Floretta D. McKenzie, a career educator who was superintendent of Washington public schools in the 1980s and presided over an era of relative administrative stability in the city’s beleaguered school system, died March 23 at a hospital in Silver Spring. She was 79.
The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said a sister, Adrienne Marble.
Dr. McKenzie, whose teaching career began in 1957, was a deputy superintendent of Montgomery County schools and a deputy assistant secretary in the federal Education Department before she was named D.C. schools superintendent in 1981. She resigned in 1988 of her own accord — a departure from precedent in her office — and started an education-consulting business that focused on inner-city schools.
As superintendent, Dr. McKenzie continued or expanded many curriculum reforms initiated by her predecessor, Vincent E. Reed. In particular, she emphasized a return to “competency-based curriculum,” in which students were required to master certain basic skills to advance to the next class.
That classroom approach has often been criticized as a bureaucratic nightmare that conflicted with individualized instruction, but Dr. McKenzie was credited with spurring what The Washington Post described as an “upturn in elementary school achievement.” Banneker High School, the city’s magnet school for high academic achievers, had its first graduating class during her watch.
Dr. McKenzie began a major summer-school effort to remedy the common practice of social promotion, or advancing students to the next grade regardless of their proficiency. But budget constraints reportedly hindered her efforts. Seemingly intractable social problems, such as drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and low attendance, remained.
Nevertheless, Dr. McKenzie charmed many of the city’s business and political leaders with her steady, low-key disposition and personal warmth — a welcome departure from the tumultuous reign of Reed’s predecessor, Barbara Sizemore, who often made racially tinged public statements.
Dr. McKenzie was credited with forging important alliances with local companies, foundations and trade associations to help improve instructional programs, personnel training and school-system management.
In the end, Dr. McKenzie served longer than any D.C. schools superintendent other than Carl Hansen, who resigned in 1967 after nine years in the job. She attributed her longevity in the job partly to avoiding fights with a demanding school board and to her preference to stay out of public view whenever possible.
“In my earlier years, I would emote all over the place,” she told The Post shortly before resigning. “But I learned to be unflappable. I worked on my style. . . . I’m a great student of timing and when to be out there. The school system used to be in the paper often and in a very negative way. A lot of citizens congratulate me on not being in the paper.”
Carol Schwartz, a former member of the D.C. school board and the D.C. Council, called Dr. McKenzie “effective.”
“It’s hard to leave the school system in D.C., with all the problems it has, with your reputation intact, and I think she did,” said Schwartz, a Republican.
The late Ernest L. Boyer, who had been president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and U.S. commissioner of education in the Carter administration, once told The Post that Dr. McKenzie left “a legacy there for her successor who doesn’t have to build on the shambles that you have some other places.”
A series of short-lived superintendents in the 1990s deepened the D.C. school system’s reputation as among the most troubled in the nation.
Floretta Lillian Dukes was born on Aug. 19, 1935, in Lakeland, Fla., where her father led the recreation program for the town’s black population. He successfully fought the county school system’s decision to shut down for several months so black children could help pick strawberries for the harvest. But her father lost his position and moved the family to Washington to take a federal job.
She said the encounter between her father and the county taught her a valuable lesson about conscience but also one about the consequences of confrontation.
She was a 1952 graduate of Dunbar High School, where she won a music prize for cello playing, and was a 1956 graduate of D.C. Teachers College. She received a master’s degree in education at Howard University in 1957 and a doctorate in education from George Washington University in 1985.
Her marriage to Donald McKenzie, a piano technician, ended in divorce. Survivors include two children, Kevin McKenzie and Donna Kilpatrick, both of Washington; two sisters, Adrienne Marble of Boca Raton, Fla., and Carolyn Alexander of Oakland, Calif.; two brothers, Dr. Martin Dukes Jr. of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Lawrence Dukes of Washington; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
After an early teaching career in Baltimore and Washington, Dr. McKenzie worked in the 1970s for Montgomery County and the Education Department. She briefly was an educational consultant to the Ford Foundation before becoming superintendent of the Washington schools.
In 1988, she formed the McKenzie Group, an educational consulting business affiliated with the Washington law firm of Hogan and Hartson. The McKenzie Group was later acquired by the American Institutes for Research, an organization that focuses on social and behavioral sciences.
In 1992, Dr. McKenzie reportedly became the first black elected board member of the Marriott Corp. and the first woman on the board who is not a member of the founding Marriott family. Her other board memberships included the Potomac Electric Power Co. and Acacia Mutual Life Insurance.