More than two weeks remain before Clifford B. Janey takes over the District's public schools, but there he was on a recent evening, sitting before a group of residents who were complaining about their new elementary school's leaky roof, faulty lighting and noxious odors.
"After one and a half years, if the roof still fails, there's a problem with that roof," Cecil B. Tucker, a longtime resident of the Petworth neighborhood, told Janey. Marianne McCoy, who waited in line with her 9-year-old son for a chance to address the new superintendent, told him that "our children are at risk, and that is unacceptable to me."
Janey agreed. He said he was appalled when he visited Barnard Elementary School, which opened in February 2003, and nearby Rudolph Elementary School, which is in an even worse physical condition. "I was not a happy camper," he said, telling the parents that the school system should and will do better.
"I'm here to listen, to learn, to act, and to act with a sense of urgency -- and with a sense of care that might help close the gap between what you have expected for so long and what you see currently," Janey said.
The two-hour meeting Thursday night in Petworth, a middle-class section of Northwest Washington that has a large concentration of African American families with children in the public schools, was a taste of the challenges that confront Janey as he prepares to take the helm of the 64,000-student system.
Janey, who on Aug. 11 was named the city's fifth school superintendent in a decade, is hammering out the details of his contract with the D.C. Board of Education. Although board members initially had hoped to have Janey on the job before classes begin Wednesday, his official start date has been pushed back to Sept. 15.
In the past two weeks, Janey has split his time between Washington and New York, where he is leaving his job as a vice president at Scholastic Inc., an educational publisher. He formerly was the superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., and a top official in the public schools of his native Boston.
Janey's visits to Washington have been crowded with engagements. He has dined twice with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), dropped in on a back-to-school conference of principals and begun poring over reams of documents -- audit reports, budget books, academic evaluations -- that are arrayed neatly on a side table in his office. On his desk, near a photograph of his wife, Barbara, is a book called "The Superintendent's Fieldbook: A Guide for Leaders of Learning."
"There is a real, heartfelt sense of trying once and for all to get it right," Janey said Friday during an interview at the school system's headquarters near Union Station. "I say that with respect to the commitments, the energy, the passion and the intellect being offered on the part of public officials and the community."
Janey appears to be taking a measured and deliberate approach to his new job. He said he plans to reorganize the system's central office and name a leadership team by mid-October. He said he has not decided which top officials will be retained in their positions, reassigned or let go.
Key positions are unfilled, including those of chief academic officer, chief operational officer, director of food and nutrition services and director of facilities management. Since Paul L. Vance resigned in November, the system has gone without a permanent superintendent, the longest such period since 1991. Robert C. Rice, the interim superintendent since April, will oversee the opening of schools.
In the interview, Janey, 58, said he will have to simultaneously tackle academics and operations. A firm believer in using tests to assess student performance, he noted that the school system is phasing out the Stanford 9 standardized tests and that fourth- and eighth-grade students will participate early next year in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal project known as the nation's report card. He said the schools must devise common learning and curriculum standards, a long-standing yet elusive goal in the District.
A major priority, Janey said, is to stabilize and even increase enrollment, which has steadily declined as more students have been drawn away by charter schools or private schools and as parents have moved out of the city when their children reached school age.
On Aug. 19, Janey visited the three-day principals' conference, an annual event intended to motivate top school officers around a common instructional goal. At the start of the conference, Rice scanned rows of empty seats in the gymnasium of Trinity College in Northeast Washington and scolded the latecomers.
Janey, who was a high school principal earlier in his career, said he, too, was unimpressed.
"I didn't get a sense of great focus on the part of the participants," he said. "I didn't walk away with a great sense of urgency. We don't have time to waste when we get together for a gathering that will launch the direction for the school year. We can't take anything for granted, let alone time."
Principals wield immense influence in the District's schools, and Janey promised to raise the expectations of their performance. "I'm going to hold them more accountable than they've been held before, but I'm also going to support them where they need it," he said.
That support is probably the most essential ingredient to a superintendent's success, said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor of teaching and learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
"The truth is that genuine improvement in students' learning cannot be delivered by any single individual -- no matter how smart, how well informed or how charismatic he or she might be," Johnson said. "For day by day, education rests with principals and teachers throughout the district. Simply put, the superintendent cannot improve learning without their best, most creative efforts."
Roy Romer, a former governor of Colorado who has been the superintendent in Los Angeles since 2000, said Janey should not get distracted by the many political forces that exist in school districts and particularly in Washington's, where the federal government holds ultimate sway. "You really have to focus upon what your ultimate goal is, and it's instruction, it's instruction, it's instruction," Romer said in a telephone interview.
At the close of Thursday night's meeting, Janey appeared eager for the challenge. "I can't wait for the fifteenth of September," he told the parents. "I'll be ready to rock and roll. We will right these wrongs and right them together."