Not squalor but Shakespeare: Russo brings out schools' best


Morris High School opened in 1902 as a neo-Gothic cathedral of learning. But when Carmen V. Russo arrived for her first day as principal, she found a run-down fortress, a school surrounded by blight whose students were considered too poor, too South Bronx to perform Shakespeare.

Graffiti marred the streets in the school's neighborhood, where the Latin Kings, the Zulus and the Dominican Power gangs guarded their turf. Garbage was strewn behind Morris. Broken bottles littered its playground. The copper roof of the historic building leaked badly. The school auditorium, grand with its Tiffany stained-glass windows, was condemned.

Morris drew its more than 2,000 students, mostly Hispanic and black, from the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in New York - and the nation. A quarter of its freshmen graduated in four years.

But Carmen Russo, Baltimore's new schools chief, wasn't overwhelmed or intimidated by what she found in 1984. She got busy doing what she does well: leading. And she led by example. In the early days, she drove past the once stately brick townhouses and nearby high-rise housing project to remind her of what her students faced when they left the castle on the hill.

Russo came to school early and worked late. She attacked the problem of truants and dropouts, rearranging the Morris student body into smaller groups and assigning a team of teachers and other professionals as mentors for each group of students from the day they entered Morris until the day they left.

She transformed Morris into a community center where parents gathered on Sundays to learn English or the basics for a high school equivalency diploma.

She made Shakespeare happen.

When Russo starts her new job in Baltimore this week, she will bring with her a memento from her four years at Morris. It was the place where she began her rise through the New York City school system, experience she says prepared her for the challenges she will face as chief executive officer of Baltimore's public schools.

The memento is a big photograph of a student production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It stood out among the professional plaques and awards that hung in her office in Broward County, Fla., where she held her most recent post, associate schools superintendent. It will hang in her office on North Avenue.

The smiling, costumed students, Russo said, include a girl who went to Skidmore College on a scholarship and a special education student.

"Nobody ever thought we would put on 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at Morris High," said Russo, a Spanish-speaking native of the Bronx who was raised in Miami.

"The kids from the South Bronx didn't believe they could do it either," said Jack Forman, a retired Morris teacher who directed two more Shakespeare plays at the school. "We made them believe anyone could do it. Carmen was a big factor in that transformation."

Russo said, "You get what you expect."

A high school guidance counselor's expectations of the former Carmen Varela set her on a career path faster than she expected. The family moved from Florida to Queens in 1952 when her father, Emilio Varela, a native of Spain, was offered a better job managing several restaurants in New York.

Her mother, Dora Varela, became a bakery manager who helped run the restaurants at Idlewild (later John F. Kennedy International Airport).

As a youngster, Carmen, the oldest of three girls, moved from one school to another - six in all - as her parents moved from one place to another in Dade County, Fla.

Forest Hills High School, where Carmen spent her senior year, was the seventh. Like many young women her age, she expected to go to work. But a guidance counselor, impressed with her intelligence, persuaded her to head for college.

Family support

Carmen had talked about being a teacher since the fourth grade. Dora Varela knew of her daughter's ambition and gave her blessing: "No matter what, we'll support you."

Carmen enrolled at Hunter College in Manhattan, studying economics and working after school and in the summer to help pay her bills.

In her last year at Hunter, "Capable Carmen" (as the yearbook dubbed her) met the captain of the basketball team, Tony Russo from Brooklyn.

They shared the pursuit of education and a passion for sports. They loved to dance and cook and travel. They married when she was 23.

After a stint playing minor league baseball, he joined Kingsborough Community College, where he was chairman of the athletic department and later dean of students.

Russo went on to earn her master's degree in education from Hunter, but she was a stay-at-home mother until her children, Laurie and Anthony Jr., began school.

Initially, Russo was a substitute teacher. Until the children were grown, she took jobs as a business teacher and assistant principal in schools that were minutes from her Queens home.

Her family, immediate and extended, has always been at the center of her life.

She remembers the birthdays. She's there for the first Communions. She cooks the Christmas Eve feast of fish and seafood - bacalao is her father's favorite - and tops it off with homemade flan.

"Once a year, we'll do a spa day together," said her daughter, Laurie Sallarullo. "She always knows when you need it."

Understanding as mother

Russo's sense of family carried over to her professional life.

"She understands the real world as a mother, as an educator," said Norman M. Wechsler, superintendent of high schools in the Bronx, who first worked with Russo at Morris High School. "That's profoundly real. It cuts through Latino, African-American, Italian, Jew, Irish."

Wechsler met Russo on her first day as principal of Morris. She told him she viewed him as a valued employee, an assistant principal capable of helping her achieve her goals. They talked.

"I knew here was a person who was not going to preside over the status quo. Here was someone who was about transformation, education, kids," said Wechsler, who worked with Russo for nine years.

Weschler recalled that when he asked her what her goal was, she said, "I want to be superintendent one day."

After four years at Morris, Russo became superintendent of Bronx schools and took Wechsler with her. When Joseph Fernandez, a reformer from Miami, became New York's schools chancellor in 1990, he made Russo his chief executive officer of high schools. In that job, she oversaw 300,000 students in 200 academic high schools and managed a billion-dollar budget. It brought her to the board rooms of Fortune 500 companies and university campuses where she pitched ideas for alternative schools.

Difficult period

She had been in the job less than a year when, on Nov. 1, 1990, her husband of 32 years collapsed at the gym and died of heart failure. The respected coach and educator was 55. Hundreds attended the wake and funeral. Russo's daughter recalled that the mourners turned to her mother for comfort.

