Cathie Black is lost in Queens. Her day had started well, with the Pledge of Allegiance at a Coney Island elementary school, then a brisk walking tour of one of the city’s best middle schools, Mark Twain. Black smiles nonstop as she’s hustled from math to English to art class by Twain’s legendary no-nonsense principal, Carol Moore. When Black lingers, quizzing a teacher, Moore barks, “Come on, Chancellor!” Black is startled, then grins. “The actual question,” she says, stopping into a science class that’s charting how temperature affects the osmosis rate of cells, “is, how do we clone Ms. Moore?”
Her next stop is a high school in Jamaica. Black’s car suddenly pulls to the curb. There’s a pause, then an abrupt U-turn in the middle of a busy street, followed by a frantic acceleration onto the Belt Parkway. Usually when Black goes east, she’s headed to her $4 million house in Southampton, in a more comfortable ride. Today, she’s wedged into the backseat of a city-issued Prius. The car slows. Hesitates. Turns right … onto a service road leading into JFK airport. Has Black, just weeks into a bumpy transition from magazine-company executive to boss of the city’s fractious public-school system, already decided to hop a flight and flee?
Another U-turn, then a dash onto the Van Wyck heading north—and into total gridlock. Black’s beleaguered driver inches across two lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, then lurches for the first exit, which leads to a thicket of auto-body shops and fast-food joints. The Prius pulls up in front of Hillcrest High School, somehow only ten minutes behind schedule.
Inside, Black shakes hands and listens intently as a group of the high school’s top students praise their teachers. Hillcrest is in many ways a success story. Its student body is rich in ethnicities and languages but poor enough that 68 percent of the kids qualify for free lunch. Five years ago, with the help of a Gates Foundation grant and management direction from New Visions for Public Schools, Hillcrest’s 3,000 students were divided into seven self-contained programs, and the four-year graduation rate has climbed to 70 percent. But classrooms are crowded, and Principal Stephen Duch, who’s had to trim spending by 10 percent in the past two years, fears additional budget cuts will worsen the strain. Black steps into a room full of kids huddled around laptops, part of the city’s new “Innovation Zone” project integrating online learning with brick-and-mortar schools. She asks rapid-fire questions—“How does it compare to your regular classes? Who grades it? How long have you been in an iZone? Who monitors it? Are these their own laptops? Can they work in teams?”—but takes no notes, though she clutches a small notebook covered in bright-red suede everywhere she goes.
Black is unfailingly pleasant, if a bit distant. Until she enters a business class. The teacher, Michele Gensler, tells Black that her students are preparing for a competition in which they’ll pitch mock start-ups to adult business leaders. Black’s blue eyes shine. For the first time today, she eagerly volunteers advice.
“Just smile,” she tells the students, leaning across a cubicle wall and looking at each of them in turn—and smiling. “Smile at them, and they’ll respond to you!” The students are quiet, not sure what to make of the cheery blonde stranger in the snappy charcoal-striped pantsuit.
Black continues her mini-seminar. “Each time that you rehearse your presentation,” she says, “say it out loud. No reading!”
“Yes, that’s what they do,” Gensler says.
“Are you going first?” Black says to a girl seated in front of her. “Well, think of it this way: You don’t have to do anything after that, and you can relax!”
“Actually,” Gensler says, “she has to close too.”
Black beams. “I bet you’re going to be great!”