Byrd-Bennett is Bobb's academic czar and more: She is his co-chief. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
It's 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, and Barbara Byrd-Bennett is e-mailing Detroit Public Schools' Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb one more thing to add to their to-do list.
She e-mails him at 4 a.m., when she cannot sleep. She e-mails him at 11 p.m., before she goes to bed. She e-mails him at 8:30 a.m. on Sundays from Cleveland, where she lives some weekends with her husband, Bruce, before returning to Detroit to do one of America's toughest big city jobs.
Byrd-Bennett is Bobb's academic czar and more: She is his co-chief.
When Byrd-Bennett told Bobb he was proposing budget cuts that would hurt children's learning, he backed off. When she recommended they negotiate a dramatically different teachers' contract, he followed. When she said Detroit had to radically change to compete with charter schools, Bobb agreed.
While Bobb is the school district's showman who woos the public with his no-nonsense message and anti-corruption results, Byrd-Bennett is the behind-the-scenes policy strategist charged with the arguably tougher job: dramatically improving student achievement in the country's most troubled urban school district.
"What is important to her is not the glory; it's the students and what's best for them," says Sharif Shakrani, co-director of Michigan State University's Education Policy Center, who worked with Byrd-Bennett in Washington, D.C.
This week is one of Byrd-Bennett's most critical early tests. She is one of the lead negotiators in talks with the Detroit Federation of Teachers' union. Negotiations have been extended until Saturday.
The negotiations are considered by experts to be essential to the district's survival. Byrd-Bennett wants the teacher union to agree to a new special contract for the city's lowest-performing schools, modeled after a successful effort she headed in New York City.
"What Barbara is working on now, along with the current teacher contract negotiations, will dictate the future of the Detroit Public Schools," Bobb says.
Despite her influence, Byrd-Bennett is relatively unknown in Detroit. Outside the city, she is considered a superstar. Hundreds of wanna-be reformers have tried to boost poor urban student achievement levels. Byrd-Bennett is one of the rare leaders who has done it.
What reformers around the nation are watching now: Whether Byrd-Bennett -- who led the turn around of New York City's and Cleveland's failing schools -- will be given the opportunity to flourish in the Motor City.
Children drive her
Byrd-Bennett's passion for disadvantaged children drives her. Growing up in the "projects" in a black working-class family in New York City, she says, she always wanted to be part of a movement to empower disenfranchised people.
Byrd-Bennett was inspired by her dad, Wallace Lee, a postal worker who rose to become a leader in his union. Her mom, Helen, worked in retail.
She found her opportunity in a chance meeting in her early 20s with a renowned New York City educator called Mother Hale. The woman asked her, "Do you want to be a teacher?" Byrd-Bennett answered, "No, but I want to be part of a movement." Mother Hale said, "You're hired."
Struggling as a teacher early in her career, Byrd-Bennett eventually made a name for herself in her mid-30s when she began to unravel the mystery of how to boost student achievement in high-poverty schools.
She was charged with improving instruction and curriculum in dozens of schools. Her first year, test results flat-lined.
"I could almost cry, just thinking about it," she says. "We looked at why and made changes."
By years two and three, students' reading and math test scores improved, eventually reaching a jump of 30 percent. National experts paid attention. The model she developed is championed by Mass Insight Education & Research Institute and other school turnaround experts.
"Barbara laid the foundation for everything we're doing with District 79 (New York City's alternative schools and programs)," says Giulia Cox, executive director of student support services for the New York City Department of Education.
The city has revamped its General Educational Development (GED) degree and other programs for teenagers and young adults who weren't succeeding in traditional high schools. The result: The GED passage rate doubled in the first year, and the city's graduation rate is rising, Cox says.
Byrd-Bennett built that foundation as the superintendent of the Big Apple's special Chancellor's District in the 1990s.
Byrd-Bennett wants to apply that model to Detroit. She and Bobb are proposing to create a "high priority district" within the larger district for the city's chronically failing schools.
The high priority district's success largely rides on securing a special teachers' contract, as it did in New York. Byrd-Bennett wants failing schools' staffs to be hired based on performance, not just seniority; and ensure students have longer school days and smaller classrooms.
To encourage the Detroit teacher union to support such changes, Byrd-Bennett and Bobb are offering an unprecedented $45 million in performance-based bonuses for school employees.
Such a carrot helped build buy-in from New York City teachers' union.
Detroit hasn't been that easy.
Detroit talks difficult
Byrd-Bennett had anticipated difficult contract negotiations; budget deficits; brutal public scrutiny and an intrusive school board in Detroit -- all are part of the typical urban district's terrain.
What she had not expected is Detroit's almost total lack of workable systems.
"This really isn't about reform," she says of Detroit. "In a reform district, you see some measurable results relatively quickly ... Children are not dying in a reform district."
"Detroit is very different, in my mind," she added candidly. "This is about turnaround. ... I failed to judge how deep and intense the work would be here. It's very heavy lifting."
On the other hand, Byrd-Bennett says Detroit is similar to New York City and Cleveland, the latter of which she served as superintendent for eight years until 2006.
"Every community thinks their circumstances are worse than any other city," she says. "They think nothing can be done."
Experts say the results of her work will not be seen until next fall, at the earliest, if she is given the chance to succeed.
"Barbara knows all of the challenges; she knows what the hiccups are," says Michelle Rhee, chancellor for Washington, D.C., public schools. "At the end of the day, she can be as great as anybody, but if there is not the political will and infrastructure in place to support reforms, it's not going to matter."
Like Bobb, Byrd-Bennett is ambitious and decisive -- and often works 14-hour days, her staff says. Her buoyant energy is contagious.
"I've done incremental school change and rapid change," she says, explaining her workaholic lifestyle. "Rapid change is what parents want."
Unlike Bobb, Byrd-Bennett is so warm and gracious, even her critics like her. Keith Johnson, the teachers' union president, says he has so much faith in her -- unlike Bobb -- he believes the district could be turned around in just three years under her.
For her, she says "Detroit is a high for me in my career." It's a chance to ensure some of the country's neediest children get the high-quality schools which they deserve, the civil rights movement of her era.
She says the biggest obstacle to school reform is faith.
"You have to suspend your disbelief," she says. "Change can happen, and it does happen. I've seen it."
Amber Arellano is a Detroit News editorial writer who writes about education policy. Please sSend letters to The Detroit News at Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226 or (313) 496-5253 or firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com.