Note: This story originally appeared in The Washington Post on June 10, 1987.
In Lakeland, Fla., 40 years ago, the county school board decided to shut down schools for black children for four months so the children could be put to work in time for strawberry season.
Martin Dukes, a black man in the deep South, knew the hard ways of segregation. But this particular outrage sliced into his soft spot. Dukes, director of the city’s recreation program for blacks, made the impolitic decision to lead a protest. He won the battle; black children stayed in school. But Dukes paid a price for stepping out front; he lost his job.
His daughter, Floretta Dukes McKenzie, Washington’s schools superintendent since 1981, was one of the children who stayed in school. She learned from her father: Do as your conscience calls. Pick your battles. Don’t lose. And one more thing: Don’t be so quick to embrace confrontation.
“In my earlier years, I would emote all over the place,” says McKenzie. “But I learned to be unflappable. I worked on my style. I understand opportunity better than many people. 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.”
The daughter of the man who took on the white establishment and both won and lost has turned out to be a very private public person. After the first extensive interview she’s granted since her appointment, she says, “I’ve avoided this for six years.”
In the cool basement of her two-story brick house across the street from Rock Creek Park, Floretta McKenzie escapes into a wood-paneled study, a room of soft browns and yellows, bold African sculptures, a print by black American artist James Wells and three walls of books (mostly worn paperbacks, heavy on Robert Ludlum, Sidney Sheldon and Irving Wallace, with a sprinkling of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker).
Here on Oregon Avenue NW, in the $182,000 home she bought two years ago to share with her daughter Donna and Jasper, a black cocker spaniel, McKenzie, who is divorced, spends what hours she can in a few of her favorite places. She pecks away at the IBM PC in the study, works on flower beds out back, cooks in her large, light kitchen for weekend visitors.
Other than the student artwork that McKenzie makes it her business to buy each year, there are few signs of the tension and trauma of a big city school system. This idyllic setting two blocks from the Maryland border is a long way from McKenzie’s former home on Emerson Street NE in Michigan Park or her first Washington house, in River Terrace east of the Anacostia River.
“People so often think you’re leaving them when you move over here from Northeast,” McKenzie volunteers as she walks through her living room, plush but somewhat formal, decorated in Marriott-mauve-and-gray. “I just needed to relax more and I felt very safe here. I came from a real inner-city house.”
With tulips on the front lawn, beige Volvo in the driveway and a collection of mustards in the cupboard, McKenzie could get out of her pin-stripe suit and end hard days with evenings of peace and satisfaction. But most often, she doesn’t. Despite the occasional night out at Mr. Henry’s, despite a lifelong passion for jazz (McCoy Tyner and Anita Baker are current favorites), the superintendent is a driven, nervous woman. She eats too much. She is constantly in need of a vacation. Her brother and her mother are forever telling her to calm down.
After this year’s first semester, McKenzie met with the system’s principals. “I want to compliment you on a very productive and uneventful semester,” McKenzie told them. “This is our most uneventful year.” She beamed proudly.
“It’s unreasonable to expect urban school districts to operate without crises. But we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t have the kind of major crises we used to have. I wanted to bring some stability to the system and I think we’ve done that.”
It wasn’t long ago that the District school system was known for miserable achievement levels, for a school board whose meetings could and did break into bickering and even wild arguments, for its inability to attract students who had any other choice. White flight was quickly followed by black flight, as the city’s Catholic schools became an alternative for the black middle class.
In recent years, that reputation has changed somewhat. In the past decade, the standard measures of the system have been on the rise. After many years of decline, enrollment has leveled off. Test scores are up, many to national averages and above. Attendance is steadier.
But the District schools are still riddled with intransigent social problems. The schools serve a population besieged by drugs, pregnancy and unemployment. Many schools are sagging hulks with crumbling walls and flow-through roofs. Teachers complain that students have to share 25-year-old textbooks.
Presiding over this system of new hopes and old problems is a 52-year-old woman whose public image ranges from sturdy to spectacular. Last fall, when McKenzie let it be known that she was talking to the Charlotte, N.C., schools about the top job there, Washington’s corporate honchos took to the phones. They called anyone who might be able to find out what it would take to keep McKenzie. It was a heady outpouring from executives not ordinarily known for their devotion to inner-city public education.
