NEW YORK—Filling the top ranks of his management team with appointees from outside the city school system, Chancellor Joel Klein on Wednesday chose the head of the Providence schools as his top deputy and a retired two-star general as his chief of staff.
Klein, a former federal prosecutor who took over the top schools a week ago, has promised to transform the city’s moribund 1.1-million student system plagued by overcrowded classrooms, low test scores and high dropout rates.
“The code word is going to be ‘discipline,”‘ said Klein, as he introduced the appointees at Tweed Courthouse, which is being converted into the headquarters of the city’s Department of Education. “Discipline in the department. Discipline in the class room. Klein’s top deputy will be Diana Lam, who announced her resignation as superintendent of the Providence, R.I., school system by e-mail a few hours before the news conference in New York.
Lam, who has a reputation as a reformer with expertise in bilingual education issues, will likely play a crucial role in Klein’s administration because the new chancellor has only a modest background as an educator.
Lam however, is not free of controversy. She ran into trouble with parents, teachers and administrators during stints in Providence, San Antonio and Dubuque, Iowa over her management style.
Klein’s other selections Wednesday were retired Air Force Major General Marcelite Harris, who won the Bronze Star in Vietnam, as chief of staff; Kathleen Grimm as deputy chancellor for finance and administration; Anthony Shorris as deputy chancellor for operations and planning; and Michele Cahill as senior counselor for educational policy.
Of the five appointments, only Shorris – deputy chancellor for management and policy under former Chancellor Harold Levy – previously worked for the school system.
Grimm had been a deputy state comptroller under Comptroller H. Carl McCall and Cahill had been a senior program officer for education at the Carnegie Corporation.
But because of Lam’s sometimes rocky tenures at the top of other urban school systems, she is likely to get most of the attention.
Lam’s contract in Providence expired in July. She had been at the center of bitter contract negotiations between the school district and teachers, who worked without a contract for eight months before ratifying a deal last May.
After teachers rejected a contract in October, they called on Lam to resign as head of the 26,000 student system.
Asked to characterize the union’s relationship with Lam, Providence teachers’ union president Phil DeCecco said: “I would say they were mediocre times. Contract-wise we had our problems, but we’re proud to say the system has moved in a very positive direction.”
Lam, who was born in Peru, also had been criticized by some in the black community who held a protest outside her office in March alleging her administration had racist hiring practices and that she had forced out black administrators.
While superintendent in San Antonio from 1994 to 1998, Lam’s administration won national recognition for raising test scores, and she led all but two of the district’s 15 weakest schools off a state list of low performers.
But she ran afoul of parents, teachers and the school board. When the board voted to buy out her contract with four years left on her contract, she slipped out of the meeting room with no good-bye or comment.
Lam did not return a phone call Wednesday about her previous posts and did not address them during her public comments.
Department of Education spokesman Thomas Antenen however, dismissed some of the criticisms of Lam as “purely political.”
“Her accomplishments are well known throughout the nation,” he said.
During the press conference, Klein concurred. “What she’s done in San Antonio, in Providence and elsewhere are the kind of things that I think are core to what we’re about,” he said.
Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott said some of the criticism Lam has drawn in her previous work is based on the fact that she is a reformer.
“Any time an individual seeks to bring about change, people will criticize you,” he said. “She is a top talent that we are lucky to have.”