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Sternberg's Big Change

This former Connecticut commissioner is trading the state capital for hands-on, local-district experience.

When asked if her career is going backward, Betty Sternberg gives a knowing laugh. That may seem like an odd question for the new superintendent of Greenwich (CT) Public Schools, but she has heard it before.

There’s no doubt Greenwich offers some of the best schools in a state known for quality education. This 9,000-student district spends $14,000 per pupil and boasts residents who are celebrities (Ron Howard, Diana Ross, Mel Gibson) and high-powered executives (former IBM CEOs Louis Gerstner and Tom Watson, Tommy Hilfiger). Properties often list for $12 million, and the average sale price for a house this year is $2.2 million.

But Sternberg didn’t come from just any job before Greenwich. As Connecticut’s former commissioner of education, she was in charge of the entire state. After leaving 26 years at the state behind and moving this summer to the Greenwich job, she’s in charge of only one of Connecticut’s 166 school districts.

“I didn’t see it as a step back, obviously, or else I wouldn’t have done it,” she says. “I chose to help kids in a very concrete way. I never saw the commissionership as a final position, nor do I see the [Greenwich] superintendent as a final position.”

Greenwich Board of Education chair Colleen Giambo admits the board was surprised when Sternberg became a candidate. “She has a tremendous breadth of knowledge,” Giambo says.

“The commissionership is a wonderful job, and I loved it,” Sternberg says, looking back at her three-year tenure. “The focus is to work the bully pulpit well. You get to present what you believe and be a leader. But you can’t actually make it happen. You’re that much removed. I would prefer to be held accountable for the outcome.”

State commissioners usually don’t return to the district level, in part because it was their previous job, says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “But many of them do find the state job to be more confining than the district level,” he adds.

There’s one aspect in which Sternberg certainly isn’t going backward—her salary. At the state, she made $148,000, slightly less than Governor Jodi Rell. In her first year at Greenwich, Sternberg will earn $210,000.

Sternberg versus Spellings
In her time at the capital, Sternberg became nationally known for battling with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings over some of the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Connecticut has a sizable achievement gap between white students and minorities, and Sternberg requested several waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, most notably to avoid testing every year. When the requests were rejected, State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, with Sternberg’s support, became the first state to sue the federal government over NCLB. Notably, 120 local Boards of Education in the state voted to support the lawsuit; Greenwich was not one of them.

Sternberg says the issue was well covered in her many interviews for the job. “We talked about why they didn’t vote for it. I think they didn’t have clear information. When I explained why educationally I had issues with the law, I think they were hearing that for the first time.”Giambo says Blumenthal met with the board to discuss the lawsuit and ask for its support, and the board did consider a vote before deciding not to take one. She adds that Sternberg’s opposition to the law was more educational than legal, and the split between Sternberg’s view and the board’s nonaction “is not really an issue for us.”

Although Greenwich obviously has a tonier side—Sternberg calls it “mega wealth”—the white-collar town has diversity within its 25,000 residents. Nearly 15 percent of the school system is composed of black and Hispanic children, and the gap between these groups’ achievement and that of the town’s white population mirrors the split the whole state faces.

Sternberg always argued in favor of trying to close the gap, just not with the testing requirements of NCLB. As a district superintendent readying her first budget, she will get a chance to try the five areas she wished the law had addressed: providing high-quality preschool; addressing the literacy needs of parents; providing health care to students and families who don’t have it; creating high-quality curriculum and instruction with formative assessment embedded regularly; and requiring longer school days and a longer school year.

Greenwich High School Headmaster Alan Capasso says he likes that Sternberg’s interest in student development doesn’t stop at the classroom door. “We call it addressing the other side of the report card,” he says, referring to students’ emotional well-being.

High Expectations
While Sternberg immerses herself in her new job, the irony of confronting some of her actions as commissioner remains.

Last year Sternberg cited Greenwich for having two racially imbalanced schools. This year the town has four, and it’s her job to determine how to solve the problem. Eschewing formal redistricting, Sternberg’s plan is to bring open choice to town, allowing parents to send their children to any public school in Greenwich and to create two new magnet schools in the buildings that now hold most of the district’s minority students.

For all the talk of closing the achievement gap, Sternberg knows education expectations in town can also run higher than home prices.“A lot of people said, ‘Just wait, it’s difficult to deal with parents who are so demanding.’ I haven’t really had an issue or a problem at all. I relate to the parents as a parent myself and an educator,” she says. Sternberg, who is 56, has two children in their twenties.

Giambo admits the town comes with pressures.

“We have a high-expectation community, but Betty is a very high-expectation person.”

Greenwich PTA Council president Janice Richards says the new superintendent “understands how important the communication piece is.”

Sternberg has not only visited the town’s 16 schools but has also appeared at several PTA meetings. “She still understands the emotional component that is the parenting piece,” Richards says.

Sternberg says that after she spoke about health care coverage at a school in one of the richer areas of town, some parents came to her later and indicated that through their professional connections they might be able to help the town reach this goal.

“They’re a smart, thoughtful community that’s interested in helping for the broader good,” she adds.

Overall, Giambo says the fit between town and superintendent is off to a good start. “She’s been well received, and she’s getting to know the community.”

Sternberg notes the difference between her jobs in one very real way. “My goal as commissioner was to get out in the schools once a month. It usually ended up being once every two months. Here, I go to schools and see kids much more, which is absolutely wonderful. That aspect of the job is very rewarding.” @

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