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In Amato We Trust?

Here are five easy steps to earning a hefty paycheck (however temporary) in a troubled school district.

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So you've decided to become an urban school superintendent. Good for you.

At the helm of some of the most spectacularly underachieving districts when it comes to standardized test results, you'll have the opportunity to lead only the most desperate parents and teachers.

First, though, you'll have to decide what kind of superintendent you want to be.

You can struggle to reach the children, improve educational standards, and show grace under fire as the easiest scapegoat for anything that goes wrong. Or, if you can tell desperate people what they want to hear, you can get a quick pay bump and cause so much strife that no one will blame you when you run for the next juicy gig, severance package in hand.

To help you decide which type of administrator you are, we've developed this step-by-step guide based on the work of Kansas City, Missouri, School Superintendent Anthony Amato.

Here's the situation in which Amato finds himself. After only a year in power, he has earned a reputation as an arrogant manager. School board members are almost evenly divided as to whether they want him to continue in the job. One agency that provides after-school programs is considering filing a lawsuit for nearly $1.2 million that it claims the district owes it for services. And the teachers union claims that 22 administrators — at least 11 of whom were hired by Amato himself — have either resigned or been fired from their positions.

Amato says he's making tough but necessary decisions to get rid of ineffective teaching programs. He says the number of staff turnovers cited by the teacher's union is false. And he says he's steadfastly refusing to bend to political pressure from groups that are more concerned with their own welfare than with the students'.

What's going on here? To provide some perspective, we have consulted Susan Eaton, a Harvard professor who spent three years researching a school district in Hartford, Connecticut — where Amato was superintendent in the early part of this decade. Eaton's research on urban education culminated in The Children in Room 4E: American Education on Trial, published this past January by Algonquin Books.

"It's this weird type of super, almost a specific breed, that has sprung up on the urban schools' circuit," Eaton tells us. "There are people who go into impossible jobs and get blamed for everything. Most of the time, the things they get blamed for aren't the fault of the teachers or themselves but [are] just larger social problems no one can handle by themselves. They do the best they can for a few years and move on.

"Then there are people who exploit the situation for their own gain. They go in, and they know what to say because they know everyone is desperate for a hero. They get their high salary, and they go."

This guide can work for you. Let's begin.

Step 1: Find a Desperate District

Since a 12-year stint — the longest of his career — as superintendent of New York City Community School District No. 6, Anthony Amato has repeatedly found himself in problem school districts. Not that New York City was great. There, teachers deal with some of the nation's highest rates of poverty, crime and drug use and face many students whose first language isn't English. He left New York in 1999 and proceeded to spend three and a half years in Hartford, which was dead last in the state's standardized testing evaluations when he arrived. (Hartford was second-highest among urban districts by the end of his time there.) He left there in 2002 and went to New Orleans, where he stayed for less than three years. That district's test scores were dismal, too, but its finances were even worse.

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