New Orleans Magazine editors selected Anthony Amato, the last superintendent of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina school system, a Person To Watch in 2003 – before Hurricane Katrina changed everything. In the same year (January ’03), then-Mayor Nagin also snared a win in the category of favorite politician in a readers’ poll.
When Amato heard that he’d overshadowed the mayor, he feared the worst. “Here’s my death knell,” he recalls thinking at the time. “It was a great honor,” he says, “but I wanted to be under the radar.
The more you’re up there, the bigger target you are.”
Amato spent more than two years trying to rectify years of poor management and financial waste. He dealt with state auditors, an FBI probe, an unhappy governor and a host of state officials who threatened to seize New Orleans schools. In the 2004 article about Amato, New Orleans Magazine Editor-in-Chief Errol Laborde wrote, “school board politics can be a viper’s nest;” an accurate description of the hostility that engulfed the board that hired him.
Dealing with the feds and bankruptcy troubled Amato less than the corruption he discovered in the classroom. One day he learned from a student that a teacher had offered to give him an A for $500.
“My head blew, my heart blew apart. Tears came to my eyes,” he says. “That was the level of corruption that was rampant at the time.”
Not long after that, a newly elected school board, under fire for operating academically failing schools, asked him to leave.
“It wasn’t personal,” says Phyllis Landrieu who had just been elected to the board. “It was the whole situation. We needed to reorganize internally as well.”
Amato, a mild-mannered man who describes his leadership style as “collaborative,” took his ouster in stride. “When you make changes, you step on people’s feet,” he says of the months leading up to his departure. “You just accept it.”
He left New Orleans a few weeks before Katrina struck in 2005 and went on to supervise two other troubled districts, but now he’s back. In ’10, he became head of school for the International High School of New Orleans, a charter now located in the Central Business District.
As the son of a Puerto Rican immigrant and native Spanish speaker, he was an obvious choice to run a school with the word “international” in its name, but some might view his present position as several steps down the career ladder. He went from taking charge of systems of between 25,000 and 63,000 students to supervising 167 at the time of his appointment.
Nonetheless, he says he’s living the happiest years of his educational journey.
As the head of a semi-autonomous charter school governed by a non-elected school board, political distractions are non-existent. He is also working with a go-getting staff that speaks 13 different languages. The most fulfilling change of all, he says, is dealing face-to-face with students again.
It has been more than 40 years since he started his career as a bilingual teacher of math and science in Bronx, New York, and over 25 years since he has been principal of a school. He has served as superintendent of five school districts since 1987. He and his family moved from New York to Hartford, Conn., and then to New Orleans, then to Kansas City and then Stockton, Calif. After Stockton, he was planning to take a position in Texas when his wife and seven children informed him that they wanted to return to New Orleans.
“They outvoted me, totally, even the dog outvoted me,” Amato says. “He raised his paw. I don’t know how they did that.”
Since his arrival at the International High School, the student population has more than tripled – from 167 to 500 – with students coming from 23 different countries. It also moved from Uptown to a downtown historic art deco-styled building close to the National World War II museum, the Contemporary Arts Center and Lafayette Park, where physical education classes are held. Students have the opportunity to visit some of the city’s finest art exhibits, and some are trained docents at the Ogden Museum.
As part of the school’s mission to create “global citizens,” it offers language immersion classes in Spanish and French, the rigorous International Baccalaureate degree and instruction in Arabic and Mandarin Chinese. One of the school’s students, Sarauniya Zulu, won third place in the National China Bridge competition and is scheduled to compete in Beijing this fall.
Tests scores are also on the rise. This year the proficiency rate for all tested subjects increased from 42 to 56 percent, a 14 percent change. Education Now, an online informational source for education, listed it as one of the most improved schools in the area.
The school also shares classrooms with Bard College, a northeastern liberal arts college that provides free college instruction to selected New Orleans high school students.
“I was very happy to host them here,” Amato says. “Bard is the classiest classical college in America. It’s a very significant symbol for us.”
Even though Amato has led some of the most challenging urban districts in America, starting with a Manhattan district of 27,000 students, the International High School is his first charter school experience and it has changed his perspective about the best way to run schools.
Because charter schools are independent public schools, authority and accountability rest with the school leader, not centralized office staff that rarely visits schools. As a charter leader, Amato says he can allocate the school budget according to its specific needs, not according to a packaged plan dictated from above. “I personally do a lot of the work,” he says. “I put the firepower in the classroom.”
If he ever takes a district superintendent’s role again, he says he would use the charter model. “My eyes have been opened to the future.”