Class Act

She may not be Barbara Walters, but 10-year-old Kendra Freeman knows how to ask a question. With a distinguished visitor in a business suit hunkered down in the next chair at the small, makeshift TV studio at Parklane Elementary School, outside Atlanta, the fourth grader looks at her cue cards and fires one off: “How did you get your job?” Roderick Paige smiles at his interviewer and at the camera, capturing the moment for the school’s 850 students. “I got my job because it’s about education,” he says. “I’m a good example of what education can do for a person.”

More than an example, Paige, 68, is a veritable role model. Raised in poverty in Jim Crow Mississippi, he got his first taste of education in a rundown, segregated schoolhouse with a dearth of textbooks. Determined to succeed, he pushed himself to finish college and, later, to earn a doctorate—going on to run a school district and, earlier this year, become the nation’s top school official, U.S. Secretary of Education, and the first African-American to hold that post. Paige’s background has given him unparalleled credibility as he works to overhaul an education system that he calls “broken.” Says Michael Casserly, who runs the Council of the Great City Schools, which lobbies to improve inner-city education: “His is a quiet leadership that you feel compelled to listen to.”

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks dramatically shifted federal priorities, Paige was using that ability to lead a White House charge to push an education bill aimed at pumping more than $20 billion into education, raising standards and accountability and working to improve reading skills with solid reading programs. Paige, who was with President Bush in a Florida classroom when news of the attacks came, has spent the weeks since then visiting schools across the nation, seeking to reassure educators that schools are safe and their missions vital. “I’ve always felt that education was a national security issue,” says Paige. “For me, this fortifies it.”

The oldest of five children of Raynor C. Paige, a barber and school principal, and his wife, Sophie, a teacher and librarian who made books the center of the family’s one-story four-bedroom house in Monticello, Miss., Paige sensed the value of early learning. For fun he hunted rabbits and squirrels with his paternal grandfather, who lived on a farm outside the town. But at home he devoured novels such as Tom Sawyer and Robinson Crusoe, which became fodder for dinner-table discussions. “My earliest memories were associated with books,” says Paige. “That’s where you got your heroes from.”

Leadership, too, came naturally. “He was always feeling he was in charge of us,” says sister Elaine Witty, 66, who recently retired as the dean of Virginia’s Norfolk State University education school. Paige’s own objective was simple and direct. “I didn’t look forward to anything else but being highly educated,” he says. “Once you got that, that was the door opener to everything.”

Rural Mississippi in the 1940s hardly offered an ideal start to an African-American youngster. At Lawrence County Training School, a two-story wooden building that served Monticello’s blacks from 1st through 12th grade, textbooks were scarce and sports programs nonexistent. “You would ride your bicycle down the street and see [white] kids out there playing basketball or football and believe you could do very well in that kind of competition,” he says. “But that’s not your world. You’re not out there and can’t go.”

He did find his way to the athletic field when he got to Jackson State College, the historically black institution where he played end on the football team, earning a reputation as a tough, determined competitor. That was also where he met Gloria Crawford, a class ahead of him, whom he wooed in his own low-key way. “He wasn’t the kind to court you with a lot of flowers and stuff like that,” she says. “He was serious-minded.”

Graduating with a physical education degree in 1955, Paige had barely started his teaching career at a Clinton, Miss., high school when he was drafted and joined the Navy. Relocating to San Diego, he married Gloria in July 1956 but within days was sent to Okinawa—where he was a corpsman providing medical care on a Marine base—and then to Japan. Eager to get back to education, Paige returned to Mississippi, where he taught at a junior college and where the couple’s only child, Rod Jr., was born in 1959. (He is now a respiratory therapist at a Houston hospital.) No graduate schools in Paige’s home state had yet admitted blacks, so the family went north for Paige to earn his doctorate in physical education at Indiana University.

The university proved challenging for Paige, whose academic preparation at segregated institutions simply didn’t match what his peers had learned. “I adopted a philosophy that, ‘If you can do this in an hour, I’ll do it in three,’ ” he says. ” ‘When we come to class, I’m not going to take a backseat.’ ”

That determination helped him land a series of jobs—one back at Jackson State—teaching physical education and coaching college football. Gloria, who taught English and later was a guidance counselor, saw little of her hard-driving husband. “His work took an enormous amount of time—it was like having two jobs,” says Gloria, whose relationship with him became increasingly strained.

Highly organized and detail-obsessed, Paige found coaching challenging. “You have to deal with the adulation and criticism,” he says.

“You can’t get too high about the victory or too low about the defeat.” He managed to strike that balance at Jackson State and then at Houston’s Texas Southern University, where he became athletic director in 1971. But he grew increasingly disturbed by the growing commercialism of college sports. At the same time, his marriage fell apart, ending in a 1982 divorce from Gloria (with whom he remains friendly). “It was time to start something new,” he says.

Paige made education his primary focus, becoming dean of Texas Southern’s education department in 1984 and then winning election to the Houston school board in 1989. His board colleagues were so impressed with his ability to build consensus on difficult issues that in 1994 they named him superintendent of the district, the nation’s seventh largest.

It was a troubled district where half of the 200,000 students didn’t speak fluent English. Paige went to work with such innovations as making principals’ salaries dependent on student performance, blocking the promotion of failing students to the next grade and dramatically improving reading programs. “He was a master at bringing people of diverse views to the table around a single agenda,” says Casserly of the Council of the Great City Schools. And student performance picked up, with the percentage of students passing state assessment tests rising from 44 percent to 64 percent.

Critics charged that progress came because teachers taught merely to improve test scores. “Everything is focused on test scores,” says Linda McNeil, professor of education at Rice University in Houston, “not on educating children.”

One politician who took note of the district’s turnaround was Texas’s then-governor, George W. Bush, who made education a key component of his 2000 presidential campaign. Last December, the President-elect summoned Paige to Washington to offer him the Cabinet post. “Starting to deal with the reality of it was awesome,” says Paige, “and still is.” Now, as part of Bush’s Cabinet, Paige has been busy pushing the Administration’s education bill, which would mandate annual testing for reading and math between grades three and eight and create a system of accountability that would pinpoint failing schools. Although some observers say he has been more involved in promoting the bill than in negotiating its details, Paige is gaining perspective on how legislation looks from the capital. “I’m learning that the [educational] practitioner point of view and the political point of view sometimes are very diverse,” he says.

Paige’s long workdays leave few hours for leisure. But in recent years he has taken up hunting again and also makes regular trips back to Houston, where he visits with longtime companion Bettye Davis-Lewis, 62, owner of a home health-care agency. “He’s calm most of the time,” she says. “He takes things in stride.”

Yet life as a Cabinet Secretary has brought its share of surprises. One came when school administrators in Paige’s hometown invited him to an April ceremony in his honor at his old school. It was the first time since high school graduation that he had returned to the school in the town where, as a boy, he and other black people had been second-class citizens, forced to use separate rest rooms and water fountains. At the school—integrated since 1969—he was greeted by waving cheerleaders and a rousing band. The mayor gave him a key to the city, and Paige helped unveil a sign with the school’s new name: Rod Paige Middle School. “I had no idea how the people would feel,” Paige said after the ceremony. “It turned out it was like being home.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Linda Kramer in Washington, Atlanta and Monticello

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