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A large photo of her son, Julian, hangs in the bedroom of Pamela Brown’s Allentown loft. Fresh off a soccer tournament victory in France, the 13-year-old boy hoists the American flag, leading a victory-lap celebration.

Julian never made it home from that trip, but Brown thinks about him every day. He’s the biggest reason why she isn’t still an elementary school principal somewhere, the reason she has spent the past six years moving up the administrative ranks to the position she holds today as head of the Buffalo School District.

“After his passing,” Brown said, “one of the things I thought about was making the most of every moment.”

Those moments have landed Brown in Buffalo, but many wonder how long she’ll be here. As the embattled leader of a struggling, 34,000-student urban district, Pamela C. Brown arguably has the most difficult and pressure-packed job in a region where the turnaround of failing schools is considered the linchpin to the city’s future.

Though Brown had not previously been a superintendent, she came to Buffalo more than a year ago with some promising attributes: a Harvard doctorate in education, multilingual fluency and urban school district experience.

Her transformation from Mississippi farm girl to education chief is impressive.

Yet despite successes, the superintendent is now fighting to keep her job, with many high-profile community and parent leaders who once backed her now disenchanted.

Brown is quick to state that in her short tenure, preliminary graduation rates have once again risen above 50 percent and short-term suspensions have declined under a new code of conduct. The district finalized a teacher evaluation agreement with the union, drew up school turnaround plans, and adopted a five-year plan designed to boost student learning at a breakneck pace.

From Brown’s point of view, it’s hard to understand how that set of accomplishments could leave her one vote away from dismissal.

“That is certainly a question I have asked myself over the last several months,” said Brown, 59.

But very few of Brown’s actions have come without controversy, challenges or criticism. Brown has taken unprecedented heat from the state Education Department and drawn ire from parent activists, board and community members.

The board’s confidence in her is so weakened that when she touts the district’s preliminary 2012-13 graduation rate of 54 percent, some say they won’t believe that claim until the state verifies the figure.

Advocates say Brown deserves more time to prove herself and work without the distractions of political attacks, but critics say they doubt more time will change anything. While the superintendent may devote long hours to internal planning and program development, some observers believe she lacks the political, communication and public relations instincts that a superintendent needs to survive here.

But Brown – who rejected a $500,000 buyout offer – is determined to tough it out and prove that she’s not only a capable leader, but the best person for the job.

“I know that I’m here for the right reasons,” she said.

Humble beginnings

Brown started life as a small-town farm girl from Liberty, Miss., a close-knit and religious community of fewer than 2,000 residents.

Born at the onset of the Civil Rights Movement as the youngest of eight, she was the daughter of an elementary school teacher. Her mother, at age 16, began teaching in the segregated South. Her father grew crops, trained horses and sold appliances and furniture.

It was a humble life that got even humbler after her mother moved the family to Los Angeles, where several of her older siblings already were living. Her father eventually joined them and applied for several jobs, but felt lost there and returned to Mississippi to stay.

That left Brown and five of her siblings living with their mother on a parochial school teacher’s income of $300 a month. Christmas was a modest holiday. Santa still came, she said, “but he often brought fruit.”

Her older siblings helped support the family. Two dropped out of high school and finished later. Brown, the youngest, was a straight-A student, the first among them to enroll in a four-year college.

She thought she’d become a lawyer, but developed a love of languages she couldn’t resist pursuing ever since her fifth-grade teacher shared a few Spanish words with her class. The ability to connect with people from all walks of life through a second language seemed like a gift, she said.

Brown became fluent in both Spanish and French and studied abroad for a semester at the University of Salamanca in Spain. When she returned to Stanford University, she gave up law school and majored in Spanish. She then attended the University of Southern California to pursue a career in bilingual education, a decision she never regretted.

“I absolutely loved it,” she said.

After she married, she followed her banker husband, Edgar David Brown, around the country for years, trading on her bilingual teaching skills (except for a yearlong stint in South Dakota where she worked as a securities broker and hated it). She and her husband finally settled in Charlotte, N.C., for 12 years.

That’s where Brown made her mark in education.

‘Quiet leader’

Brown served as principal of three elementary schools while in Charlotte from 1994 to 2006. While there, she taught some of the best- and some of the worst-achieving children in the region.

Former Superintendent Eric Smith, who supervised Brown in her earlier years with the district, recalled her as a quiet but successful administrator.

“My recollection is that she had strengths in curriculum and instructional leadership and languages, and interest in international work,” he said. “She was more of a quiet leader. She wasn’t shouting from the rooftops, and I was OK with that. She knew her job. She got after it and did it in a very commendable way.”

James Pughsley, who served as both deputy superintendent and superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools during Brown’s time there, said she did a great job working with children at both ends of the spectrum.

