Profile

Percy Clark Jr.

Still Reaching for Hearts and Minds by Jay P. Goldman

The most telling experience in Percy Clark’s 41 years as a professional educator may well have been the first—a raw rookie thrown into a classroom of 30-plus 7th graders who, in the teacher’s most charitable depiction, “just didn’t fit in anywhere.”

 

These were students exhibiting an array of personal disorders who 10 years later under the landmark federal law governing students with disabilities probably would have qualified for individualized education plans. But in 1964, the young teens found themselves dubbed the “Opportunity Group,” in a classroom in Portage, Mich., led by the starry-eyed 22-year-old Clark, fresh off the campus of Western Michigan University.

“I had to come up with a creative environment for ‘throwaway kids’ in my first year of teaching. I’ll never forget how important it is to not just teach to their heads but to their hearts and souls, too,” Clark says. “It’s had an impact for 40 years.”

In the years since, Clark has served in various settings with differing needs—as a 27-year-old principal in Kalamazoo, Mich.; an assistant superintendent in upper-middle-class Shaker Heights, Ohio; a superintendent in Lawrence Township outside Indianapolis, Ind.; a vice president with the Edison Schools; and since 2001 the superintendent in Pasadena, Calif., a city trying to overcome lingering racial wounds.

Those earliest experiences trying to reach the most vulnerable students continue to resonate for the 62-year-old Chicago native who insists he can remember many of those students’ names. On his desk in Pasadena rests a framed statement attributed to Microsoft CEO Bill Gates: “Either we think they can’t learn or we think they’re not worth teaching. The first argument would be factually wrong. The second would be morally wrong.”

In Pasadena, his quest is nothing less than restoring middle-class confidence in a public school district sent reeling by court-ordered busing for racial integration purposes some 25 years ago. As a result, nearly 30 percent of the city’s school-age population today attend non-public schools—a figure Clark believes may be the highest of any school system in the nation.

“The major challenge we have as a nation is not external threats,” Clark says. “It’s what Rome found—it’s internal conflict that may destroy America. The haves and the have nots. Education is a tremendous leveler, but race remains as prevalent as it’s ever been.”

The superintendent can point to some modest progress on that upward climb. All but seven of Pasadena’s 32 schools scored improvements last year on the state’s Academic Performance Index, and the district’s aggregate gain exceeded the average state and county improvements. In addition, the full-day kindergarten that’s now available in every elementary school is attracting some middle-class families again.

Clark’s leadership in expanding the program options among schools, in promoting districtwide open enrollment and in redrawing of school boundaries to enable greater neighborhood attendance are expected to appeal to many others who figured the non-public route was their only viable choice.

Several educators in Pasadena particularly admire the way he promotes the talents of staff members. When Patricia Kavanaugh, a high school literature teacher, received her national board certification recently, she said the president of the College Board told her, “I can’t believe your superintendent is here to acknowledge your accomplishment. I don’t see that happening very much.”

Clark also managed to sweet-talk George McKenna, a former principal in Los Angeles with considerable cachet, to work with him as an assistant superintendent overseeing instructional improvement in Pasadena—and to do so for the $20,000 a year allowed of retirees who are drawing a pension.

Tommy McMullins, a retired bank executive who served as president of the Pasadena school board, says the superintendent’s resourcefulness in times of budget stress to attract and retain such a high-profile educator is impressive. “Dr. Clark can inspire people in that fashion,” he says.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org