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Secretary of education, school superintendent

paige board college district

Advancing his way through the education system and overcoming racial barriers, Rod Paige became the first African American and the first school superintendent to serve as the U.S. secretary of education. His extensive knowledge and practical experience in the field of education was most evident through the drafting of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, an education reform legislation.

Roderick Raynor Paige, born June 17, 1933, in Monticello, Mississippi, was the oldest of five children. Paige’s father, Raynor C. Paige, was a school principal and a barber. His mother, Sophie, was a librarian who made books a central part of life in the family’s four-bedroom house. “My earliest memories were associated with books,” Paige told People in an interview. As a young boy, Paige led debates and animated discussions around the dinner table about favorite books and literary characters.

Paige attended Lawrence County Training School in Monticello. A segregated school, the two-story building served black children from the first through the twelfth grades. Paige learned early in life the hardships faced in a segregated educational system. In an interview in Humanities , Paige said: “The first thing that caused me to start getting angry was the fact that they had a nice gym and we didn’t have a gym.” He gained an appetite for proving he was as good as white students, a feeling that continued through college and graduate school.

After high school graduation in 1951, Paige enrolled at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi. He was an honor student and earned a spot on the football team. His football coach, Harrison Wilson, encouraged him to go to graduate school. Following graduation with a B.A. in physical education in 1955, Paige began teaching at a high school in Clinton, Mississippi. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted and joined the Navy, moving to San Diego, California. In July 1956, he married his college sweetheart, Gloria Crawford. Only a few days following his wedding, Paige was sent to Okinawa, where he worked as a medical corpsman.

When he returned home to his family, Paige was anxious to resume his education. Paige served as head football coach at Utica Junior College in Mississippi until 1962 when he returned to coach at his alma mater, Jackson State University. Paige’s career aspirations went beyond the football field to the classroom. Because no graduate schools in his home state of Mississippi would accept blacks, Paige enrolled at Indiana University. His academic deficiencies from his background at segregated schools made graduate education extremely challenging. However, Paige overcame his deficiencies to earn an M.A. in 1962 and then a doctorate in physical education   in 1970. His dissertation topic was the response time of offensive linemen.

After a brief tenure as an assistant football coach at the University of Cincinnati, he applied in 1971 for the job as head coach and athletic director at Texas Southern University in Houston. Granville Sawyer, then president of Texas Southern, interviewed Paige for the job. He later told Time that “[he] was convinced by the end of [their] conversation that this was a great mind and great educational leader in the making.” Paige accepted the job offer with the stipulation that he also have faculty status. In hindsight, Paige told Texas Monthly , this was one of the most important decisions that he ever made.

As the years went by at Texas Southern, Paige became more interested in education than football. Paige admitted to People that he was “increasingly disturbed by the growing commercialism of college sports.” At the same time, his family life experienced hardship with the ending of his marriage to Gloria in 1982. Paige was considered for assistant coaching positions in the NFL but chose to stay in academics. In 1984, Paige left coaching to become dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern.

As dean, Paige established the Center for Excellence in Urban Education, a research facility that focuses on issues related to instruction and management in urban school systems. Texas Southern University’s education program thrived under Paige’s leadership, boasting that 33 percent of teachers and administrators in the Houston Independent School District graduated from the program.

In 1989, Paige decided to run for the Houston Independent School District (HISD) School Board. Despite his inexperience in local politics, his academic credentials and definite ideas about education helped him gain the support of both Republicans and Democrats. John Bettencourt, Harris County tax-assessor and campaign worker, told the Houston Chronicle , “We had a great candidate. He was the newcomer that was already the hot property … He had a vision of what education could be. He was helped by the environment. In 1989, people wanted a change.”

The school board elections of 1989 did indeed bring change. Four of the nine members were new that year. The new members wanted to restructure the school district. The board chose to draft a vision statement for the district. The board chairperson appointed Paige to chair the committee that drafted the new statement. On June 18, 1990, the board of education unanimously approved the Declaration of Beliefs and Visions. Beliefs and Visions proposed a radical reform in educational policy and administration from a centralized hierarchy to a student-teacher centered approach. The document also called for district policies to be based on educational outcomes rather than the educational process. Finally, Paige and the other board members insisted that a common core of academic courses based on high standards be established to prepare students for college or the workforce.

The superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, Joan Raymond, was strongly opposed to the board’s implementation of Beliefs and Visions. After a year-long battle with the school board, Raymond was fired from the superintendent’s post in 1991. Her replacement, Frank Petruzielo, moved forward with the reforms outlined in the document, but not to the extent that was satisfactory to Paige, who was elected board president in 1992. In his book Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools , Donald McAdams quoted Paige as saying that Petruzielo’s reforms were “just traditional ‘fix the parts’ school reform. It’s not systemic change.”

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