Right on Time

By Robert Blade ′66


ShareThis
Translate


Right on Time

Mary Laura Openshaw, running a little late, aims her big blue SUV at the parking garage beneath the state capitol building in Tallahassee, FL. A railroad-crossing-style gate and a security barrier bar the way. She’s got her window down and her magnetic stripped ID card in hand. She leans out, jiggles the card in the card reader near the gate. Nothing happens. She jiggles it again. Nothing.

A dark-uniformed guard watches, a bemused expression on his face.

“A little help here,” Openshaw says.

He saunters over, takes the card, and slides it through the reader. The gate goes up; the barrier drops. “Gentle,” he says with a grin, returning the card. “You’ve got to do it smooth and gentle.”

“Thanks,” she says, then smiles.

She steers the SUV—a rectangular Rhodes alumni sticker is on the windshield and an oval “W’04” presidential campaign remnant is on the back—to a parking place in the garage.

She glances at her watch. Her meeting with Florida Governor Jeb Bush starts in five minutes. She doesn’t want to be late.

Openshaw serves as one of Bush’s education policy advisers and directs an ambitious state program called Just Read, Florida! that aims to have all Florida children reading at grade level by 2012. Her office is in a building four or five blocks away, and she makes the drive between it and the capitol routinely. Education is a top-of-the-agenda item for Bush. Openshaw regularly meets with him and represents him before state legislative committees. The capitol garage parking spot is no small perq.

The back of her SUV holds a typical symbol of the job: a table-top sized facsimile cardboard check for $30,000 made out to “Just Read, Florida!” and presented to her at a news conference the day before by a department store chain.

Openshaw has a lean, contemporary business-casual look. She walks with long strides through the garage to the elevator leading into the capitol; over her shoulder she totes a big leather bag, stuffed with folders and papers, her cell phone and her Blackberry. She’s friendly and direct with a resonant alto voice coupled with a Mississippi Delta accent.

In public, the governor calls her “the chief reading officer of our state.” During staff and policy meetings, he calls her “M-Lo.”

How to Get to Tallahassee

 All of this is a long way and a good 15 years from Rhodes where she graduated in 1990. Openshaw—back then she was Mary Laura Salmon—was a history major who sparkled with a special love of African-American history that began because she procrastinated near the end of her sophomore year when it was time to register for fall courses.
“I really liked European history, but I was late registering,” she says. “And all the classes were filled. So I signed up for the only one that was still open—the history of the American civil rights movement.”

The professor was Kenneth C. Goings. She remembers him as a man who looks a little like Colin Powell and who ignited an interest that she still carries.

“He was such a wonderful teacher,” Openshaw says. “He was dynamic in the classroom and, at the same time, a guide on the side. He pushed me to be better.”

She took every class he offered—her favorite was a course that looked at African-American intellectual history through novels and other forms of literature. And she spent that next summer in Memphis working for him as a student assistant.

Her plan was to get a graduate degree and find a museum job, a field called “public history.” Teaching and educational issues were not on her mind.

Yet it was at Rhodes that she had her first two teaching experiences. One was through the Kinney Program. She was assigned to tutor a Snowden Elementary School fourth-grader in math.

Openshaw considers herself an innumerate, and she avoids numbers wherever possible. “I actually made it through Rhodes without taking a single real math class,” she says. “I took courses like geology, economic botany, biotechnology. Everything else was history, literature, foreign language.

“Anyway, at Snowden they saw what I was doing with math and had to do an intervention on me. They shifted me over to tutoring spelling. Turned out I was hurting that poor child more than helping him.”

Her other teaching experience was more positive: She was active in her sorority, Kappa Delta, and served as the pledge trainer, a job that involved no numbers. “I really enjoyed that,” she says. “They were excited about learning.”

After Rhodes, she went to Mississippi College and earned a master’s degree in history, but museum jobs were scarce. Instead she found a job teaching history at St. Joseph’s High School in Jackson, MS. It was an eye-opening experience.

“I had a provisional certification,” she says. “So I was taking these education courses at night and teaching during the day. The two had no relationship to each other.”

The nighttime education courses focused on mastering testing strategies and classroom management techniques that were three decades old. In her daytime high school classroom, she encountered students who were all but functionally illiterate.

“I love history and wanted my students to share that,” Openshaw says. “So I did all these classes involving primary sources, maps and things, to make the history come alive.

“But I realized that some of my students just didn’t have the reading skills. I mean they didn’t even know how to read a map’s legend. They didn’t know the difference between a river and a border.

“And I didn’t know what to do. My principal couldn’t offer any help or ideas. It’s a very helpless feeling. I got mad, finally. It was so frustrating. I didn’t know what to do.”

By this time, she had married—he was a fledgling actor—and moved with him as he pursued his career, first to Dallas, where she taught, and then to New York where she moved from the classroom to a behind-the-scenes role as a grant coordinator for the William T. Grant Foundation. She directed a program called Faculty Scholars that encouraged research into positive ways of helping students develop.

About four years ago, Openshaw and her husband (they are no longer married) moved to Tallahassee when she got a high-ranking job with the state education department directing the division of public schools. And from there, in 2002, Jeb Bush asked her to organize and lead his new statewide reading program, Just Read, Florida!

It was a good fit both professionally and personally.

Openshaw was born in Memphis in 1968, three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Soon afterward her family moved to Greenville, MS, where she learned to read when she was three.

“My sister was three years older than I and was in the first grade,” Openshaw says. “So most days, when she came home from school, I would sit with her, and she would teach me how to read.”

It opened exotic new worlds for her. As she grew older, her favorite books were Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet The Spy and E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

They brought her into wonderful new worlds. “Imagine running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” she says of Mixed-Up Files. “I loved that book.”