“She knows how to get results,” Pughsley said. “That’s the one thing that sticks out in my mind as relates to her.”

Brown launched pre-International Baccalaureate and French immersion programs, which is why both her son, Julian, and her daughter, Trinity, grew to be fluent French speakers.

By 2002, Brown was principal of Bruns Avenue Academy of Creative Learning. The school saw a huge turnover of students that year because of a districtwide reshuffling of magnet programs and a return to community schools, she said.

She described Bruns as enrolling students with the worst academic record in the district. Pughsley said he couldn’t recall if Bruns, with its 400 students, had the worst record but agreed that it had serious academic challenges.

The school was 99 percent African-American and very poor, she said. Many kids never showed up for class, and those who did often had serious health problems.

Brown said she established partnerships with the North Carolina School of Dance, the Charlotte Symphony and others. She said she also partnered the school with a medical center located two blocks away, where children could receive care on a sliding-fee scale. The school won a grant to fund a full-time nurse and even provided family aerobics classes, she said.

In all the positions she’s taken since then, Brown said, her time at Bruns was the grounding point. It drove home her belief that all students can succeed when schools develop and support well-rounded children.

“It really is the vision that I’ve carried with me since then,” she said.

Under her leadership, Brown asserted, Bruns Avenue Academy went from being the worst elementary school in the district to ranking 13th overall in a district with more than 80 elementary schools.

“That’s where I became more convinced than ever that significant gains could be generated in a school even when there are very high concentrations of low-income and minority students,” she said.

A Buffalo News review of Bruns achievement data could not substantiate the claim that Bruns went from being the worst to the 13th best, nor could Brown provide such corroborating information. The school’s test scores did not meet the district average in reading or math during Brown’s time there.

However, the district reported that Bruns had the biggest overall academic growth in reading and math of all district schools in 2002-03, and the second-highest growth in reading and math two years later.

State report card data also shows a significant rise in test scores those two years.

Melissa Dunlap was principal of Ashley Park University Learning Center when Brown was principal at Bruns and recalled the friendly rivalry the two principals had in winning the top award for academic growth.

She said Brown was highly regarded by the administration and by her peers. Her personality was described in terms that people in Buffalo would also recognize: elegant, graceful, refined, calm and sure.

Administrators in Charlotte described her as being quietly effective, but not an out-front promoter.

“That’s not where she excels,” Dunlap said. “Where she excels is in strategic thinking, planning, and in supporting the work of others. The out-front PR piece is not something she’s going to gravitate to. She’ll do the work, but she’s not a cheerleader. She’s a worker.”

The turning point

Carl Paladino is Brown’s toughest critic on the Buffalo School Board, yet the two share a common grief: They both lost sons to motor vehicle tragedies, and they both made life-changing decisions as a result.

Paladino’s son Patrick was killed at age 29.

Brown’s son Julian died at age 13.

Julian, a talented soccer player, was a member of the North Carolina Olympic Development Soccer Team. He also played the sax and piano and was a year ahead in school.

Brown lost him on the cusp of his teenage years, when he was just old enough to plead his case to travel to an international soccer tournament in France without his parents.

“I regretted not having been with him,” she said.

On the last day prior to the start of spring break in 2004, Brown recalled picking Julian up from school. She recounted every moment of that day with sad-eyed fondness – sending him off to the barber for a haircut despite his protests, packing up the car, driving him to the airport and reminding his coach that Julian spoke French and could translate for the team.

At the airport, she wrapped her arms around him and said goodbye.

“Be careful,” she told him.

The next time Brown saw Julian was in a French hospital. Julian’s team had finished fifth out of 28 teams in the tournament. But on the way back to the airport, his team’s bus overturned, pinning Julian underneath.

“There were two players that did not survive that accident,” she said, “and Julian was one of them.” (In April, an Onslow County, N.C., jury awarded the families of both victims a multimillion-dollar judgment against the North Carolina Youth Soccer Association.)

While Brown was at the hospital, where Julian lingered for a week, another team parent gave her a laminated photo of him running an impromptu victory lap with the American flag after beating a team from Italy.

That’s the photo that now hangs in her bedroom.

“I just look at it and remember how he gave his best to everything from start to finish, up until the last second of his life, and how he really persevered in everything that he did,” Brown said. “It reminds me how important it is to run my own race, to do the things that I feel are a part of my purpose in life.”

Brown returned to her principalship at Bruns, but she was no longer satisfied to stay there. With her son dead and her daughter headed to college, Brown started looking to her own future with far greater ambitions.

Julian had made the most of his short life, Brown said. So, now, would she.

She applied for and was accepted to a highly competitive, 12-month urban superintendents doctoral program at Harvard University in 2006. It was the first time she and her husband would live apart, and they have not lived in the same city since.