Today, McKenzie says she decided on her own to stay. And she, on her own, will decide when to quit. She knows what she is looking for: a foundation job that will let her keep working on education and the underclass, but will also pay her big bucks.
“You probably peak in a job in three to five years and I’m over the five. I don’t want to stay so long that the pace slows. I’ve done a lot of what I wanted to do. If you know you’re slipping, you probably started before then.”
McKenzie’s welcome is not wearing thin. With minimal public attention — she rarely speaks to students, hardly ever to parents — she has managed to win extraordinary support from the city’s establishment.
“They think she’s terrific,” says Rod Boggs, counsel to Parents United, the District activist group known for dramatic press conferences that shame the school system into speeding repairs or buying new books. “It’s mainly because they know her as she’s portrayed in the press. The image is that the system is beset by problems but is making progress, and she gets credit for the progress.”
McKenzie has become expert at avoiding publicity she cannot control — a utopian dream to many a public figure. A student stabs another student and the official reaction comes from Janis Cromer, McKenzie’s flak-catcher and confidante in the adjoining office. A blizzard plays havoc with school openings and Cromer is out front with the explanations. A school board member worries about the safety of a proposed go-go dance at Anacostia High School and Cromer makes the decision to cancel.
But let test scores rise and the superintendent is pleased to discuss the achievement. Let a major corporation adopt a District school and McKenzie is there, beaming, shaking the right hands, talking about a system that earns its apple every day.
“She has saved the schools,” says Sally McElroy, director of the Washington Parent Group Fund, a voluntary organization that gets parents involved in schools. “Everything was so down before she came and now morale is high and people want to be in District schools.”
“Privately, Flo knows there are needs and severe problems,” Boggs says. “She’s not being Pollyanna-ish. But the school system needs a cheerleader too, and it’s real hard to do both jobs.”
So you won’t often find Floretta McKenzie at the neighborhood elementary school when there’s a problem. Instead, the superintendent might be speaking to researchers about recruiting black teachers or joining a parade of big names at a national conference on teaching values. Places where she controls the agenda, places with good manners and no controversy.
McKenzie’s travels have caused friction. Former board member Barbara Simmons counted 62 travel days for McKenzie one year. And longtime board gadfly Calvin Lockridge says McKenzie gets away with actions that would have brought down her predecessors.
“There is a conspiracy of silence from the media,” he says. “Floretta is surrounded by incompetents. I speak out about her, but she is so quick to think she is being challenged, so sensitive, that everyone jumps to defend her.”
In one six-week period this spring, McKenzie spent at least 12 days on the road. She spoke at a $ 175-a-head university conference in Purchase, N.Y., at a Women’s Day convocation at Alabama A&M, at an administrators’ convention in New Orleans, at a meeting of teachers in the Virgin Islands and at a national conference of People for the American Way. She is frequently paid for appearances, Cromer says, but the superintendent is not required to, and has not, revealed how much outside income she earns. Her contract places no limit on outside income.
Her salary is $85,000 (12th in the nation among superintendents; D.C.’s is the 16th largest school system). Fringe benefits such as a retirement account and a tax-sheltered annuity bring total compensation to more than $150,000 a year.
“She would much rather be out on the hustings touting the system’s achievements than be here embroiled in some controversy,” says board member Bob Boyd (Ward 6).
“I’m trying to help the system get some respect,” McKenzie says. “Public education has been under siege and some of us have to be vigorous in our defense.”
School board President David Hall defends the superintendent’s peripatetic ways. “She’s traveled more than any other superintendent, but she’s also brought in more money than any other superintendent,” he says.
The board and McKenzie have the same goals, Hall says. Avoid controversy. Avoid confrontation. Avoid the brutal glare of the press.
“You could easily raise questions about her,” Hall says. “Should she make more money than the president of UDC? Should she have a chauffeured car?”
But while the goal of peace and efficiency sounds lovely, former board member Simmons, a longtime McKenzie critic, says that is precisely what’s wrong with the school system. “Who says you’re supposed to worship at the shrine of peace at any price?” she says. “Have you ever seen her make a ripple? Nothing creative happens without controversy. If you stand for something, you ought to say so.”