It was a difficult time personally for Russo. Professionally, New York's schools chief was embarking on a small-school reform movement revolutionary for its time that dissolved some schools. Russo was at the forefront of implementing the program. It created community-run high schools with themes as diverse as peace and justice, and marine science.

Russo also endured the toughest days of her career during that time. Two students and a teacher were shot in a Brooklyn school during her tenure. For six weeks, she ran her office out of that school to restore a sense of calm and well-being to the community.

Teachers who worked with her say she inspires loyalty and gets it tenfold. She says she took her lead from supervisors who were her mentors. She urged talented colleagues into principals' jobs, which she considers critical to a school's success.

Praise from union

Union leaders acknowledged her astuteness and sensitivity in making personnel decisions.

"When you start changing things and you do it with dignity and respect and making sure that people who have performed satisfactorily have places to go, you're really transitioning a school into a new and different school," said Randy Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York. "It takes somebody who is a good educator and a good soul. And she is both."

In June 1993, New York City began looking for a new chancellor. Russo's name surfaced, and, to her surprise, she made the short list to succeed Fernandez. She didn't get the job, but the prospect of leading a school system became a real possibility. She resigned from the New York school system that fall.

San Francisco had called, but it was too far from family. Minneapolis nearly hired her. Broward County didn't offer her the top job in 1994, but wooed her to Fort Lauderdale.

Access to data

As an associate superintendent in Broward, she zeroed in on the county's troubled schools and spearheaded a $2 million, five-year partnership with the IBM Foundation to build a computer network giving teachers and administrators immediate access to academic data about their students.

Part of Russo's appeal has been that, for a bureaucrat, she is so unbureaucratic.

"She doesn't look like your regular bureaucrat. Neither does she act like one," said Naomi Barber, a New York educational consultant who helped community reformers in the small-schools movement. "She wouldn't say - which is very common in the Board of Education - 'That's a good idea, but we can't do that here.'"

Surprisingly youthful for a 64-year-old grandmother of six, Russo is proud without being vain, organized without being obsessed. In tense moments, say co-workers, she is unflappable.

"Looks as good in the afternoon as she did in the morning," said Lois Wexler, a Broward school board member. "She always looks good, no matter how hard she is working. I'm amazed."

Russo knows how to put her looks and her personality to the task. Those who know her well say she has a skilled politician's grasp for cultivating friends, building loyalties with attentive gestures, and solidifying power.

At a recent luncheon honoring businesses that helped the Broward schools, Russo's charm was on display.

"Carmen, Carmen, thank you for stopping at our school the other day. We're going to do what you asked us," says one principal.

"Carmen, you've meant so much to the district, please don't go," pleads a district administrator.

"Carmen, can you call me? We need to talk," asks a teacher.

Giving people time

Russo had a tight schedule. From the beginning of her day, which started at an 8 a.m. meeting with local nonprofit leaders, to the end, typically 12 hours later, she never fully relaxed. She spent a half-hour at the luncheon, hardly enough time to sit down for the braised asparagus and baked chicken everyone else enjoyed. But time enough for a handshake here, a few encouraging words there, a smile for some, a couple of questions for others.

"These moments are really important. It means a lot to people, just giving them some time," she said.

Not everyone has been won over immediately. Georgia Slack, the legislative lobbyist representing Broward County schools, initially regarded Russo warily. The Miami-based lobbyist spent more than a decade at school headquarters, working as an associate administrator, sometimes alongside Russo.

"You've got two females in high positions, trying to carve out space," recalled Slack. "To be honest, I was not very friendly with Carmen. I liked her, but stood a distance with her - and so did she with me."

Slack left the Broward schools four years ago to start her own business, but she was retained as the school's lobbyist. This year, when Russo was chosen to expand the district's legislative lobbying effort and included two more firms, Slack said she became concerned.

But Russo, by identifying specific roles for the firms, melded the lobbyists into a team that won increases in state funding for county schools, Slack said.

Now a friend

"I found her to be totally upfront, very clear, very personable and professional," said Slack, who now counts Russo among her friends. "Some school administrators, they get in tough situations and they want answers and they are screaming at their staff, yelling. But when Carmen needs an answer, she stays calm and just applies herself to the task at hand."

Los Angeles was interested in Russo about the same time she got the job in Baltimore.

"There is a right person for the right time for the right place," she said recently. "That's how I feel about Baltimore."

With a resume like Russo's, with her polish and gracious spirit, her sense of humor and rallying optimism, expectations are high. Being No. 2 or No. 3 is not like being the schools chief, the public face for public education. It is a career achievement, and a true test.

"There's no question in my mind that Carmen can do the job," said Stanley Litow, a former deputy schools chancellor in New York who supervised Russo. "The question really is: Anybody who has the track record and ability, are they going to get the kind of support they are going to really need to do the job? In many school systems, the biggest support anybody has is on the day they get hired."

Russo said goodbye last week to her friends and colleagues at the Broward schools. She moved from her spacious home overlooking a Boca Raton golf course to a rented, two-bedroom condo within walking distance of Camden Yards. She left behind her children - she talks to her daughter daily - grandchildren, and for the time being, her fiance, James D. Apicella, a Broward County schools administrator.

Russo packed her new Orioles baseball cap, a parting gift from a lawyer in her Broward office.

"She'd love to throw out the first ball at an Orioles game," confided Noel Kriftcher, a former colleague from New York.

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