James E. Barker

Momentum Building Over the Long Term by LIZ GRIFFIN

As he begins his seventh year as the superintendent, Barker finds less and less is recognizable about the district from the days when he signed on as a substitute teacher in special education and biology in 1972-73 before moving into a permanent teaching position.

Ironically, that very path to the classroom no longer is a given in Erie's schools. Barker, in one of his early acts as superintendent, eliminated the custom of hiring long-term substitutes without the qualifications and pre-employment testing. To be considered for hire, teaching candidates must have completed their college studies with at least a B average. They also must be enrolled or plan to enroll in a master's degree program in urban education.

"Our district had the highest qualifications for hiring teachers in the commonwealth at the time," says Barker, noting that other districts have since caught up.

The charismatic 50-year-old combines a personable style with an acumen for building multiple alliances with business and community groups to improve student performance in an urban district of 12,200 students. About one third qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Each of Erie's 21 schools has one or more business partners to help design and implement systemic reforms, and $3 million in county money is added to the district's coffers to work with the high-risk population.

General Electric provided $1 million to prepare aging East High School, located in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, for educating students in the next century. The school has been rebuilt on the football field of the old campus and now boasts 600 up-to-date computers for its 1,100 students.

The new East High School has set a new standard, too, for artistic inspiration. According to Barker, the school probably has the most commissioned artwork by professionals on display of any public high school in the nation.

Several observers in Erie have noticed how the superintendent’s professional growth has paralleled the progress of the school system. The results indicate the highest growth in SAT scores and other achievement measures in the past 25 years.

"He's been able to grow professionally in the district and build his contacts slowly, progressively," says Bob Oliver, dean of a college-prep high school in the district. "And now he’s in a position to use those contacts."

Oliver recalls the days before Barker’s appointment to the superintendency when Erie's school board members regularly could be found "duking it out." Today, board consensus is the norm, and the superintendent reports many board votes are unanimous.

"Barker's gotten the community behind him and reinstituted pride in urban public education," says Jeff Pinski, managing editor of Erie’s daily newspaper. "As a result, Erie's media coverage is far more positive and pervasive than neighboring suburban districts."

Barker tries to build public confidence by relating student needs to community needs. When you gain community confidence, he says, people will flock to an area, leading to increases in home values by as much as $30,000 and a greater willingness of businesses to relocate in the city.

To gain this trust, the superintendent doesn’t allow complacency among his staff. If test scores show 60 percent of the students are performing at a certain level that the state says must be at 80 percent, he won’t allow excuses of poverty to dominate the discussion. Instead, says Oliver, he adopts the position that "this is the level we are being asked to achieve. He’s very big on accountability."

Yet Barker does not expect all teachers and principals to follow the same route to reach high standards.

"Teachers and staff are focused on how to inspire students to succeed," he says. "For some, it might be a school with the theme of geography, it might be opera, it might be a Core Knowledge school. … It might involve changing the 8-period day for high school students to the Copernican plan or an AB modified schedule. [Whatever it is] I believe that wherever you find your inspiration you can find success, because you’re willing to put in the work--the perspiration, if you will--to succeed."

Liz Griffin is the managing editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: