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A high school student was in the office, threatening to kill herself. Half the teaching staff were substitutes. Even the office staff members shrugged and ignored the new superintendent, Sharon McPhail, as she tried to find her desk.

"It was like 'Lean on Me,'" says McPhail, former city councilwoman, Kwame Kilpatrick adversary and then sidekick and former Ecorse city attorney, among other past careers, describing the chaos that greeted her on Sept. 16, 2012. She's referring to the film about Joe Clark, a school principal who turned around a tough New Jersey school.

"I had Dave Bing and Bennie Napoleon on my speed dial, which was a good thing," she says of the day early on, when two dozen gang members lined up across the street. The squad cars arrived in minutes "and the gang members never came back."

Her goal: To rescue Detroit Community Schools, a poorly rated K-12 public charter school, and the children who attend it from abject failure. Surrounded by the blight of Brightmoor, one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods, and engulfed by gangs, drugs and broken families, success is incremental, and not necessarily in a direct line. As a politician who ran against Ed McNamara for Wayne County executive (she lost) and battled Kilpatrick, she's not a timid administrator. "We have tough security here," she says. "And me. I'm scary."

Because this is Sharon McPhail we're talking about, her tenure is not without controversy. The district switched authorizers this year, after relations with Saginaw Valley State University soured. Now the district, which is managed by its board of directors, reports to Bay Mills Community College, an Upper Peninsula institution that oversees 42 charter schools across the state. "The school seems to be on the right track," says Patrick Victor, the field representative.

Locking up student cellphones is a daily drill. Teachers don't argue with students who don't behave: They're sent directly to "support services," a detention area stocked with quiet cubicles. All students wear polo shirts in specified colors. Order prevails. But she also insists teachers master "the warm, fuzzy look. I say, 'If you can't love these students, you don't belong here.'"

Some success is as obvious as the spotless floors, the students in class and not in the halls, and the cheerfulness of teachers who greet her.

That first year, she and other administrators coached some of the seniors to graduate. "We each took two, and that number grew," she recalls. The gains — getting removed from the state "priority" list of schools in the bottom 5 percent and moving up in rankings — are modest but measurable. "It can easily take 10 years," she says.

McPhail was a fixture in Detroit politics for two decades, but she is a professional educator by dint of this experience and some law school teaching, and her methods for inspiring can be unorthodox. She pushed 42 high school students to write essays about their family values by offering a reward — and then handing out hefty cash prizes she says she personally funded to everyone who wrote them. She hired Denise Gibson, an art therapist, to work with kids who struggle to express themselves verbally.

She says teachers blamed the students for failing, an attitude she will not tolerate. "You can educate kids wherever you find them," she insists. High school students are encouraged to find alternative routes to "mastery," when traditional methods fail. Hers is a work in progress, emphasis on work.

For the second year, Detroit Community Schools held its talent show at Music Hall, where students from kindergarten to high school performed for a packed house. Some of the expenses, she says, will be paid out of her pocket. "It's worth it. These kids need to hear applause," she says. "That is so important. To perform on the stage where The Temptations or the Supremes performed — that's special."

lberman@detroitnews.com

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