Amber Dixon's first encounter with the Buffalo Public Schools in her adult years was when her son started kindergarten years ago at Olmsted School 64.
She was not an administrator in the district, or a teacher -- or even a college graduate. She was a single mom stringing together a living working at Niagara Mohawk.
When Dixon would drop off her son at school, she felt herself blending into the sea of faces flowing in and out of the building every day.
"The principal didn't know my name, and I don't think she knew my son's name," she recalls.
That did not impress her much.
"I think knowing the names of the people you work with is critical," she says.
Chalk that up as Lesson No. 1 in the informal education of the woman who this week takes over as interim superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools.
That first lesson helped shape Dixon, now 58, and her approach as she takes the reins of one of the region's largest institutions, a district that spends about $900 million a year to educate nearly 35,000 children.
"I've known her for decades, and she is as principled as a June day is long," said Bill Nowak, a former neighbor of Dixon's. "She is also someone who is easy to have a real conversation with. She's as interested in what you have to say as she is in expressing her own thoughts."
Her folksy, down-home manner appeals to many throughout the city -- like the West Side dry cleaner she frequents, who sees her new appointment as something akin to a victory for the home team.
But will that translate into an effective superintendency?
>The job is to educate
Dixon speaks simply, frequently striking chords that resonate with Buffalo's blue-collar sensibility.
On whether she's going to use the district-provided Crown Victoria, which was James Williams' sole source of transportation here: "It wouldn't fit in my driveway," she joked (she lives in a Delaware District double she has owned for years). "I have a car. I'll be driving myself to work."
Describing her view of the core problem in the district: "I don't see us fulfilling our main responsibility, which is improving the education of the kids who come to school to us every day."
The future of the administrative staff in City Hall: "Central office must grow smaller so we can put positions back in the classroom."
Downsizing central office is one way Dixon plans to do things differently.
Williams built a strongly centralized system; Dixon wants to restore power to principals. Her predecessor and his deputy superintendent, Folasade Oladele, instituted walk-throughs, the practice of central office administrators dropping in on classes to observe teachers. Dixon wants to see those scaled back, relying instead on teachers working together as a team to improve their instruction.
The district's tightly controlled approach to teaching -- teachers are given what is basically a script, and are expected to be on a specific page on a specific day -- will remain in place, but with more flexibility to make space for "teachable moments," she said.
"I sincerely hope that there is not much carry-over from Williams' dictatorial approach to education," said Jethro Soudant, a Buffalo parent. "We need someone with a fresh vision, and we need it yesterday. I'm hoping Ms. Dixon has the authority, and the chutzpah, to change course on this wayward ship."
Soudant was one of more than 50 people -- many of them teachers and parents -- who offered their thoughts on Dixon for this story. The vast majority lauded Dixon for being approachable, listening well, and knowing how to build consensus.
Some who have worked directly with her, though, question how seriously she takes their input.
"She seemed like a nice enough person. That being said, I also felt that, like many in central office, interacting with parents was a chore for her," said one active parent who dealt with Dixon.
With a few notable exceptions, reactions to Dixon's appointment as interim superintendent ranged from cautiously optimistic to enthusiastic.
"I have noticed how morale has already improved among my co-workers," said Mary Jo Gervase, a certified school social worker in the district. "I feel [Dixon's] appointment has brought a sense of hope to the teachers, support staff and our community."
Long before August, when Williams announced his retirement, Dixon was considered the heavy favorite for the interim superintendency.
The board wanted an internal candidate.
Dixon was seen as someone who could establish trust and build consensus.
She was also the only candidate who came without major baggage.
Among the other possible interims, one had a domestic violence arrest. Another had been suspended several years ago in connection with a cheating scandal on state tests.
And another figures prominently in questions circulating about certain grant expenditures.
And so the candidate list was quickly pared down to Dixon.
She spent 10 years as a teacher before becoming supervisor of schoolwide programs and accountability for a few years.
Then, for six months under Williams, she served as acting director of curriculum. She spent two years as executive director for project initiatives, then more than three years as executive director of evaluation, accountability and project initiatives -- one of the highest-ranking administrators in City Hall.
Her background gives her an edge in some quarters.
"The fact that she came up through the ranks as a teacher will definitely give her credibility with the staff, especially the teachers," said Earl Schunk, a retired teacher.
Being a lifelong district resident and parent also wins fans.
"While that is not a qualification, I believe it speaks to her commitment and understanding of the Buffalo Public Schools," said Jo Ann Meyer, a retired school counselor.
On the other hand ...
One local education professor, who asked not to be named, voiced grave concerns about Dixon's qualifications to run the troubled district.
"Once again the Board of Education has selected someone with little-to-no experience working directly with a school board (and a highly dysfunctional one at that!), no line experience being an administrator (not even a principal!), and no experience (except for Superintendent Williams) with [union contract] negotiations," he wrote in an email.
Dixon also, he wrote, has "no experience dealing with 'difficult' administrators, little-to-no experience dealing with a district-wide budget, and I'd guess little-to-no experience dealing with city leaders."
A father questioned the board's reasons for appointing Dixon.
"The Board of Education picked a safe choice in Amber, and the cynic in me says this is because the safe choice is more likely to be manipulated," he said. "Love him or hate him, Dr. Williams wasn't manipulated by the old ways of the Buffalo Public Schools -- he didn't have friends he needed to keep happy."
>Building a career
Dixon earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Medaille College when she was 38 and landed a job teaching math at Harbor Heights School 4 in South Buffalo.
