Eugene G. White

Not Your Ordinary Role Model by JAY P. GOLDMAN

Every fall, Gene White makes it a custom to address student assemblies at each of the 14 schools in the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township, Ind., where he is superintendent.

When he gets to his core message--that each student can perform at a high level regardless of socioeconomic or racial background--his words carry a legitimacy and a passion that come only from personal circumstance.

It is a message that stems from White’s hardscrabble upbringing in the deep South of the 1950s, growing up in a single-parent home in Phenix City, Ala., a segregated and impoverished community where racist attitudes flourished.

"Nine of 10 teachers don’t have that biographical sketch," he says. "It comes in very handy at times. … I just want people to understand, it’s not about where you started from."

White tailors his remarks in age-appropriate ways, but it’s in front of know-it-all adolescents where his sharper-edged, plain language packs a punch. He insists on meeting with these audiences separated by gender in order to personalize the dynamics of boy-girl relationships that interfere with academic attainment. "No matter how strongly you feel about someone," he’ll say in remarks that address sexual promiscuity, "don’t allow anything to get in the way of the best education you can get."

White says he became the first male in his family to graduate from high school and college because of a loving and responsible mother, who set high goals in academics and deportment and taught him about priorities. A stellar athlete, he was starting quarterback on his high school team and recipient of a four-year college basketball scholarship.

Shortly after moving to Indiana for his first administrative post, White became the first African-American principal in both Fort Wayne and Washington Township, which borders on Indianapolis. As superintendent since 1994, he has impressed many in 10,000-student Washington Township with his vision and commitment. "He doesn’t back off on anything," says an education writer for the Indianapolis Star.

James Blythe, senior partner in a local law firm who was part of the first graduating class from the district’s North Central High School in 1958, sees White as "very sincere, obviously dedicated and just someone very hard to say ‘no’ to."

Blythe, despite his best efforts to resist, says he finally fell for the superintendent’s persistent invitation to head up a fledgling alumni association.

Says Blythe: "He’s a principled type of person, and in today’s world, a man of principle is someone you have to admire."

White has initiated some bold steps to strengthen the academic experience. To raise performance expectations, he pressed the school board to adopt a 2.0 minimum grade-point standard--the first in Indiana to do so--for participation in extracurricular activities. This immediately sparked the ire of the athletic community, which feared the measure would compromise North Central’s dominance in several sports.

White did not buckle. "I told [the coaches] I was disappointed in them for that attitude. … If you’re going to compete here, you need to demonstrate you’re a student first."

Most students have risen to the higher standard, the superintendent says, noting the boys basketball team won the state Class 4A championship in 1999 while girls’ teams have earned state titles in soccer and tennis teams during the past two years.

White also recommended the school board stop issuing local certificates of attendance or completion as an alternative to diplomas for high school students who failed the state competency exams.

"It was a tough decision to make," he concedes, "but we won’t play that game. We won’t give a false diploma jacket with nothing inside."

White’s no-nonsense approach has attracted plenty of notice. He recently was elected chair of the North Central Association’s Commission on Schools and president-elect of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. Of course, the attention also comes from superintendent headhunters, but so far White isn’t listening too attentively.

"Quite frankly, I want to be where I can see impact. When I can see 1st-graders progress, that’s rejuvenating for me and something I don’t want to give up," he says. "We need to have public education systems that are working, that we can point to. Washington Township presents me with an opportunity to make that possible."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: