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Interim superintendent Watson talks about her goals.

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Linda Watson is measured in her responses to a reporter about what she thinks of merit pay, No Child Left Behind and her connection to school board president Katherine Mitchell.

But meeting with teachers at Rockefeller Elementary recently to hand out Teacher Advancement Program checks, she is effusive, familiar and teacherly at once. “Why am I here?” she asks rhetorically, and then congratulates the school for coming off the school improvement list. She'd like to see more schools come off the list. “I can't do a holy dance” to make it happen she says. “I can drop it like it's hot, but I can't do a holy dance.”

It is hot, the doings in the Little Rock School District these days, with the school board divided along racial lines, and Watson, successor to the fired superintendent Roy Brooks, is a big question mark. Will she do the bidding of Mitchell, who was instrumental in forcing out Brooks over the objections of the white members of the black-majority board? Or will she take her leadership cues from all the members of the board? What does it mean that her brother donated $1,000 to the campaign of board incumbent Micheal Daugherty, who faces a white candidate, Anna Swaim, in a runoff Tuesday?

Here's what Watson says: She knows Mitchell, yes. “I'll let people draw their own conclusions” on whether that friendship will shape her superintendency. The board, she says, is made up of “seven great people,” who are “not as divided as they appear. It's a thankless job ... whatever is going on I believe they're going to work it out.” And she is not her brother's keeper: “I am Dr. Linda Watson and he is Dr. Maurice Watson.” Furthermore, she said, “I am going to work with whomever's in the seat.”

Watson, 54, was chosen from within the district — she's been the head of the student discipline office for the past decade and a district employee for 15 years — to act as interim superintendent by a rare unanimous vote of the board. There was quibbling over her pay — $167,900 with a $20,000 annuity for the year — at an August meeting, but the board member who complained the loudest, Baker Kurrus, called on her the next day to “make very clear to her that I was supportive. It was a constructive, positive meeting,” he said.

Watson said she doesn't plan to turn the district upside down — “It wouldn't be wise for me to make wholesale changes” — but she sounds like someone out to prove that a district employee deserves a chance at the top. When the board gave her the interim position, “it was an opportunity to see if a home-grown person could do the job,” she said.

Watson does have an agenda: She has asked the Planning, Research and Evaluation Department to look at which programs are producing the best educational results. Stephens Elementary's experiment with reducing teacher-pupil ratios has paid off, she said, as has Reading Recovery, a literacy program for grades K-3. She's interested in finding ways to spread those programs around.

The goal of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires testing and punishes schools that don't achieve what's called “adequate yearly progress” by putting them on an “improvement list,” is a “lofty” one, Watson said, but one that would be easier to achieve had federal dollars been allocated. She is not an enemy of testing, however.

And merit pay? “Oooh, that's a hot issue,” she said. “For me, the verdict is out.”

The idea of paying teachers extra when their classes excel on tests is a sore subject. Former superintendent Brooks backed a privately supported merit pay program that was favored by the white members of the school board and put into place in a couple of schools without teacher input. Most teachers think the idea is insulting and the results poorly measured.

“I do not have a problem with rewarding teachers — and other staff members — when students are performing well,” she said. But, she added, “there may be some issues with the current merit pay that need to be revisited,” particularly the test itself. She said it should measure how much progress a child has made based on where that child began, what she called a “growth model.”

Dr. Karen DeJarnette, head of the PRE department, is perhaps not the most open-minded person when it comes to evaluating her new boss. Brooks fired DeJarnette last December when she protested that he and others in his administration were misrepresenting data coming from her department. The board rehired her in January. But what she says about Watson was echoed by Kurrus: That she's capable.

Further, DeJarnette said, Watson is “practical and specific. She doesn't talk in generalities. That's a really good thing.” DeJarnette said Watson means it when she says she is focused on student achievement.

“If I were really to say why I'm most excited about Dr. Watson, it's the shift [in district approach] I felt from her in conversations since becoming interim superintendent. She doesn't just want to look at data, but the context of the data.” DeJarnette said Watson is interested not just in the numbers of students scoring in the “proficient” range, but what's going on with kids who don't score well and schools on the improvement list. “Her words were, ‘What are the instructional opportunities offered to those children?' That's very different, and not just with the previous administration here.”

Watson will be effective and a good communicator, school board head Mitchell believes. “I went to a principals' meeting [with Watson] and they were very receptive of her. Many said they were not threatened or talked down to,” Mitchell said. Brooks had the opposite effect, she added. “I get very emotional about it,” she said. “I know first-hand how he treated people.”

Katherine Wright Knight, the former head of the Classroom Teachers Association, said she observed Watson at an achievement task force meeting. “She made a presentation, and was very effective. It was clear she had an understanding about performance of students and had already started looking at the schools that have shown improvements and has talked to people in those buildings, already identified what the strategies were they'd used to increase test performance.”

Knight said a crowd that attended a reception for Watson at her church, St. Mark Baptist in North Little Rock, was attended by a wide spectrum of district employees. “I actually saw custodians there, several paraprofessionals, teachers ... school level administrators. That would suggest to me that people are prepared to give her a fair shake.”

Knight also likes having a woman at the top. Education is dominated by females, she said, and Watson may have a “sensitivity that we may not have seen in past administrators.”

Watson is a product of a segregated school system, in North Little Rock, where she still lives. She attended virtually all black schools — Lincoln Elementary, Glenview and Scipio A. Jones High — until her senior year at Northeast High School in 1970-71. At Jones she was both a cheerleader and high-stepper.

School was an extension of community, she said, the center of its social life, along with “church and football.” The segregated system “at that time was great,” Watson said. “I felt like our schools did a magnificent job.”

“I didn't know of anything else,” she added. “I do know I benefited from desegregation.”

Thirty-seven years later, Watson finds herself in charge of classrooms that are still largely black. There are 26,000-plus students in the Little Rock School District, and 64 percent of them are black, though the city's black population is only 42 percent.

Watson recognizes the problems that beset schools today are more complex than those of her youth. “When I grew up any adult could tell you what to do and you did it. I don't know what it is not to have loving parents.” Even when she was 40 years old, her parents helped pay her tuition to the University of Arkansas when she was working toward her doctorate.

But she doesn't think today's problems necessarily translate into failure. “Kids can achieve. ... Where they came from [shouldn't matter].”

“Have we ever been without social problems?” she asked. If the family unit is not as strong, “maybe a significant person can make the difference ... like a teacher.”

Can Watson help ameliorate the divisions on the board? Not alone she can't, Mitchell said. “I think board members have to come to grips ourselves and make sure that when we make decisions, we first say how is this going to affect children?”

Little Rock has had five superintendents since 1997, the longest tenure four years (Dr. Leslie Carnine). “Successful organizations are built around successful boards,” Kurrus said. “You make a mistake if you think you've got to find a magic superintendent. If there were [such a thing], through the law of averages Little Rock would have hired at least one.”

Though she's hired only for the interim, Watson intends to work like someone who'll be around for years. “I want to know the concerns of all seven zones. ... I'm going to pull off these high heels and I'm going out to schools and the community.”

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