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Boston schools tap Memphis official

Noted for improving system

Carol R. Johnson, who won broad acclaim for resuscitating failing schools as superintendent in Memphis , will be named the next superintendent of Boston public schools on Tuesday, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday.

Johnson, who has overseen a school system more than twice the size of Boston's since 2003, was the best of several finalists to lead the 57,000-student school system, Menino said. He cited Johnson's success in improving the performance of minority students in Memphis and her reputation as a superintendent who includes parents and community leaders in decision-making -- two characteristics that Boston parents, activists, and school officials have said they wanted to see in the next public schools chief.

"She'll give us the leadership we need in these schools," Menino said. "I think she'll bring us to the next level. We're very fortunate to attract a talent as strong as Carol."

On Tuesday, the search panel that has been screening candidates will formally recommend Johnson to the School Committee as the sole contender for the position. She will be the second black woman to lead Boston schools. The choice caps an 18-month search, conducted in secrecy, to replace former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, who retired in June 2006 after 11 years.

In September, the city had se lected Manuel J. Rivera , former superintendent of schools in Rochester, N.Y., who would have been the first Hispanic superintendent of Boston schools. But Rivera decided in January to become the top education adviser to New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, and Boston had to renew its search.

The search committee worked in secret to identify Johnson, despite clamoring by city councilors for a public process that would have allowed community members to meet each finalist.

But Elizabeth Reilinger, chairwoman of the School Committee and one of the seven members of the search committee, said the city never would have found a superintendent if the finalists had been identified for the public.

"We worked really hard to maintain confidentiality," Reilinger said, adding that the candidates were unwilling "to go through a public process because of the vulnerability it would create for them in their current position."

Reilinger declined to specify how many candidates were interviewed but said, "We had a very diverse and qualified pool."

Menino said he had interviewed Johnson, a Tennessee native, "a couple of times," along with several other finalists recommended in recent weeks by the search committee. The School Committee also interviewed the finalists and chose Johnson unanimously, Reilinger said.

The Rev. Gregory G. Groover Sr., who was cochairman of the search committee as well as a member of the School Committee, said he believed community leaders would forgive the city for not holding public interviews before choosing Johnson because of her track record.

Some school system observers had doubted Boston's ability to attract stellar candidates after Rivera's embarrassing about-face. They were concerned that the system would languish without a permanent superintendent and that the decade of stability and gains made under Payzant would stall. Michael G. Contompasis, former chief operating officer of the city's schools, has been serving as superintendent since Payzant retired.

Menino said that Johnson had been highly recommended by Payzant, who now teaches at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Johnson has not returned previous calls for comment.

Johnson, 59 , will start in August or September under a five-year contract, Reilinger said. Johnson's salary, expected to be in the mid- to-high $200,000s, is still to be negotiated, and the School Committee plans to approve the terms June 27. Contompasis makes a base salary of $270,000; Payzant made $205,000 in his last year.

Johnson will be in Boston this week to meet with community groups and others , Reilinger said. Johnson will also participate in the Public Education Leadership Project, a Harvard summer program on improving urban school systems.

Johnson's name surfaced last year as one of three candidates recommended by the American Federation of Teachers; however, Johnson refused to be interviewed at the time, and the committee chose Rivera, according to sources familiar with the last search.

Johnson has led the Memphis school district -- with 119,000 students the 21st largest in the nation -- since October 2003. According to the school district's website, Johnson's biggest accomplishment there has been to remove 83 of 148 schools from the state's list of troubled schools .

The graduation rate for the school system had risen from 48.5 percent in 2002-03 to nearly 65 percent in 2005-06, but Johnson has said her goal is for at least 90 percent of students to graduate, a norm in many suburban school systems but not in city schools.

The Memphis school system made national headlines in 2004 after it became one of the last large, urban districts to ban corporal punishment, another of Johnson's major initiatives. She replaced the wooden paddle with counseling, in-school suspension, and campus monitors. The district said the ban has resulted in fewer fights, fewer trips to the principal's office, and less class-cutting. But parents, teachers, and community members say student behavior remains out of control, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported last week.

This spring, Johnson initiated a slogan for the school system, "Every Child. Every Day. College Bound." Teachers who failed to raise expectations would be dismissed, Johnson warned at the time. The idea was to raise standards for students, but some school board members criticized it as disingenuous and unrealistic.

But Calverta McMorris, pastor of Johnson Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Memphis, whose grandson just completed the fourth grade, praised Johnson's mission.

"It's a great visionary statement for the students, starting when they're in kindergarten," McMorris said in a telephone interview. "They will be indoctrinated with the idea that they're going to college, because that's where they need to be."

In May, the Tennessee Parent Teacher Association named Johnson its Superintendent of the Year.

Test scores have been steadily rising in most grades, and black students are slowly catching up to their white classmates, according to an April report by the Council of the Great City Schools, a national organization representing urban school systems. Roughly 8 out of 10 students in grades K-8 scored proficient or advanced in reading and math.

Before 0ctober 2003, Johnson was Minneapolis superintendent for six years, where she also earned a reputation for building a solid relationship with the community. The Star Tribune in Minneapolis dubbed her the "superintendent with a halo" for her calm and caring manner and political acumen. Students' test scores improved slowly during her tenure.

Johnson was school superintendent in St. Louis Park, Minn., for two years before being named to the Minneapolis post in 1997.

The third of nine children, Johnson grew up in the rural Tennessee town of Brownsville. Her mother was a teacher, her father, a businessman. She began her career as a third-grade teacher in 1969 in Washington, D.C., after receiving her bachelor's degree in elementary education from Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville. She received a master's degree and doctorate from the University of Minnesota. She is married to Matthew Johnson, a history teacher, and has two grown sons and a daughter.

Dwight R. Montgomery, pastor of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church in Memphis and president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said Johnson has impressed the community with her openness and willingness to reach out to clergy members for help.

He described Johnson's visit to his church when she first started in Memphis: "The young people were coming up to her like she was Santa Claus. "She has kept that down to earth, approachable demeanor. Every since she's been here she has been accessible."

Johnson's charisma motivated local clergy to raise $5,000 in one day after a Memphis student's family's apartment burned.

"For Carol Johnson to exit the Memphis city schools would be a great loss to this community," Montgomery said.

Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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