Steering bold course, Grasmick wins fans, foes


She has moved into Maryland's public schools with so much purpose and power that some regard her as an Orwellian Big Sister.

Others say state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is a charming, knowledgeable "steel magnolia" and the rarest of government officials: a leader willing to take personal and political risks to achieve her goals.

She seems to relish confrontation with those who think public schools, particularly in Baltimore, are beyond saving. She takes on the powerful teacher unions and teacher colleges. She says she does it for the children.

Her opponents say she does it for the aggrandizement of Nancy Grasmick at the behest of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a longtime friend and sponsor of her and her husband, Louis.

Whatever, the state Education Department is a more activist agency under her leadership than it has been in years.

"School systems have to have every opportunity to improve the environment. If they do not, then the state has responsibility and authority to do it," she has said, adding this standard refrain: "No student, by virtue of where he lives, should have to attend a failing school."

Self-possessed and plain-spoken -- generally eschewing the jargon of educators -- the 55-year-old administrator says it's a case of denial when parents, teachers and education officials resist her reform ideas, including the "reconstitution" -- state-ordered reorganization -- of the state's worst schools.

The first two threatened this year were Baltimore's Douglass and Patterson high schools, and the Maryland State Teachers Association joined those schools' communities in outrage, calling the state initiative a threat to local autonomy.

"People said, 'You must have the facts wrong. There must be other schools that are worse,' " Dr. Grasmick recalled, adding that some parents were angry because they had a stake in the outcome but were not part of the planning for reconstitution. She has won some converts.

"In the beginning," said Letty Herold, president of the PTA at Patterson, "we felt threatened by takeover, but the more we learned about it, we realized the state wasn't just looking at Patterson but the system as a whole." As a result, Ms. Herold said, "I don't feel the state is a threat to us. I think they're defending us from the local system."

Dr. Grasmick's authority is underscored by her distinction as the state's only dual secretary: In addition to holding her $103,000 schools post, she is Maryland secretary of children, youth and families, an unpaid post.

In the latter capacity, she has taken an interest in day care centers and other preschool programs, public and private. For example, she visited the Home Play School in Ruxton, one of a network of home schools for preschoolers.

"She seems to be able to look up through the eyes of children, but also to look down through the eyes of teachers and administrators. It's a unique balance," said Adele P. Fryer, who heads the network.

The social welfare community finds an ally in Dr. Grasmick, said Susan Leviton, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School and president of Advocates for Children and Youth, a statewide organization working on social issues affecting children.

Since real reform often comes from outside the system, Ms. Leviton was surprised to find an insider leading the movement. "When you meet her you think of a sweet Southern lady. It's so disarming. You don't expect her to be so tough," Ms. Leviton observed. "But she has standards, and she stands up for them."

Although teachers have been critical of her, Dr. Grasmick seems to think she has leverage from public opinion. She has proposed making teacher training more rigorous and forcing teachers to earn satisfactory ratings in three years of every five-year period.

But she acknowledges underestimating the level of opposition.

"I always think of myself as being a person close to people. That includes teachers and parents and administrators. So I guess I was a bit naive to think that was a real strength and that I would get support from the teacher arena," she said.

Teachers say they support her objectives. But they dislike what Michael Butera, executive director of the MSTA, calls "silver bullet" solutions to complex problems.

He said the superintendent's proposals amount to saying, "Well, things are bad so we have to blow everything up. Why is it that the classroom teacher is held 100 percent responsible?"

Ms. Leviton offers this answer: "Would you ever have a factory where 50 percent of the widgets are broken and you keep making them? When an industry doesn't make a successful product, it closes down. And now the head of the system is saying we're not going to allow that to happen anymore in our schools."

Mr. Butera finds Dr. Grasmick "very capable and talented," but he wonders whether she is pursuing her own agenda or someone else's.

His likely suspects are Mr. Schaefer and Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and a behind-the-scenes power in Maryland education. Mr. Embry, until last week president of the state school board, is an ally -- or co-conspirator, depending on the point of view -- in the superintendent's efforts.

Maryland's next governor, to be elected in November and assume office in January, could accomplish what Dr. Grasmick's ardent critics desire: her departure. The superintendent is appointed by the state board -- Dr. Grasmick's term expires in 1996 -- but a governor can make life miserable for a state school chief.

The man many see as the leading Democratic candidate to succeed Mr. Schaefer, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, has been endorsed by the MSTA.

Dr. Grasmick said she was approached by several people to run for governor or lieutenant governor herself. She declined, she said, because "my interest is in education, in children and families."

The support of a governor is crucial to a state superintendent, she said. "If, for whatever reason, the new governor is not supportive of me, I would never have the children of Maryland suffer because of retaliation."

Dr. Grasmick has been critical of Mr. Glendening and he of her, although both have softened their criticism. Of the other gubernatorial candidates, the superintendent says, the most impressive is state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, a Baltimore Democrat.

"He had no ambiguity in supporting what we're doing, and Patterson High is in his senatorial district. He had more immediately at stake, but there was no ambiguity," she said.

(While not endorsing Mr. Miedusiewski, Mr. Schaefer will hold a fund-raising breakfast for him Aug. 9.)

Dr. Grasmick has reason to believe that there is a broad constituency for what she is doing in regard to schools. Some of her other proposals, however, appear to have less support.

For example, she wanted a law requiring controls on television sets that would make it easier for parents to regulate the viewing of their children. "I about choked on my doughnut," a Baltimore man said in a letter to the editor of The Sun.

Other critics have been more personal, referring to the tests administered in the Maryland School Performance Program as "Nancy's tests," although the performance program is a tougher version of reform begun more than a decade ago by David W. Hornbeck when he was state superintendent.

None of the criticism deters the Baltimore-born educator, the former Nancy Streeks, who was raised in Dickeyville. Her father, now dead, owned a candy manufacturing company, and he came home every night with a bag of chocolates and butter creams. "Every kid's dream," she said.

Her career in education began with a case of strep throat contracted while she was a 16-year-old straight-A student at Western High School. She had a reaction to penicillin that caused a temporary loss of hearing.

"I became fascinated by the world of the deaf and made a decision to be a teacher. I had already been interested in the life of Anne Sullivan, who taught [the blind and deaf] Helen Keller. So I wanted to work with deaf children. It has been a lifelong interest."

She completed undergraduate work at Towson State University and a master's degree program at Gallaudet University, a Washington school specializing in the education of deaf students. She later earned a master's degree at Towson State and a doctorate at the Johns Hopkins University.

She first taught deaf children at the William S. Baer School in Baltimore. Later, in Baltimore County, she was a classroom teacher, a principal and associate superintendent. Her interest in education of children with special problems has continued. She has been state superintendent since September 1991.

Dr. Grasmick and her husband, a Baltimore lumber dealer, live in Phoenix. They have no children, but she says her family life includes plenty of young people. Mr. Grasmick's son from a previous marriage has three children.

In political, charitable and governmental circles, the Grasmicks are known for the closeness of their relationship. Mr. Grasmick once carried an hourglass to help him keep track of the time he was apart from his wife. Every year, they renew their marriage vows.

"It's an affirmation of our relationship, the joy we've found in it and the importance of it in our lives," she said. Last year, the couple wore Colonial costumes for the marriage ceremony, which was held in Hagerstown on the weekend of the governor's annual crab feast.

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