools met the state's benchmarks last spring--lawmakers may decide there has been too little progress to justify the strain and cost, as has happened in several other states.

"Kirk leads with his heart, and he is hard to dislike," said Gary Galluzzo, dean of the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University. "But the question that remains is: Will schools have incentives to grow better and not just be set up for failure? The jury is still out on that."

Schroder has stumbled at times. An outpouring of parental and student objections this year forced him and the board to change the plan to have SOL scores listed immediately on student transcripts sent to colleges.

By temperament and training, Schroder is a dealmaker. At T.C. Williams Law School at the University of Richmond, he was the star of the negotiation team that competed in the national finals. As an entertainment attorney, representing film and music companies, his job is to keep everyone out of court so the profits can continue to roll in.

With eight other members on the state school board and the competing demands from superintendents, teachers, parents and officeholders, "it is important to be able to reach a result with which everyone is comfortable," Schroder said. "You have to be in touch with what is going on in the field and be willing to listen to people and to respect their needs and get them to buy into these reforms."

Former state senator John W. Russell, who has been on the board almost three years, compares Easton to hard-driving World War II Gen. George S. Patton Jr. and Schroder to Patton's more politic superior, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. "If you want something conquered, if you want your army to get over the top, you want Patton," Russell said. "But do you want George Patton elected president? A big question there."

Easton established the framework for the SOL program, Russell said, then Schroder came in "as a soothing influence that could talk to people and accept a little compromise."

Schroder grew up in Richmond, the son of a tobacco executive and a real estate agent. He attended Catholic schools, graduating from Benedictine High in 1980 and going to the University of Richmond, where he was senior class president and the first graduate ever to receive separate bachelors degrees in business and philosophy.

A bachelor with no children, Schroder may not have known as much about educational policy as other possible candidates for the Board of Education presidency. But Gilmore wanted someone who was loyal to him, and he had known Schroder since 1985, when they were both Republican Party activists in the Richmond area.

"The governor takes loyalty and commitment very seriously, and those questions were off the table with Kirk," said board member Jennifer Curtis Byler.

Schroder has won over many of the doubters by reading the thick volumes of research required of any modern educational administrator. And he has driven his faded blue 1989 Ford Tempo--purchased for $2,000 from the estate of a deceased neighbor--to schools all over the state. Last week Paul D. Stapleton, the state superintendent of public instruction, gave Schroder's vehicle a jump start so that the board president could get to Charlottesville to visit his fiancee, Camille Cooper, a lecturer and writer.

He has encouraged other board members to join him in his travels, with board member Mark C. Christie, a Richmond lawyer and former counsel to Allen, making many such appearances. "Kirk understands a fundamental truth about governing in a diverse democracy," Christie said. "Good policy is not enough. You also have to communicate that policy and be willing to listen to legitimate concerns."

Schroder shrugs off questions about the politics of making the system work. He says the idea of telling students precisely what they have to learn and teachers precisely what they have to teach will survive once everyone sees how much this adds to the lives of children who until now have been allowed to fail without any alarms going off.

"I think the fundamental framework of the program is sound, and that is to the credit of those who designed it," Schroder said. "I have looked at many other programs and many different systems of accountability, and ours is clear and concise and simple and very workable."

Schroder's Impact

Under previous leadership, the Virginia Board of Education required all public schools to have a student pass rate of at least 70 percent on the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests by 2007 in order to keep their accreditation. Current board President Kirk T. Schroder has proposed several changes that the board will vote on early next year. Among them:

Schools close to reaching the achieve-ment targets would not face a state audit or staff overhaul. To qualify for this reprieve, schools would need a pass rate of 70 percent in English and at least 60 percent in other subjects, and they would need to have increased their pass rates by at least 25 percentage points since 1999.

The state would establish intermediate benchmarks for each year between now and 2003. Schools that were 20 or more percentage points below those marks would be expected to switch to a curriculum with a proven track record of raising student achievement.

Schools with SOL pass rates above 80 percent in 2007 would receive waivers from some state regulations.

High school students could take an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam in a given subject, instead of the SOL test, in order to meet graduation requirements.

CAPTION: Virginia Board of Education President Kirk T. Schroder visits with sixth-graders at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington County.