Robert C. Rice, the interim superintendent of the District's public schools, pounded the lectern as he surveyed rows of empty seats at the annual conference intended to galvanize the system's principals around common goals for the school year.

"This is not acceptable," Rice said. "This is not a social occasion for administrators of this school district. This is a time for us to come together and focus. We are going to have to change the culture of this school district . . . and it's going to start with these people in this room."

Exasperated by the no-shows at the mandatory superintendent's conference last week -- at least a third of the top administrators failed to show up, he said -- Rice ordered his executive staff to take attendance. He compared the latecomers and absent administrators to tardy and truant students.

"We can succeed together, but we cannot do it separately," he said. "We can't do it with just part of us here, but with everybody here."

The comments by Rice -- a former superintendent in Estherville, Iowa; Luling, La.; and Anne Arundel County who has headed the District's schools since April -- reflected the frustration, and the hope, that many in the city's school system have expressed as they prepared for the start of classes Sept. 1.

The system has gone without a permanent leader since Paul L. Vance resigned last November. Two interim superintendents, including Rice, have overseen the 64,000-student system as top officials engaged in a frustrating stop-and-start search for a permanent leader. On Aug. 11, the Board of Education unanimously voted to appoint Clifford B. Janey, a former superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., as superintendent.

As Janey toured schools last week before officially starting as superintendent, the system faced serious problems: low test scores, high drop-out rates and school vandalism and violence.

Moreover, the traditional schools have been losing students to the public charter system and other schools, and could lose more as the nation's first federally funded voucher program gets underway.

Even so, other longstanding school shortcomings were beginning to be addressed as new and refurbished schools were being opened and the long-troubled special education transportation system was improving.

But Janey was not scheduled to start until late August, so it was left to Rice to lead the back-to-school conference.

"We begin the new academic year with one overarching focus: to improve student literacy and numeracy, thus providing our children with the tools for future success," Rice said. "This will be the single unified concept by which we will further student achievement across the curriculum."

Several initiatives around reading and math were announced during the conference. Both skills will be emphasized in all subjects, not confined to separate periods of the school day. "If we are to accelerate student literacy and numeracy, not simply remediate, this approach is essential," Rice said.

At the elementary level, the system intends to expand the 90-minute block devoted to reading instruction to 120 minutes. In addition, all classroom teachers not certified in reading will be urged to complete a course in reading instruction specific to the area they teach, such as science or social studies. Additional training will be provided on research-based strategies for teaching reading. The system also plans to spend $2.1 million to buy teacher's editions of a major reading program developed by the Houghton Mifflin Co.

Rice used the speech -- his final major appearance as the system's temporary leader -- to give a brief overview of two centuries of public education in Washington. He noted that schooling for black children did not begin until 1862, and that the schools were legally segregated until the Supreme Court's Bolling v. Sharpe decision of 1954. Today's challenges, he argued, are equally stark as those of the past.

"As sure as bigotry and racism kept students from improving during our history, so an unfocused and ineffective instructional program serves to thwart personal and intellectual development and places genuine opportunity out of the reach of most," Rice said.

Rice cited the dismal statistics that illustrate the District's status as one of the lowest-performing school systems in the nation. Only 36 percent of its students are proficient or better in reading. Only 28 percent of the roughly 160 schools made adequate progress as measured by annual tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. According to National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal project commonly known as the nation's report card, the District has a poor ranking even when compared with other large urban districts.

In a February report, the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large urban districts, found that academic performance has only improved marginally since the city's fiscal crisis of the mid-1990s.

"The district has lost its instructional focus; its efforts have became fractured and incoherent; its instructional moorings have loosened; and its unity of purpose has splintered," the report concluded. The team, which included educators and experts from five states and from the federal Department of Education, also found that the school system "has abdicated its leadership responsibility for student achievement" to individual principals, who varied widely in their performance.

Rice referred repeatedly to the report during his speech to the school officials. Despite an abundance of reform plans over the years, he said, the school system has little to show for it. "The net result of all these attempts at reform has been the generation of lots of good will but, sadly, little by way of real change, quantifiable improvement and forward movement," Rice said. He added: "Now is the time for no more excuses, no more justifications, no more rationalizations."

Physical conditions will improve at four new or renovated school buildings that are opening after long delays: Noyes Elementary School, 2725 10th St. NE; Cleveland Elementary School, 1825 Eighth St. NW; Kelly Miller Middle School, 215 49th St. NE; and McKinley Technical High School, 151 T St. NE.

The two elementary schools have been temporarily relocated at other sites. Kelly Miller, the first middle school to be built from the ground up in decades, has inherited the student population from nearby Evans Middle School, which closed in June. McKinley, which was long known for its vocational programs and cost $75 million to renovate, is opening with students in ninth and 10th grades, who will move into the school's 11th and 12th grades over the next two years as new students enter as freshmen.

New principals at 23 schools have been hired, with one vacancy remaining, as of Aug. 18. In addition to Kelly Miller, schools with new principals include Ballou and Coolidge senior high schools, Johnson Junior High School and Kramer Middle School.

Less settled, however, is the state of affairs at the school system's headquarters, located in rented office space at 825 North Capitol St. NE.

Janey, who was appointed superintendent on Aug. 11, has told the Board of Education he plans to assemble a leadership team quickly. Several top jobs are filled by temporary administrators. Peter G. Parham, a former director of the city's Department of Human Services, is chief of staff but will likely be replaced. Gregory A. Williams, a facilities officer, is acting manager of school facilities. Responsibility for overseeing the system's instructional program is being shared by three people: Arthur L. Curry, Wilma F. Bonner and Simon L. Seaforth. The system is looking for a new director of food and nutrition services.

In an interview, Curry agreed with the assessment that academics in the District's schools have become fragmented and poorly coordinated. "If you're not careful, you end up with a system of schools and not a school system," Curry said.

Elizabeth V. Primas, the school system's director of reading, said a heavy emphasis will be placed on schools that did not make adequate progress on reading, as measured by the Stanford 9 tests administered in April.

Literacy coaches are being deployed to 19 elementary schools under a six-year Reading First grant from the federal Department of Education. The coaches will help train classroom instructors on how to teach reading. Ten schools at all levels are getting help from the National Institute for Urban School Improvement, a federal program that promotes mainstream instruction for children at risk of being referred to special education. Four other schools have received "state improvement grants" from the department, also to pay for additional reading resources.

Even with the new focus on reading and math, the school system faces fundamental challenges.

The conference started with a moving adaptation of the popular love song, "Wind Beneath My Wings," which brought to their feet the 300 principals and their deputies who managed to attend.

The performance, by tenor William H.D. Ellis, an assistant principal at the Patricia Roberts Harris Educational Center in Southeast, was a motivational prelude for the sobering challenges faced by the schools in the upcoming school year.

Interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice, left, said there would be "no more excuses." New Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is at right.