Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Profile: Alton Frailey

New school chief puts kids first

By Jennifer Mrozowski jmrozowski@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HOUSTON - Aside from his pinstriped suit, Alton Frailey looks like a regular at the barbeque restaurant, sitting on a cowhide chair, dipping his po'boy sandwich into a dish of sweet and spicy barbeque sauce. But the new superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools is no regular guy.

Alton Frailey meets with students in his Spring Branch, Texas, school district.
(Michael E Keating photos)
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        Friends and associates say he's a dynamic leader who's as comfortable hobnobbing with lawmakers as he is hanging with fifth-graders.

        Mr. Frailey, who in July was named assistant superintendent of the Spring Branch Independent School District, faces challenges he hasn't known in his 32,000-student suburban Houston district.

        “Educating students with (Cincinnati's) demographics is entirely different from what he's used to dealing with here,” says Wanda Harris, who's working to organize teachers in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, where Mr. Frailey serves on a school board.

        In Spring Branch, about 75 percent of the students go on to college and half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.

        In contrast, Cincinnati graduates just 58 percent of its students while more than 60 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

        Bargaining with a strong union will be also be new to him. Relations between the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers union and administration deteriorated under Steven Adamowski, who left Aug. 19 for a teaching position at the University of Missouri after four years as superintendent. The new superintendent comes from a right-to-work state, where employees can't be compelled to join a union or pay union dues.

        He also faces the task of securing voter support Nov. 5 for a $480 million bond issue to finance the biggest school construction project in city history.

img   • Age: 41
  • Born: 1961
  • Wife: Anissa, since 1990.
•   Children: Anderson, 8; Austin, 5; Alana, 11.
  • Title: Assistant superintendent since July of Spring Branch (Texas) Independent School District, where he has been employed 12 years.
  • District comparisons: Spring Branch has 32,000 students on 46 campuses and a budget of $265 million; Cincinnati Public has 42,000 students on 75 campuses with a $437 million budget.
  • Spring Branch salary: $132,000
  • Cincinnati salary: Not determined, but board members say it will be “comparable” to former superintendent's $181,000 salary.
  • Education: Bachelor's degree in elementary education, 1983; master's degree in educational administration, 1986. Both degrees from Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas.
  • Start date: Early November.
        This is also the first time Mr. Frailey will be a top schools chief.

        Mr. Frailey, who likes to quote famous authors or proverbs, is undaunted. He says he'll bring focus and a sense of purpose to Cincinnati.

        “In everything we do, we'll be asking the question, "How does this help the children?”'

        Mr. Frailey's Texas colleagues say he has an intense drive to achieve.

Frailey in his Texas office.
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        “If he fails, it won't be because he didn't try to work out the damn problem. It'll be because someone didn't want to settle the problem,” says Hal Guthrie, former superintendent of Spring Branch schools, who hired Mr. Frailey.

        Operating daily on four hours' sleep, Mr. Frailey often works 12-hour days at Spring Branch, then another three hours at home late into the night. He also serves as an elected school board member in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, where he lives. In the two districts, he has a 3-0 record when it comes to helping get bond referendums passed.

        The 19-year educator serves as an usher at his family's church, coached his son's soccer team for a season and found the time to paint the interior of his house.

        But most important to him are his three children - Austin, 5 Anderson, 8 and Alana, 11 - and his wife and confidant, Anissa, a former speech pathologist who is now an active volunteer and homemaker. Students admire him, fellow churchgoers at St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church speak highly of him and teachers and parents respect him.

        Last week, after two days of interviews in Houston, a reporter found it difficult to find people with something negative to say about him.

        Which begs the question: Why would he leave Texas to lead a struggling, low-achieving urban district at a time when Cincinnati makes national headlines for its race-relations problems?

        “I don't need a new job,” he says. “I have folks who respect me and I respect them as well. But I've known that my career was leading to the superintendency. For Cincinnati to be that place, I'm really counting on the community to be what it says it is.”

        That means the community has to be committed to improving student achievement and doing right by kids.

        “It just feels so right,” says Mr. Frailey, who didn't apply but was recruited for the job by an executive search firm. “Yes, there are going to be challenges. But there are children who seem to be underserved and that is my calling in life - to serve children who need me.”

        Alton Frailey was born in 1961 in the small all-black Texas farming community of North Redland, a 21/2-hour drive north of Houston. His father graded logs at a sawmill. His mother was a school custodian and cafeteria worker.

Dressed for work, Frailey helps his wife Annisa take out the trash.
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        He and his seven siblings grew up in a three-room home. The family got indoor plumbing when Mr. Frailey was in eighth grade.

        Last week, he returned to North Redland, to the familiar Baptist hymns and tight-knit group that hearkened him back to his childhood. There, he saw the entire congregation at Johnson Chapel Baptist Church stand and applaud upon hearing that he had just been named the superintendent in Cincinnati.

        Mr. Frailey says he's determined not to forget his beginning, or children like him, who needed a network of family and friends to push him toward the top.

        “You've heard the phrase "Every child can learn?”' Mr. Frailey says. “I use the phrase "All children do learn.”'

        One of those children is Teru Maragh.

