Mr. Reed attends a school board meeting in Washington in 1978. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Vincent E. Reed, the former D.C. Public Schools superintendent who gained national renown in the 1970s when he led the long-troubled district through a period of administrative stability and student achievement, died Oct. 17 at his home in Washington. He was 89.

A niece, Ella Redmond, confirmed his death. He had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, congestive heart failure and other ailments.

Mr. Reed retired in 1998 as The Washington Post’s vice president for communications, a position he held for 16 years. Before joining The Post, his stint as assistant secretary of education made him one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the Reagan administration.

A former Golden Gloves boxing champion, all-American football tackle and Army officer, Mr. Reed joined the D.C. school system in 1956 and ascended the ranks from shop teacher to administrator.

He was the first black principal of the largely white Wilson High School in Northwest Washington before being named by the D.C. school board to the district’s top job in 1975. He stepped down in 1980 after rancorous disputes with the elected board members, but he maintained a reputation as one of the most popular superintendents in D.C. history.

Mr. Reed in his superintendent’s office in 1980. (Craig Herndon/The Washington Post)

One of his signature victories — although it was not achieved until after his superintendency — was the creation of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, a selective magnet school in Northwest for high-achieving students.

“Vince Reed was one of the real heroes of Washington, D.C.,” said Donald E. Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post. “A lot of people thought he was the best school superintendent the city ever had. He was a man of perfect integrity, and he was willing to do anything where kids were concerned.”

Mr. Reed “brought this sense of stability and hope, and people had great confidence,” said Mary Levy, a longtime monitor of the school district through the group Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools. “It was a big contrast with what had gone before, with all the tumult.”

Mr. Reed assumed the superintendency at a delicate moment for the city and for the district. In the 12 years before his tenure, the district had gone through eight superintendents. His predecessor, Barbara A. Sizemore, had left amid charged battles over race and class in the school system.

Mr. Reed was credited with making swift administrative and practical changes that improved the delivery of school supplies, ended inflated spending and eliminated morale-sapping payroll mistakes. Just over a year into his tenure, The Post wrote a front-page story about the sense of optimism that had arrived in the long-beleaguered district.

Among teachers and administrators, he cultivated a reputation for watchfulness. He would occasionally swing by downtown department stores such as Woodward & Lothrop, spot school employees shopping and invite them to go back to the office.

He said the tactic worked. “I haven’t seen anybody out shopping recently,” he told The Post in 1977, “except at lunch hour.”

In the classroom, he eschewed pedagogical trends to instead focus on basic skills such as math and reading.

“What do you call innovation?” he told The Post in 1977. “If the kids can read and write, that’s an innovation, because that’s different than what we have now. . . . What we need are students who can live in this country and move through this life and make a contribution.”

To improve academic performance and end social promotions, he introduced a competency-based curriculum under which students were required to learn particular fundamental skills to move on to the next grade. Those who failed were given special remedial instruction.

The system seemed to work: In 1979, test scores rose for the first time in a decade, and the following year they rose again.

Clashes and criticism

His tenure was not without controversy. He weathered a 23-day teacher strike in 1979 and lost 700 teachers because of citywide austerity measures. Some school board members and other critics faulted him for being slow to enforce a "back to basics" curriculum program and argued that his popularity stemmed from personal charisma rather than from results.

Mr. Reed argued that he could not reverse the years of insufficient education that older students had received and that the ultimate proof of his success would be the performance of younger students who entered the system while he was superintendent.

He sharply criticized board members’ demands that he provide jobs for their acquaintances and said the board had displayed an uncooperative approach toward his staff. He and the board clashed over the creation of a model college-preparatory high school for the district, an initiative he strongly supported.

Proposals for the school were defeated twice. Its detractors on the board feared that a selective school would be too elitist or would cater disproportionately to white students.

In December 1980, Mr. Reed announced that he would resign. The Post editorial board wrote that the city had "an emergency on its hands" and argued for Mr. Reed to be given an extended contract that would protect him from looming changes to retiree benefits. He received an outpouring of requests that he stay, including from then-Mayor Marion Barry.

“The agony of what I’ve been through is something I can’t explain,” Mr. Reed said of his decision to leave the school system. “It’s something I can’t stand anymore.”

The month after his resignation, the school board voted to create what became Benjamin Banneker High. Two decades later, Post columnist William Raspberry wrote that the institution was "an important source of pride for both the school system and the city."

Vincent Emory Reed was born March 1, 1928, in St. Louis and was the 14th of 17 children. His father was an insurance salesman and drove a laundry truck. His mother was "a fanatic about education," Mr. Reed told The Post.

When he was 14, he announced over dinner that he was going to quit school and become a fighter. “He’s quitting school, so he’s grown,” he recalled his mother saying, “and that means he has to get out on his own. He’ll be leaving tomorrow.”

The next morning, Mr. Reed woke up and found his belongings packed in a cardboard suitcase. He opted to stay home and remain in school.

Mr. Reed received a physical-education degree in 1952 from what is now West Virginia State University and began his career there as a football coach. He was an Army veteran of the Korean War.

After settling in Washington, he received a master’s degree in educational administration from Howard University in 1965.

Dedicated to education

In March 1981, President Ronald Reagan named Mr. Reed assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. He served in that position, overseeing matters including federal funding for schools, until joining The Post in 1982. As head of communications, he was the newspaper’s chief liaison with the public on matters other than news and editorial questions, and its chief spokesman on business issues.

His responsibilities included the company’s educational and charitable programs, which were greatly expanded under his stewardship. Among them were the Agnes Meyer awards, which are given to outstanding Washington-area teachers, and a program through which high school students earn college scholarships by making the honor roll.

For years, Mr. Reed hosted an informal monthly meeting of area school superintendents at The Post.

Survivors include his wife of 65 years, Frances Bullitt Reed, a former elementary school reading specialist, of Washington; two brothers; and a sister.

Mr. Reed once reflected on his upbringing and how it informed his philosophy.

“We were poor, but we made it,” he told The Post. “We had to do without some things sometimes, but we made it. That’s why I get so upset when we tell our kids they can’t learn because they come from meager circumstances.”

J.Y. Smith, a former obituaries editor of The Washington Post who died in 2006, contributed to this report.