If the board sometimes has to prod McKenzie to take on spicy issues such as drugs and school security, as Hall says, the elected politicians figure it’s worth the trouble. They would do just about anything to keep their superintendent, because she’s steady, she’s smart and she never, ever steals their thunder.
Former superintendent Vincent Reed says he thinks his successor makes the board happy, but adds, “Floretta backs off so much, she’s just about propelled David Hall into the mayor’s seat.”
This January, the school board and the superintendent traveled to West Virginia for their annual weekend retreat in a snowy mountain resort. Here, and only here, safe from tape recorders and reporters, the board — McKenzie’s 11 bosses — tells the superintendent how she’s doing. Despite a board policy requiring one, there has been no formal evaluation of McKenzie since the decidedly mediocre review she got after her first year.
But at this private breakfast meeting in the mountain hideaway, several board members criticized McKenzie to her face for the first time, according to six people who were in the room. Eugene Kinlow said he was frustrated that schools were not improving quickly enough. Linda Cropp complained about some top managers. Lockridge and Bettie Benjamin accused McKenzie of “playing games” over her new contract.
Then Benjamin lit into McKenzie, wondering whether the administration was inflating student test scores. She told McKenzie to clean up management, get rid of some bumbling administrators, generally spruce up her act.
In moments, the room had fallen silent except for the superintendent’s small, sniffling sobs.
“Sometimes we’re shorter on praise than on criticisms,” McKenzie says now. “It was less emotional than some of them interpreted. No matter what I accomplish, they want more, more, more. And I guess that’s what boards are for.”
She pauses for a long time.
Ruth Dukes, McKenzie’s mother, says, “That job is too much for her.”
“All that stress and all that weight can’t be good for her,” says Martin Dukes, McKenzie’s younger brother, a gynecologist in the West End.
The only therapies that seem to work for McKenzie are cooking, fishing and eating, relatives say. Recently, and especially since her mother had cardiac bypass surgery early this year, McKenzie has tried to change her habits.
She brought a physician in to talk to her staff about cholesterol. One day this spring, she started on a salad at a lunch meeting. After a few forkfuls, she put it aside and turned to a more fattening Italian dish. Staring at the salad, she said, “I try so hard to like it, but it’s so boring.”
Food is a binding force in the family; to this day, she packs lunch for Donna to take to law school. (Her grown son works for the D.C. Recreation Department.)
The lunch bags are an anomaly. McKenzie, no homebody, wishes she had spent more time with her two children as they grew up. She has always put work first, from her teaching days in Baltimore through her administrative career, a vertical blur that has taken her from the District to Montgomery County to the U.S. Education Department to the Ford Foundation and back to Washington.
“I am and have been ambitious,” McKenzie says. “I don’t have regrets, but I have been kind of single-minded in my quest ... I probably could have done a better job in my personal life.”
Her marriage to Donald McKenzie, a piano tuner in the school system, ended shortly after McKenzie became superintendent.
“I’d like to see her a little lighter,” Ruth Dukes says, tossing a rolled-up Ebony magazine on her coffee table. “I’ve tried. But once they get grown, you can’t make them cheerier anymore.”
Alone now in the row house near the Anacostia River that the family moved into 35 years ago, Ruth Dukes recalls a child who got reading assignments with her household chores.
“That I didn’t get, I wanted mine to get,” she says. “See, I didn’t go further than high school. So their father and I pushed.”
Back in Lakeland, Floretta’s job was feeding the chickens, a task that McKenzie still uses in speeches as an object lesson in taking on responsibilities.
After her father’s foray into political protest, he moved north, sending money home from his federal job.
When Floretta was a junior in high school, the family reunited in Washington, even though she was in line to be valedictorian. “The idea was that we would all go to college at Howard and make something of ourselves,” her brother says. “That was almost an obsession with our father.”
Floretta enrolled at Dunbar, the city’s premier high school for blacks. She signed up for German, history and advanced grammar. She joined the band, playing the trombone. Rheumatic fever knocked her wind out, so she switched to the cello. At year’s end, McKenzie won the class of 1952 music prize over classmate and future jazz pianist Shirley Horn.
