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Making a name for himself

| Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Mark Roosevelt steps out of a school police sedan about 6:30 p.m., his yellow tie unknotted and draped around his neck.

He plods to the front door of his Squirrel Hill home, his face intense.

It's no disaster, he assures a visitor. Just a normal day as superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, the state's second-largest district with 31,148 students.

It's been 10 months since Roosevelt, a former Massachusetts legislator, was the surprise choice for the $160,000-a-year job. But in that time, he has blown through town like a nor'easter.

Roosevelt, 50, ushered through his "right-sizing" plan for closing half-empty schools and improving low-performing ones. He trimmed 85 administrators from the central office and helped negotiate a teachers contract that didn't break the district's bank. On Friday, he announced a plan that sets lofty goals for raising student achievement.

But he knows that early success can be fleeting, and the district's obstacles are huge.

"I have the right level of impatience," Roosevelt said. "I'm so eager to get this done right, and I have no tolerance for those who say 'We're going to fail' and 'You can't get it done.'"

In a bookcase at his second home in Santa Fe, N.M., rests a pair of bookends made from spurs -- his only heirloom from his great-grandfather, President Theodore Roosevelt.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the nation's leader during the Depression and World War II, also is a distant relative.

Throughout most of the superintendent's life, the legacy of his famous kin has weighed on him like Mount Rushmore.

"First of all," he said, "there's a danger in thinking you are somehow important because a relative of yours did something important."

As a result, Roosevelt felt pressure to win his own spurs.

That burden lifted a decade ago with his success in the Massachusetts Legislature.

"I guess I'm more comfortable with myself," he said.

As a Massachusetts state representative, Roosevelt chaired the Education Committee, where he guided passage of the Education Reform Act of 1993. The law provided fairer funding of school districts and raised standards with statewide tests that students must pass to graduate.

"Many persons will serve many terms in the state Legislature and will never have anything like this to their name," said Robert Keough, a political pundit and editor of CommonWealth magazine, a quarterly on politics and civic life in Massachusetts.

The law has boosted student achievement and put the state at the top of the national school reform movement, said Paul Reville, president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy at Harvard University.

Roosevelt grew up in Washington, D.C., with two brothers and a sister. He said his father, Kermit, or "Kip," was a CIA spy who helped engineer the coup that enthroned the Shah of Iran. His mother, Mary, or "Polly," was a homemaker.

At age 12, Roosevelt stuffed envelopes for Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war, Democratic candidate for president in 1968.

"I didn't get my politics from my family," he said. "My father had a conservative bent."

Roosevelt graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor's degree in history and a law degree. In 1977, he served as campaign manager for the late John O'Bryant, the first black man elected to Boston's school board.

He was inspired by McCarthy and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a civil rights advocate. Roosevelt points behind his desk to a picture of the most revered in his pantheon of heroes -- Abraham Lincoln. He admires Lincoln's capacity for growth and his endurance of enormous suffering.

"I'm not a particularly religious person," he said, "but if I had a religion, it would be grounded around Lincoln."

He met his current wife, Dorothy, 40, through his niece, who took a yoga class with her. A former educational researcher at Harvard, his wife teaches yoga out of their home. They married in January 2005 and are considering adopting a child from abroad.

"One of the things I like about him is, when he's working, he's very focused -- and when he's having fun, he's very focused on having fun," she said.

Roosevelt has a son, Matthew, 20, adopted from Korea during a previous marriage. His son is a student at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Roosevelt affectionately calls him "Matthew Bear."

"We're bear people," Roosevelt explained. After all, great-granddad Teddy is the namesake of stuffed bears.

Roosevelt's dog, Winston, a 10-year-old mixed breed, is named for former British prime minister Winston Churchill, who referred to his bouts with depression as his "black dog."

Roosevelt has read two books a week throughout his life -- often about the Civil War. He likes chamber music, the St. Louis Cardinals and tennis, but he blames the demands of his current job for the 15 to 20 pounds he has gained since moving here.

He acknowledges he might not be in Pittsburgh were it not for the 43-percentage point whipping he suffered in 1994 when he ran for governor of Massachusetts against incumbent Republican William Weld.

"Most people, after a loss like that, turn around to look for money," said Keough, his former neighbor in Brookline, Mass. "That was never the motivating force for him."

After his political career waned, Roosevelt devoted himself to his son and ran two nonprofits. But as his son got older, Keough said, he hungered for something big and settled on education. Roosevelt graduated in 2003 from the Broad Superintendents Academy, a Los Angeles-based program that helps prepare noneducators to head big-city school districts.

He assumed control of a district that faces a budget shortfall of more than $40 million in 2007, much of it because the district operated too many schools despite a shrinking enrollment. The school board tussled frequently with his predecessor, John Thompson, who works now as an education consultant in Greensboro, N.C. Previous efforts to close schools tore the city apart.

Roosevelt used a RAND Corporation study that ranked each school's effectiveness in improving student achievement as his guide for choosing which buildings to close.

"Mark is not just smart, he's also such a straight shooter," said Maxwell King, president of The Heinz Endowments. "He's candid, he's honest, he's direct -- and by the way, those are hallmark Pittsburgh qualities. He's played so well here because of that."

"One of the things he's done successfully is to reach out to the community," said John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

But Roosevelt hasn't won over everyone.

School board member Randall Taylor, who frequently votes against Roosevelt's recommendations, said the administrator's initial success followed the district's efforts to educate people about its financial woes. Taylor also contends that Roosevelt gets less scrutiny than Thompson.

"It's a very great learning curve for someone to be a superintendent in an urban district," Taylor said of Roosevelt's lack of experience as a superintendent. "There's a lot for him to learn in a short period of time."

Roosevelt is trying to stave off a possible state takeover of the district on academic and financial grounds by touting changes focused on children. He zips around town, meeting city officials, potential donors, educators, parents and, yes, children.

He reads to 23 second-graders at the library of Allegheny Traditional Academy on the North Side. He holds up a book, "Martha Speaks," for the class to see the illustrations.

Afterward, they pepper him with questions.

"Do you live in the White House?" asks one student, a nod to Roosevelt's famous last name.

The children shoot their hands heavenward, buzzing like bees, their faces pained with the urgency to be called.

"OK, guys," Roosevelt says. "We got to be quiet when other people are asking questions."

Before he leaves, the class sings its gratitude and presents him with two books as gifts.

"You were a fun class to read to," Roosevelt tells them. "You were not shy."

Harvard's Reville is writing about Roosevelt's first year here as a case study on nontraditional superintendents. He gives Roosevelt high grades for dealing with a budget crisis, union contract, possible state takeover, school closings and a racially divided school board.

"You would have had to have significant political expertise and skills to survive in that kind of environment," Reville said. "He appears, from what we have learned so far, to have made real progress."

Although Roosevelt considers school reform in Massachusetts his greatest achievement, he hopes to win another spur here.

"There's a chance the stars are also aligned to make significant change," he said. "It'll be at least five years in Pittsburgh before we know whether we've stayed the course and got done what needed to get done."

Additional Information:

Then and now

Pittsburgh Public Schools before and under Superintendent Mark Roosevelt:

Budget: $530.1 million in 2005; $545.7 million in 2006

Projected 2007 deficit: $72 million last year; more than $40 million now

Number of schools: 86 in 2005; 65 in 2006

Enrollment: 32,529 students in 2005; 31,148 in 2006

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