Clifford B. Janey, who spent three decades educating students in Boston and Rochester, N.Y., was named superintendent of the District's public schools yesterday, ending an agonizing search that began in the fall and exasperated city officials, parents and teachers alike.

Addressing D.C. Board of Education members before they unanimously approved his appointment, Janey recalled growing up in a public housing complex in Boston in describing the educational aspirations he hopes to impart. "I always like to remind our students: It's not where you start but where you finish, and you never really finish with the work that you do," he said.

Janey, 58, who plans to start this month, was not the first choice of District leaders; two previous front-runners withdrew from consideration. As the fifth regular D.C. superintendent in a decade, he inherits the task of educating 64,000 pupils -- from toddlers in Head Start centers to 20-year-olds trying to obtain a high school diploma -- in one of the lowest-performing urban education systems in the nation.

In his 30-year career, Janey said, "I haven't found an individual who didn't want improvement, but I've found a number of people who want improvement without change."

He added: "That's going to be our biggest challenge."

While mindful of the enormous obstacles Janey faces, city and school officials were optimistic and relieved about having a superintendent in office before the Sept. 1 start of classes. Two interim superintendents have been in charge since Paul L. Vance resigned in November -- the longest period since 1991 that the system has been without a permanent leader. District leaders had planned to pick a new schools chief by July 1, but their timetable was thrown off when two leading candidates pulled out: former New York City schools chancellor Rudolph F. Crew in May and former Long Beach (Calif.) superintendent Carl A. Cohn in June. Janey applied in July.

The quiet and plain-spoken Janey has developed a reputation for being willing to take bold risks to improve instruction. During his seven-year tenure as superintendent in Rochester, he raised reading and math scores on new statewide tests, split up a large failing high school into three career academies and helped to comply with a court decree governing special education for disabled students.

But he left that job in 2002 under a cloud after a $45 million budget deficit threatened to throw the system into turmoil. His supporters on the Rochester school board crafted a generous buyout of his three-year contract in a deal that was attacked by critics on the board and by the city's mayor. Since last year, he has worked for an educational publisher.

In the District, officials focused yesterday on the positive side of Janey's record. The seven-member panel of officials that recommended him to the school board wrote that he was "nationally recognized for his accomplishments in improving academic achievement and reforming school systems," and the city's leaders were unusually unified in their support.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who since assuming office in 1999 has twice proposed taking direct control of the schools from the Board of Education, chaired the panel that recommended Janey and appeared happy with the outcome.

"The people of our city have spoken," said Williams (D). "What they want is a superintendent of integrity, a superintendent of stature, a superintendent of determination." He called for a summit of residents to set education priorities and pledged his "unequivocal and emphatic" support for Janey.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the school board's president since 2001, acknowledged that the protracted search had been taxing. "Obviously it's been a pretty rocky road, but we saw some major changes and thrusts for this city," she said. "The mayor has completely backed away from his desire and quest to take over the school system and has agreed to support this candidate. He actively participated in the choice, and he's agreed to seek reform through this existing Board of Education."

Hovering over the show of harmony, however, were the profound challenges facing the school system, particularly in light of the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law of 2001. At a news conference that followed the board vote, Janey declined to rule out the possibility of privatizing or "outsourcing" the management of low-performing schools, a model to which Philadelphia, St. Louis and other cities have turned.

"There's not going to be a silver bullet in terms of a solution," he said. He mentioned three priorities: reforming poorly performing high schools, monitoring early childhood programs and bringing students who are academically behind their grade level up to speed.

James W. Dyke Jr., a lawyer and former Virginia education official, is representing the school board without charge in contract negotiations with Janey. Although board members would not discuss the potential terms yesterday, sources said that a three-year contract and an annual salary of about $250,000 are likely. The average salary for an urban superintendent is $188,988, according to a national survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large urban districts.

Educators who have worked with Janey saw his appointment as a sign of hope.

"It's a wise decision," said Lois Harrison-Jones, a professor at Howard University who as Boston's superintendent from 1991 to 1995 was Janey's boss. She pointed to his background as a teacher and principal to argue that he understands the elements and urgency of school reform.

Michael D. Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, of which Janey is a past chairman, said: "He will face a school district that has not seen much improvement in academic performance, that does not have the pieces in place yet to make substantial gains. But Janey is a guy who has got the skills to make a huge difference. He has a background in instruction and curriculum, strong operational skills and the demeanor, political acumen and communications skills that parents will find engaging and convincing."

Pedro A. Noguera, an authority on urban schools at New York University, said "D.C. is very lucky to get someone of his caliber" but cautioned that even the most effective leaders cannot raise student performance by themselves. He suggested that the District's burgeoning charter school movement and its new federally funded voucher program have distracted attention from fundamental problems.

"There's too much experimentation going on, and the basics aren't being addressed," Noguera said, citing the need for highly qualified teachers and principals and social services -- such as health care, nutrition programs and housing -- that help children succeed in school.

Janey was raised in the Orchard Park housing development in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. He graduated from the renowned Boston Latin School in 1964 and majored in sociology at Northeastern University.

In 1973, he started a 22-year career in Boston's public schools, interrupted by one year as a principal in Salem, Mass. Starting as a reading teacher, Janey ascended to positions that included middle school principal, headmaster of a technical high school and superintendent of a community school district. Meanwhile, he completed a doctorate in education at Boston University.

In 1989, Janey became superintendent of the East Zone, the Boston district's largest school region. He became the system's top instructional official in 1993 and was a finalist for the top schools job in Minneapolis and Worcester, Mass., that year. He took the helm of the 36,000-student Rochester school district in 1995. In 2002, he was a finalist for the top education job in Florida, and last year he joined an educational publisher, Scholastic Inc., where he is vice president of the education division.

Iris Toyer, co-chairman of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, yesterday called the D.C. search process "a comedy of errors."

"As we watched the series of people trumpeted before us, it was like a badly run horse race," she said. "And they tried to conduct the process under a veil of secrecy. We have only ended up by luck with what we hope will be a good superintendent."

Reginald L. Williams, who will be a senior at Spingarn Senior High School and is one of the board's two nonvoting student members, expressed optimism. "It's just been hard for us this year," he told Janey. "You have a lot on your shoulders."

Before adjourning, the board stood and applauded Interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice, an academic officer who was thrust into the job in April. Rice said he would like to remain in the school system.

Clifford B. Janey, flanked by Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz and Mayor Anthony Williams, talks to media. Janey gets a hug from school board member Carolyn N. Graham as Michael Brown, a search panel member, looks on.