“I was so embarrassed,” McKenzie says. “I asked the music director why I got the award when we all knew Shirley Horn could be a great musician. He said, ‘You were more committed and you learned two instruments.’ Well, I still am very uncomfortable and at our reunion one year, I am going to deliver that award to Shirley Horn.”
McKenzie wanted to be a lawyer, but when it was time for college, money was tight in the family and she went to D.C. Teachers College. She later won a music scholarship to Howard — for trombone playing — but decided to stick with teaching.
She majored in history, went on to Howard for a master’s and dropped work on a doctorate when she started teaching. The doctorate in education came only after she became superintendent in 1981; McKenzie wrote her thesis for George Washington University while she worked.
The Dukes family has a running joke about McKenzie leading a charmed life. “I can’t remember her going for a job and not getting it,” her brother says.
She is an unabashed workaholic. She has, she says, the work ethic that propels black women, “a career orientation that didn’t start with the women’s movement, but came from slavery. And I love winning. I love success. I like making things happen.”
Behind the scenes, there is a tough McKenzie:
A boss who tells a meeting of principals, “I want improvement that we can measure, graduates who can find jobs easily, graduates who can get into the best colleges, results from our efforts. We must see tangible results.”
A boss who chastens the system’s top brass: “If we spend that much money on that little result, then all of our toes need to be shot off and candied,” she says about one boneheaded program.
This is the McKenzie who last year surprised everyone by threatening to quit if the city didn’t accept her budget request. She got the bucks.
Reticent as she may be before the school board, McKenzie has strong views in private. She rails against disincentives for achievement: “If you have a child and don’t know how to take care of it in this country, you get a check. If you have more children, you get more checks. But if you want to go to college, you get loans.”
On the stump, McKenzie prefers a folksy style heavy on childhood tales. In a voice that rarely rises above the deep, tired scratch she inherited from her mother, she mixes in a bit of educationspeak, that daunting language in which people don’t tell, they “share,” and no one has problems, only “concerns.”
The vast auditorium at Eastern High School was packed with principals and the superintendent was wrapping up her pitch on the new standardized test: “Eighty-five percent of districts that change tests show lower scores. I told the board we were going to be in the 15 percent of districts where scores rise. Now do you think we can do it?”
Scattered coughs echoed through the auditorium.
“Really, do you think we can do it?”
Two people applauded.
“I mean really, do you all think we can do it?”
“I mean, we’ve got to do it.”
Finally, McKenzie got some laughs of mercy, even a bit of applause.
At once relieved and frustrated, McKenzie sighed and left the stage.
She is far more comfortable with unthreatening, old-fashioned moralizing. Hands thrust in pockets, glancing only rarely at a text written by her aide Cromer, she told the girls of Dunbar High School:
“Say to yourself, ‘I don’t have to engage in intimate relationships to define myself. I don’t have to define myself by hiding my books because someone will call me an egghead if I don’t.’ Those people who scrubbed and ironed in other people’s houses to make it possible for you — for them, and for you, make sure that the winner in you is shown.”
No one shouted, the applause was hardly deafening. But the girls listened. As McKenzie took her seat, the school trio and choir struck up “My Way,” the old Sinatra anthem.
Her father taught Floretta to fish and for many years, she hated it.
“We had to go fishing, wading in up to here,” she says, pointing to her hips. “I was afraid of the water moccasins in Florida.”
Now she has a place in Charles County, Md., a place to go on weekends, with friends or by herself.
“As I got older, I came to see what he saw in it, the peacefulness. The best people in the world are fisher people. It’s just great if you hit a glory hole and they just come up all day. I like a bluefish. They’ll give you a fight.”
After hours in her office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, McKenzie talks about how tired she is of the strain, how sometimes it’s hard to see the impact of all those programs, all those efforts. Surrounded by awards and plaques on every bit of wall space, on couches and tables, she talks about her father, who died before she became superintendent.
She grows quiet, then softly, in her low rumble: “I sure would like to chat with him now to see if he’s satisfied.”