The connections she made at Harvard assisted her climb through the administrative ranks. She served a year as chief of staff in Richmond City Public Schools, supervising a dozen executive cabinet members and implementing reform initiatives there.

In 2008, she was hired by the School District of Philadelphia, where she spent three years. She oversaw roughly 30 schools as an assistant superintendent. She also spent a year serving as interim chief academic officer, the No. 2 position in the district, but was not offered the permanent post.

Outside observers of Brown’s time there said she wasn’t regarded as a major player or personality in the district. When it became clear that controversial Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was being forced out, Brown and other top administrators saw the writing on the wall and left.

She landed a job as a consultant for the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology in Marlborough, Mass. She had been there a year and was actively hunting for a superintendent’s position when Buffalo found her.

Short-lived honeymoon

Brown took office in the summer of 2012 in a 7-2 vote. Paladino – who had not yet run for his School Board seat – filed a suit to get her removed before she even started.

But others embraced her.

“We went out and fought for her,” said Samuel Radford III, the activist who heads the District Parent Coordinating Council. “We thought, hands down, she was the most qualified. When she came in and we met with her, we thought she had the best plan for turning the district around.”

Leaders with Say Yes to Education, which helped recruit her to the district, were equally enchanted and agreed to fund studies to help Brown address problems facing the district.

The Oishei Foundation set up one-on-one luncheon appointments for her to meet with community members ready to help her with resources and expertise.

But a year and half later, the honeymoon has turned to hostility.

The biggest reason critics cite is Brown’s failure to communicate, work productively with stakeholders and staff, gain buy-in, then articulate a vision that the community can believe in.

Her aggressive goal of raising student graduation rates to 80 percent within five years raises far more eyebrows than optimism.

Board member James Sampson described Brown as a case of “incredible, unrealized promise.”

“I think she’s very, very dedicated and committed, not just to Buffalo kids but kids in general,” he said. “I think she works very, very hard – but she does it in an incredibly insular kind of way.”

He was one of the four members on the nine-member board who voted last fall to end her contract with the district.

Radford noted that Brown is the first superintendent who hasn’t attended a single meeting with the elected parent body. She’s ignored – to the district’s harm – repeated parent warnings about noncompliance with state laws, he said.

“I think she’s a smart person, but I think she’s in over her head,” he said. “Buffalo is not some small-time school district. Buffalo is a school district that has a very strong union. It has a capable, competent leadership body. A superintendent has to have the ability to deal with a strong union, a strong parent body, a strong board and a strong business community.

“You need a superintendent who has the ability to lead all these strong personalities, get them in line and cooperating in a way that makes things better for all students.”

Most recently, the superintendent was criticized for failing to communicate with Say Yes and jeopardizing much-delayed after-school programs. Catholic school leaders also said they’ve been waiting to converse with Brown on a plan that could lead to public school student transfers to under-enrolled Catholic schools and prevent even more closures.

Brown acknowledges that if there’s one area she needs to strengthen, this is it.

“Obviously, I’m new to Buffalo,” she said. “I didn’t come in with the connections that I might have had if I’d lived here all my life, or if I’d already been a resident. There are a lot of political dynamics in Buffalo that I’ve had to learn more about.”

But given her heart’s desire, she said, she’d rather be working with her staff to develop plans and programs to improve student success in the classroom than holding news conferences or building relationships with people of influence.

County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, who helped organize a community rally in support of Brown in September, said she has no way of measuring Brown’s competence because Buffalo’s power brokers have been after her since she started.

“From Day 1, she was vilified,” Grant said. “From Day 1, she was not able to really work in a sterile and productive environment.”

Though Paladino never supported her, and some of Brown’s relationships have soured over time, influential groups like Say Yes and Oishei were initially welcoming when she was first selected.

School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold said she believes Brown can turn the district around if she receives more cooperation and fewer distractions from people bent on undermining her efforts.

“I find it, again, incredulous that a system that has been in crisis for many, many years is expected to be turned around in less than two years,” Nevergold said. “It bodes poorly for any successor to come into a district where there’s so much disbelief and disrespect.”

Oishei Foundation President Robert Gioia, who helped engineer a buyout offer for Brown several months ago, spun Nevergold’s argument differently.

“No one individual can solve the decades of despair on his or her own; you need everyone’s help,” said. “In order to achieve that, you need to be willing and able to sit around the table, listen, and take the best ideas and collaborate around them.”

That’s not what’s happening, he said.

Despite the threat that Brown might lose her five-member board majority when a new board is seated in July, the superintendent said she’s determined to prove she has what it takes to succeed.

“I know who I am,” she said. “I know what I’m doing, and I know how to get this job done. There’s no question in my mind about that ... You will never find anybody who is more committed to this work than I am.”

For more on this story, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone email: stan@buffnews.com