She remembers those days fondly. A teacher for 10 years, through 2001, she still frequently refers to "the teacher in me" or describes some behavior of hers, saying "it's a teacher thing."
(Many who knew her as a teacher say she was effective both in the classroom and with students she tutored one-on-one. One teacher who worked with her, though, says Dixon was too eager to report co-workers for minor rule infractions: "It was all about making herself look better by making those around her look worse.")
During those years when she was a teacher, kids at the school ate lunch in their classroom.
"We played classical music. They'd get out the chess set," she said. "I could do it with 17 or 20 [students]. You can't do that with 30."
On the opening day of school this year, what she saw in the seven schools she visited stood in stark contrast to her own classroom from years ago.
"I saw 30 to 32 children in kindergartens. That is unacceptable," she said. "The relationships you build in a class of 19 are different than relationships you build in a class of 32."
Enter Lesson No. 2, which has informed her primary goal: to reduce class size.
In other words, restore or create as many teaching positions as possible.
The importance of class size is widely debated in education circles. Parents and teachers tend to embrace the idea that smaller classes are better. But there is limited research to establish a strong scientific case for the benefits of decreasing class size.
"To really make a difference with respect to class size, you need at least two ingredients," said Catherine Cornbleth, a professor of education at the University at Buffalo. "One, you have to reduce class size dramatically. Going from 30 to 25 or 24 to 22 isn't going to matter much. You really have to get it down there.
"The other thing is, you really have to do something different. If you do the same things with 20 kids that you do with 26, why would you get different results?"
Dixon scoffs at the notion that studies could objectively settle the question of the importance of class size. What matters more to her is what she believes to be true.
"I'm a teacher, and I know class size matters. I'm a parent, and I know class size matters," she said.
To support her contention, Dixon points to a Contract for Excellence grant (for which she played a lead role) that the district used to add teachers -- and extend the school day and year, among other things -- at 17 failing schools. In four years, 13 of them improved enough to be taken off the state's watch list.
She intends to reduce both union and non-union administrative positions and use the savings to invest in more teachers.
Dixon has also begun combing through a thick blue binder detailing the district's annual $100 million or so in grant expenditures to find money that could be redirected to teacher salaries.
>Build from the bottom
Now that she is in charge, Dixon talks about remaking central office to support the schools, rather than to "run" the schools -- and almost seems to channel Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor who crusaded to decentralize and reform that city's schools.
But that's about where the similarities between the two women end.
Whereas Rhee became an icon of standards-based school reform, Dixon voices an approach that's far more palatable to the teachers union. When she was appointed, in fact, Buffalo union President Philip Rumore joked that he was afraid to be too candid about his enthusiasm for Dixon, fearing it would come across as an endorsement from him and backfire.
Buffalo's interim superintendent makes no secret of where her educational philosophy lies.
When Dixon checks Twitter on her iPhone, it's all but certain that the tweets she's following most closely are those of Diane Ravitch, one of the most vocal critics of the federal Race to the Top performance-based rewards system and standardized testing, and one of the most outspoken champions of teachers unions.
Dixon has already set up her own Twitter account, @BuffSupt. As of press time, she had not yet started tweeting. (She was waiting until she was, in fact, the interim BuffSupt.) She did, though, tip her hand as to what her followers are likely to see: retweets from Ravitch.
She sums up her philosophy with one of her favorite Ravitch tweets, which goes something like this: "We need to fix schools, not close them. We need to support teachers, not fire them. And we need to teach children, not test them."
>Part of the problem?
As much as some people like the idea of "one of our own" taking over the district, others question her ability to act as a change agent. They point out that Dixon was part of an administration that did not significantly budge a four-year graduation rate that hovers around a discouraging 50 percent overall -- and around a dismal 25 percent for black males.
Dixon responds that she was not involved with teaching and learning in recent years -- those areas fell under Oladele -- and that she tried to make improvements where she could within Williams' system.
"I certainly was part of the administration. But any chance I got, I fought for respect for the people in our community and our schools," she says. "I did have a voice, but I did not have a voice in every aspect of the organization."
Williams promoted Dixon three times. She was, in the eyes of many, one of his strongest supporters.
"She has been an administrator for a while under the ranks of Williams, who most of the teachers hated," said Tracy Cooley, an active volunteer in the schools. "I think she first has to prove she can be trusted by the staff."
Dixon's own track record has left some people skeptical, as well.
In May 2010, the state changed the day of the math test for third- through eighth-graders, from a Monday to the Thursday before and sent a memo to that effect.
Dixon later told the School Board she did not see the state's notice about the change until the day before the tests would be given.
So 14,000 students did not find out until the night before, through an automated phone call, that they would be taking a standardized test the next morning.
"That test that half the district took is half of our only measure of academic performance, progress, and health of the district in elementary and middle school," a state-level education official said. "It was also perhaps her biggest responsibility in her role at the time."
Dixon offered the board an apology when it happened.
"We'll do better next time. This was an error here. I think we've mitigated it to the extent possible," she told the board.
And that brings us to Lesson No. 3 in the story of Amber Dixon.
"I'm human. I totally make mistakes," she said. "I just try to call myself out on them once I make them."
By the numbers / A quick look at the
Buffalo Public Schools:
*Budget: $890.1 million
*Eligible for free or reduced lunch: 77 percent
*Limited English proficiency: 9 percent
*Special education: 18 percent
*Overall four-year graduation rate: 47 percent
*Four-year graduation rate for black males: 25 percent
*Students (grades 3 to 8) proficient in math: 31 percent
*Students (grades 3 to 8) proficient in English: 27 percent
Source: State Education Department and Buffalo Public Schools reports; based on most recent data available