Alice Pinderhughes dies headed city schools in '80s; Superintendent was first woman to head system


Alice G. Pinderhughes, who headed Baltimore schools through much of the turbulent 1980s as the city's first woman superintendent, died of cancer yesterday at her home in Northwest Baltimore. She was 74.

Mrs. Pinderhughes was acting superintendent in 1983 when a national search for a "permanent" school chief came up dry. Then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer convinced the school board to elevate a career insider, Mrs. Pinderhughes.

"I never wanted the job," she said at the time, but she served until 1988. She was credited with restoring the system's credibility in the business community and with laying the groundwork for the decentralization of decision-making from headquarters to the schools.

She was a disarmingly candid leader who fought for every dime she could get from the General Assembly. When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke asked her to retire in late 1987, she said simply, "For everything there is a season."

"Alice was a hard-working, fine lady who was deeply interested in kids," Mr. Schaefer said yesterday. "She oversaw the school system during difficult times."

"Alice entered the job with a unique level of energy and a spirit of openness to change," said David C. Daneker, president of the school board when Mrs. Pinderhughes was named superintendent.

"She was a marvelous lady, an excellent teacher, supervisor and later superintendent," said Victorine Q. Adams, former City Council member and longtime colleague of Mrs. Pinderhughes'.

"She knew more about children and about what children need than anyone I've ever known," said Ellen Oberfelder, former supervisor of English in city schools, "and she knew more about the unique nature of Baltimore children than anyone else."

The former Alice Gwathney was one of a group of pioneers in African-American education in 20th-century Maryland. She grew up in the small Green Spring Valley community of Chattolannee in Baltimore County, the only daughter of James Hugh and Rebecca Gwathney. "My father was a butler, and my mother was his wife," she said.

As a child, she played with wealthy children on the estate where her father worked, a small plot of which eventually was given to the Gwathney family. James Gwathney is buried in his employer's family plot. Young Alice was soon drawn to the estate's well-stocked library. "I read all the time," she said.

But she could not debut in society with her friends, nor could she attend their schools. She moved to the city to live with relatives, eventually graduating from Douglass High School. In 1943 she began a 45-year career in education as a teacher at Gilmor Elementary School. She held various teaching posts, then became assistant principal, elementary supervisor and assistant superintendent for elementary education.

"She was determined in her advocacy for children, yet she had a healing approach when she encountered problems," said Jacqueline Hardy, an aide to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke who worked with Mrs. Pinderhughes for many years.

She married William Pinderhughes, who became Baltimore's second-ranking school administrator. He died at his desk in 1972. Several months earlier, Mrs. Pinderhughes' mother had died. Two weeks after her husband's death, an aunt and uncle died in a fire.

Mrs. Pinderhughes earned her teaching certificate at Coppin State College and did graduate work at Towson State and Johns Hopkins universities.

She never completed a master's degree and had to obtain a waiver from the state Board of Education to assume the city's top school job.

Mrs. Pinderhughes was criticized for her lack of a "terminal" degree, but she seldom reminded her critics that blacks were barred from graduate programs at the University of Maryland until after the U.S. Supreme Court's desegregation decision in 1954. The future superintendent earned some graduate credits at New York University under a Maryland out-of-state scholarship program intended to keep state colleges segregated.

The Pinderhughes superintendency never had a "Pinderhughes Plan," though Mrs. Pinderhughes came up with a motto, "Focus on Individual Success." One of her best-known and most controversial programs was "mastery learning," based on the proposition that children learn at different rates.

But mastery learning required the administration of numerous tests, and teachers rebelled. By Mrs. Pinderhughes' own estimation, the program "fizzled."

Services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at St. James Episcopal Church, 829 N. Arlington Ave.

Mrs. Pinderhughes is survived by her daughter, Alice Pinderhughes; her son-in-law, Jesse Weaver; three grandchildren; two cousins, and a close friend, Dot Wood.

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