Reading for Pleasure

 Part of the challenge of organizing and directing Just Read, Florida! was to find ways to imbue this reading excitement into school systems and into the students they serve.

Florida regularly ranks among the bottom states in per student spending on K-12 education (one survey showed that only Arizona, Mississippi, Nevada and Utah spent less). At the same time, Gov. Bush, in both words and deeds, has made reading one of his administration’s top priorities. Since he took office, spending on education has increased by $5.9 billion, more than 50 percent. A further spur has been Bush’s brother’s No Child Left Behind Act that requires state public schools to meet certain standards in student progress.

That’s where Just Read, Florida! comes in. Openshaw’s group uses state money to sponsor reading research (it promotes a partly phonics-based method), to set up teacher and principal training programs around the state for teaching reading, and to help publicize reading through state and community programs. They are part of an effort that is paying off. State figures show that in 2004, a majority of Florida students in K-12 were reading at or above grade level; students in grades three and four reading above grade level increased from 55 percent in 2001 to 68 percent in 2004.

As a result, Just Read, Florida! is being studied and imitated around the country, and Openshaw has become a visible spokesperson. Lobbyists of all kinds, especially from the publishing industry, drop in to chat and push their pet projects.

“They all say they have the silver bullet that will solve our reading problems,” she says. “And really they are a partner in what we’re trying to do. But don’t come in here and tell me that something works on 28 white kids in Iowa. Tell me about 28 kids who are new to America and don’t speak English.”

The Just Read, Florida! office suite is on the 15th floor of an angular office building on West Gaines Street—a giant blue Just Read, Florida! banner hangs from its side. Openshaw arrives there around seven every morning and leaves around seven every evening. In between are meetings to attend, reports to be done, program details to be attended to. There’s also a heavy dose of travel around the state—hotel food and hotel rooms are part of her routine.

“I guess I’m one of the bureaucrats,” she says with a smile. “We prefer the term ‘public servant,’ but whatever, there’s just so much to do.”

Openshaw has a cheerful, sedulous professional style that lets her get her points across without being abrasive; it’s a valuable political skill and one that her boss recognizes.

“Yes, she disagrees with me,” Gov. Bush says in an e-mail note. “Yes, she speaks her mind. She’s passionate about her advocacy. Mary Laura has exceeded my expectations and has earned the respect of our education community.”

Openshaw’s desk is piled with papers; framed newspaper clippings and certificates—including her Rhodes diploma—hang from the walls. On a corner shelf, the volume turned way down, a TV set is locked on Fox news.

Barbara Elzie, Openshaw’s deputy director, has an office just around the corner from Openshaw’s and has been with the program since its start.

“She’s articulate, persuasive,” Elzie says. “She’s not an authoritarian kind of person. But she is a highly effective administrator. I’m old enough to be her mother, and I’m still impressed. She holds her ground in these meetings.”

All the encomiums notwithstanding, her frustrations sometimes show.

“Mary Laura was on the phone with a recalcitrant school district,” Elzie says. “She was trying to get them to do something they didn’t want to do. You could see her get sort of red in the face and grimacing as she talked, but you didn’t really hear it in her voice—until after she hung up.”

The stress both from the people above her and the school districts she works with are considerable.

And for relief, Openshaw pointedly refrains from exercising. “Oh, no,” she says, almost with a shudder.

Instead, to get away from it all, she reads. She can lose herself in a book the way joggers can lose themselves in their runs. She’s a voracious reader—fiction and non-fiction, tomes and bagatelles.

On her bedside table these days are Evan Wright’s Generation Kill, the story of the first Marine recon battalion to invade Iraq; Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich—this one, she says, is “for a book club I belong to where we’ve all agreed to read the classics we were supposed to read in high school but never did;” Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She also likes novels about serial killers and espionage.

And regularly every year, for the past decade and more, she re-reads three favorites: Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (read at first for a religion course at Rhodes), Ellen Gilchrist’s The Annunciation and J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.

“My copies are getting sort of dog-eared,” she says. “But every year, I see them differently. You bring your life experiences to a book. So every year I underline different parts.”

She has no set schedule for her reading and re-reading, no particular plan; it happens.

“I’m not an organizational kind of person,” she says. “You just feel the pull. These books, they’re like old friends you want to see again.”

But these old friends are for later. Right now, there’s the meeting with the governor to prepare for and, afterward, some time back in her office to make notes and catch up on the paperwork. Glancing at her watch, Openshaw walks with a lively step down the marbled capitol corridor, past a few tourists taking digital pictures of the state’s roped-off bronze seal, to the portrait-lined entrance to the governor’s offices. She is right on time.

Getting Your Kids to Read

Babies

  • Read to your baby for short periods several times a day.
  • As you read, point out things in the pictures. Name them as you point to them.
  • Cardboard or cloth books with large simple pictures of things with which babies are familiar are the best books to begin with.

Children, Ages 1-4

  • Talk with your child as you read together. Point to pictures and name what is in them. When he is ready, ask him to do the same. Ask him about his favorite parts of the story, and answer his questions about events or characters.
  • Wherever you are with your child, point out individual letters in signs, billboards, posters and books. When she is 3 to 4 years old, ask her to begin finding and naming some letters.

Children, Kindergarten

  • Read predictable books to your child. Teach him to hear and say repeating words, such as names for colors, numbers, letters and animals. Predictable books help children to understand how stories progress. A child easily learns familiar phrases and repeats them, pretending to read.
  • Practice the sounds of language by reading books with rhymes and playing simple word games (i.e. How many words can you make up that sound like the word “bat”?)

Children, First Grade

  • Point out the letter-sound relationships your child is learning on labels, boxes, newspapers and magazines.
    Listen to your child read words and books from school. Be patient and listen as he practices. Let him know you are proud of his reading.