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I wouldn’t be surprised if the selection of Bolgen Vargas as Rochester’s next school superintendent draws national attention.

How many other people go from guidance counselor to head of the state’s third-largest school district in one giant leap? Vargas has never served as a vice-principal, principal or district bureaucrat.

Turns out, there is precedent – right here in Rochester!

When Peter McWalters was made interim superintendent in 1985, taking the helm from Laval Wilson, he was a teacher on special assignment at Central Office. He’d participated in the 1980 teacher strike.

Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski said no one ever thought McWalters would become the permanent superintendent, but he impressed people and was granted a state waiver (he didn’t have his administrative certification) to continue as the district’s leader.

McWalters, of course, is famous for negotiating a contract that increased teacher pay by 40 percent over three years. The 1987 deal landed Rochester in TIME magazine and national newspapers. The pay was supposed to be tied to accountability.

Four years later, it was clear there is no easy fix for urban education. The New York Times wrote:

Chastened reformers say they are trying to put into effect the lesson they have already learned: that the politics of reform — explaining it, selling it and involving the community in it — are just as important as its content.

“The public is disgusted,” said Peter McWalters, Rochester’s Superintendent of Schools. “So is the business leadership. Everyone out there is angry. They feel left out, alienated and unconnected. They don’t know whether I’m succeeding or failing.”

McWalters left Rochester in 1992 to become the education commissioner in Rhode Island and stayed there until 2009.

Like McWalters, Vargas is well-liked by the teachers union. That’s a problem for some parents and business leaders eager for more accountability and fiscal restraint.

Like McWalters, Vargas did not go the traditional route to become superintendent. (Vargas, however, has his doctorate and administrative certification.)

We’ll have to see if Vargas grows more like McWalters in the future. Will he have an out-of-the-box grand plan for reform? Will he leave for greener pastures after five or six years?

When asked if Vargas could change his leadership style and priorities now that he’s the top guy, Urbanski said with a smile, “Right, whoever heard of men changing after they get married?”

4 Responses to Meteoric, Like McWalters

  1. I don’t believe it – you mean Urbanski can actually smile?

  2. April 24, 2012 at 7:13 pm Lynn E responds:

    Mc Walters was nice too and respectful. He also did his job and stayed in Rhode Island for a long time. The problem in our schools is poverty, and concentration of poverty. There are kids “failing” in the better schools too but are hidden by their well performing schoolmates. It is important to not be fooled by this mania of standards and standardized tests that demonize teachers and school staff. It is a diversion from what is really ailing our cities and communities.

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