In his cavernous ninth-floor office, the man in charge of the District's 62,000-student school system listened intently to an aide's upbeat briefing on preparations for the coming school year.
An unprecedented effort this summer to train virtually all the system's teachers and principals in new English and math learning standards had gone well, said Hilda L. Ortiz, the school system's chief academic officer. The teachers, many of whom had given up hope of seeing much improvement in their classrooms, were engaged in deep discussions about how to make lessons more relevant to students, she told School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.
"The excitement level is unbelievable," Ortiz said.
Janey, who had reached the same conclusion during visits with teachers and principals, smiled.
"Folks are getting it," he said. "I think we're in a different place now."
In a sense, Janey has been preparing for the opening day of school tomorrow since he became superintendent last September. Speaking in bursts about the changes that await the District's schoolchildren, he sounds like a carnival master who has planned a dazzling assortment of amusements and can't wait for the kids to show up and enjoy them.
This school year, he said, the pieces needed to fix the long-broken system will start to come together: the revamped student learning standards, accompanied by new textbooks, curriculum and testing at every grade level; a large and talented crop of new principals and teachers; a speedier process for handling school repairs; and, in December, a master plan detailing which under-enrolled schools should be closed.
Among the city's political leaders and education activists, there is general agreement that Janey is moving in the right direction. Many praise him for using most of his first year in the position to carefully study the system's problems, and they say the changes he is implementing seem bold and well-crafted.
He also receives credit for striving to get feedback and support from all constituencies when developing his policies. And he has gotten along well with the Board of Education, the D.C. Council and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), so far avoiding the rocky relationships that doomed some of his predecessors.
"I'm a strong supporter of the superintendent," Williams said last week. "This is the best working relationship I've had with any past superintendent."
Still, some observers cite shortcomings that Janey needs to address if he is to maintain the public's faith in his leadership and in a reform program that is unlikely to produce significant results overnight.
Some officials and activists also complain that the cerebral, soft-spoken Janey errs too much on the side of collegiality and is not forceful enough in selling his vision or in advocating for the school system's many glaring needs.
"There is not a perception that he has a sense of urgency. In this business, perception is everything," said council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who said he was struck that Janey did not work harder to get dilapidated schools fixed sooner.
And although many education analysts are impressed by Janey's plans to change learning standards, curriculum, textbooks and standardized testing in a single year, some argue that he should have proceeded at a slower pace to give teachers and students more time to adjust.
Janey and his deputies say they have no illusions about the challenges ahead. By most measures, the District has some of the worst public schools in the nation. More than half its schools -- including 12 of the 16 senior high schools -- are on a federal watch list of schools falling short of academic benchmarks. Spending on special education is bloated. And despite recent progress on maintenance and repairs, the physical plants of many schools still border on Third World conditions.
Janey's approach has been to keep his eye on long-term, systemic change and avoid getting sidetracked by the crisis of the day. Some officials say that although he is right to resist becoming overwhelmed by daily events, as some other superintendents were, he nonetheless has been too slow in resolving problems that have erupted at several schools across the city. They warn that alienating parents and teachers could ultimately undermine the support Janey needs to implement his plans.
Early this year, for example, teachers from Jefferson Junior High in Southwest Washington sent a certified letter to Janey demanding a meeting to discuss the acting principal, whom they blamed for an increase in violence at the school and a decline in student achievement.
Despite the letter and several weeks of daily parent demonstrations at the school, Janey never responded. Parents and teachers said he dispatched assistant superintendents, which only made the dispute worse. The teachers and parents said they were unable to reach a resolution until they moved their protest to the school system's central office in June.
School board member Tommy Wells (District 3), who unsuccessfully pressed the superintendent to personally intervene, said Janey eventually hired a permanent principal who is energetic and talented. Yet "it was frustrating how long it took," said Wells, adding that he thinks Janey generally is doing a good job. "If it happens again, I'd like to think Dr. Janey would go through a different process."
Janey and his team say they are leery of quick fixes, adding that such short-term solutions are part of the reason the school system is in so much trouble.
"It's one thing to get things done quickly. It's another thing to get it done substantially so it won't have to be done again," he said.
Janey's deliberative style also has affected the school board's pace. In one case, the board had to delay action on his capital spending plan because he had taken so long to prepare it that it was submitted just hours before the vote.
"Sometimes it's maddening for us," Wells said. "He will not do anything until he is fully prepared. His reports have to be reviewed, re-reviewed and edited."
In his dealings with city officials, Janey has stressed cooperation over confrontation -- unlike former superintendent Arlene Ackerman, for example, who for part of her tenure refused to appear before the council.
In the winter, he angered some board members when he discouraged their idea of engaging in a public battle with the council for some of the city's surplus dollars to fix crumbling schools. He favored behind-the-scenes negotiations with Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and other key members.
His cordial relations with the council paid off with Cropp's introduction of a measure to provide new construction funds and with legislation from council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) that closed a gap in the operating budget and averted the layoffs of hundreds of teachers.
Still, he is finding his way in a convoluted government structure that requires him to answer not only to the school board, but also the council, the mayor and Congress.
In a recent interview, he expressed frustration with council members who he said micromanage the school system and make requests for detailed reports during public hearings.
"In other cities, the council pretty much leaves the policy work to the Board of Education," Janey said. "Here, it's a different way of doing business, and it does have an impact, managing all those requests.
"There's a cultural norm here, where citizens will go to their council member and not their principal or school with a complaint," he added, saying that it creates lots of work for his staff to respond.
Janey has appointed most of his senior team as well as many mid-level managers.
He is known to be demanding of his staffers and to expect them to be masters at multi-tasking. Chief Accountability Officer Meria J. Carstarphen, for example, is responsible for negotiating with the teachers' union on a new contract, training teachers on the learning standards, helping develop a new standardized test and creating an intervention program for 81 failing schools.
Some staff members, citing such workloads, have complained about being overwhelmed, and Janey -- like previous D.C. superintendents -- runs the risk of having talented deputies burn out.
At several meetings in his office this month, Janey heard staff reports about an array of future initiatives -- new report cards for elementary students, the return of music and art programs, more preschool programs and higher-level courses in high schools.
He asked pointed questions and offered gushing feedback.
"We're restoring the confidence in the public's eye in the school system's ability to get the job done," said Janey, seated at the head of a long rectangular conference table with four members of his inner circle.
"We're in a real position to go forward."
School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey speaks with Robert C. Rice, special assistant to the superintendent. Janey has appointed most of his senior team as well as many mid-level managers and is known to be demanding of his staff.
Janey participates in a task force to increase the rate of student immunization before the start of the school year tomorrow.