Saturday, May 27, 2000


Principals' interest is legacy

        If education were a bank, it would initially appear that Shirley and Joe Speaks are making a run on it.

        After decades in education — after making the name Speaks synonymous with two Greater Cincinnati high schools — the husband and wife are about to wrap up their final school year. Shirley retires after 27 years as principal of Ursuline Academy, a Catholic girls' school in Blue Ash. Her husband retires after a decade as principal of Finneytown High School, a public school about 20 minutes away.

        In banking, this would be called a withdrawal of one's investment. But fortunes accumulate differently in education. There, what you put in, you never really take out.

        After more than three decades in education, Joe and Shirley Speaks' portfolios look amazingly alike. Both spent years as guidance counselors before becoming administrators. Both oversee schools of about 650 students. Both have had the delightful and infinitely demanding job of leading institutions steeped in tradition and achievement.

        Shirley's “community” encompasses the 55 elementary schools Ursuline's students come from this year, as widespread as Oxford and Northern Kentucky. Joe's community encompasses a neighborhood 41/2 miles wide by 31/2 miles long, where teachers add an hour to their grocery shopping time, knowing they'll be stopped by alumni in every aisle.

        All in all, it has made for a good life, career path and marriage for Joe and Shirley Speaks.

        Certainly, there was always plenty to talk about over the dinner table. Not that, on some nights, either of them wanted to.

        “Many nights were like, "We lived it all day, we don't need to talk about it all night,'” Shirley Speaks says with a smile. But both say it helped immensely to have a partner who understood late nights, irate parents, snow delays and the thousand tough decisions that come with the job every day.

        “Shirley has awfully good balance,” he says. “Joe might have a softer side than I have have. He's probably easier-going,” she says.

        Each calls the other an extraordinary leader. Others agree.

        While public discussion often pits public schools against private schools, these two principals don't.

        “I can't see a lot of difference between public and most private schools,” Joe Speaks says. “Schools are better than they used to be because of the pressure of society. We're under much more surveillance. And the quality of beginning teachers coming out of schools of education is far superior to what it was, with five-year degree programs and yearlong internships.”

        Shirley Speaks says more is being asked of all students and parents, and certainly of all staffs. “Capable people will have to be willing to step forward and devote their lives to education, and some will have to be willing to be administrators,” she says.

        Indeed, it is hard for these two to step away.

        “You always start off, every day, looking at how the world is, and how you'd like it to be,” Joe Speaks says. “Then it becomes a simple process of closing the gap. You see something — from a cobweb to a pocket of students not doing well on the proficiency test — and you say, "That's not how it should be.'

        “The answer is I want this to be a perfect place,” he says, very softly. “I want this to be heaven for the kids.”

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, or e-mail her at