        Last week, Mr. Frailey called Teru to the Westchester Academy school office. The 18-year-old senior will graduate in May from the district-sponsored charter school Mr. Frailey helped launch in 2000.

        Mr. Frailey wanted to be the first to tell Teru, a student he mentored when in fifth grade, about his new job.

        “I truly love him dearly - like a son,” Mr. Frailey says.

A photo of Frailey with his youth soccer team. His son Anderson is in the front row, left.
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        Teru, who as a teenager wasn't sure of his direction, now wants to pursue a career in marine engineering.

        “He gave a speech at the beginning of the year and said, "You can be a dreamer or a doer.' ” Teru said. “I remembered that. I looked back and decided, "From now on, I want to be a doer.”'

        Students at Westchester don't see Mr. Frailey as a “suit,” even though he serves as an administrator. A group of students filed into his office last week to ask if he would be the keynote speaker at their graduation next year.

        “I'll be there,” he told them after choking up. “I'll find a way to be there.”

        Mr. Frailey didn't always want to be an educator. He started college in 1979 as a business major at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he was president of his fraternity and president of the Council of Black Organizations.

        He envisioned wearing the blue suits and red ties that were fashionable in the early '80s. But something wasn't right. “I just didn't feel any passion there.”

        He recalled, however, the passion he felt while working as a camp volunteer in high school. Kids looked up to him.

        That's when Mr. Frailey realized he didn't fit the mold of a businessman and switched majors in 1980.

        He joined the education program and graduated with a bachelor's degree in elementary education in 1983, specializing in reading and special education. While working as a teacher at Highlands Elementary School in Goose Creek (Texas) Independent School District, he received his master's in educational administration.

        In Spring Branch, Mr. Frailey found that despite the high overall achievement, every child didn't fit the mold of the traditional school. Some students failed.

Frailey is greeted by Sandra Smith, whim he called "my favorite parent." She once "interviewed" Frailey about his qualification as principal at a school where she was contemplating sending her children.
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        In 1997, officials advocated for a second district-sponsored charter school to serve more students. Mr. Frailey spearheaded a committee of teachers and parents who opted for a school with an international focus.

        Westchester Academy for International Studies opened in 2000 for grades 6-10 on a 38-acre campus.

        “Our task is not to revise, amend and repair the deficiencies of the children,” he says, “but to alter and transform the atmosphere and operation of the schools.”

        The district's first charter school requires kids to meet a certain grade point average to get in. Westchester does not.

        “We said we're going to give all the kids who want to come here a chance,” Mr. Frailey says. “But once they get in, they have to perform.”

        Westchester has a museum on its campus to exhibit art of world cultures that partners with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The school's classrooms are constructed in pods to inspire teachers to collaborate on their lessons.

        Collaboration is a cornerstone of Mr. Frailey's education philosophy.

        Colleagues say he has adhered to that philosophy as he moved up from assistant principal to assistant superintendent.

        “He had a very open door policy and was willing to talk to you anytime about anything,” says first-grade teacher Kassie Collins, who worked with Mr. Frailey when he was principal at Westwood Elementary in the early 1990s.

A former co-worker greets Frailey at Westwood Elementary School, where he had been principal.
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        Teachers say his small gestures have big rewards, such as when he brought a couch and refrigerator into the teachers' lounge. But he fights for bigger issues, too.

        He was president of the Baytown Education Association when he was a teacher in the 1980s.

        In 1999, he pushed other district officials for extra money for the Spring Branch teachers. Spring Branch was planning to give teachers $2,000 raises. But when the state legislature committed $3,000 raises for teachers, some district officials advocated pulling the district raises.

        “Since we had said we could afford it, I said we should,” Mr. Frailey says.

        The teachers that year received both raises.

        Mr. Frailey says he believes students and parents deserve equal respect, too.

        As a principal at Westwood Elementary, teachers say he emphasized the positive.

        Signs in the hallway never said, “Don't run.” Instead, they said, “Walk.”

        When he noticed the lunchroom crowd was getting too noisy, Mr. Frailey rejected the idea of using a bullhorn to quiet students.

        Instead, he wrote them a rap. Every time he wanted their attention, he began clapping and started the “Westwood Rap.” The students stopped their talking and joined in.

        We're hangin' tough,
        The Westwood way.
        We're proud of our school,
        And we're here to say.
        To make it in life,
        We cannot shirk.
        To be number one,
        Let's get to work!
        For today: I will think. I will listen. I will learn. I will follow all school rules. I will do these things because I am intelligent.
        I am caring. I am proud.
        I am WESTWOOD!

        At the end, the lunchroom always turned silent. Then, he and the students would talk.

        Mr. Frailey, who regularly attends Friday night football games with his family and who has attended all seven of Cypress-Fairbanks' high school graduations, will bring a grass-roots style of leadership to Cincinnati.

        But he knows it will take more than personality and public appearances to stem the high rate of failure that has plagued Cincinnati schools for years.

        “Most urban school systems are under-performing,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges for our country is to improve urban schools. I'm not taking the job because I think I have the magic touch by any means. Right from the start, it just felt right. I will do everything in my power not to let you down.”

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