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The architect of educational overhaul

State Education Commissioner John Winn may be the most important person you've never heard of.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 25, 2005

Picture One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with live oaks and azaleas.

Picture a young John Winn, Florida's education commissioner, as the anti-Nurse Ratched.

Thirty years before the FCAT and school grades and Florida's education overhaul, Winn, a coldly confident 20-year-old at Florida State University, was entrusted with a delicate task: take charge of the women's ward at the state mental hospital in Tallahassee. Try a new way of improving the lives of its patients.

Try, in fact, to teach them.

On Day 1, Winn was propositioned by a 92-year-old. The hospital staff was hostile. He knew he had to do something quick.

So he did: He ripped into a bag of candy corn.

Intense, and intensely private

John Winn may be the most important person Floridians have never heard of.

Hate the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test? Hate school grades? How about private school vouchers, third-grade retention or the elimination of race-based admissions in Florida universities?

Blame Gov. Jeb Bush first. Then blame Winn.

Behind the scenes, Winn has been the architect for one of the most establishment-rattling education revamps in the country. "A master technician," says former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan.

And one with a national profile.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings tapped Winn first when she set up a panel to study the grading formula for No Child Left Behind, the monumental federal education law. And two months ago, the nonprofit Education Commission of the States honored Florida with its top award for education policy - an honor that says a lot about both Bush, a Republican who has rammed through his vision of reform, and Winn, the obsessive wonk with the goggles and test tubes.

Winn has had "the opportunity to see every kind of education reform, and Florida has been the ultimate laboratory," says Jim Horne, who preceded Winn as education commissioner.

Yet many Florida teachers don't recognize Winn's name. Heading into his second year on the job, he remains the lowest-profile education commissioner in decades.

Part of it is Winn himself.

Serious, intense, intensely private - even people who have known Winn for years come to different conclusions about whether he's steely or not, funny or not, religious or not, a political animal or not. In a town where lots of bright people work 12-hour days, Tallahassee insiders describe Winn as brilliant and driven. But beyond that?

They might recognize the runner's lean frame, the trim goatee, the North Florida accent that lingers on "la" when Winn says "latte." Maybe they've strained to hear the volume-dropping voice Board of Education Chairman Phil Handy, a Winn fan, likens Winn to the "low talker" from a Seinfeld episode. Maybe they've gotten a taste of what Winn himself calls his corny sense of humor: "The charm is not that expensive," he told Spellings at a press conference, as he put a bracelet on her wrist featuring the Florida state seal, "but it's the thought that counts." (Awwwwwwwwww went the room.)

But more illuminating details about Winn are hard to come by.

Winn offered some in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. Associates yielded others. But with Winn, it's still hard to tell how much the personal is political.

Asked as much in a followup e-mail, he didn't respond.

But ask Winn about test scores, the role of the commissioner, the changing tenor of his department ... then he is happy to riff.

When forced to "choose between institutional interests, or association interests, or school district interests, or teacher union interests, and student achievement," Winn says in his 15th floor office overlooking Tallahassee, "student achievement wins every time."

High expectations

As an FSU undergraduate, Winn was competent enough to run the school's payroll computer. As a young man, he cared enough about civil rights to take a race relations class at historically black Florida A&M University. He concedes he took part in a demonstration or two when FSU was the "Berkeley of the South." He says he was not a hippie.

Today, Winn has a wife, a ranch-style house, four grown daughters and two dogs.

Above all else, he considers himself a teacher.

Subject: education. Class: the entire state. "Eighty percent of leadership is teaching," he says.

Some people know Winn spent years in the classroom, but most have no idea he stumbled on to the profession. Some know he has a visual impairment, but don't know how it shaped him.

Pretty much nobody knows about the candy corns.

Some say the link between Winn's biography and education outlook is obvious: the mantra about high standards and students rising to meet them. The insistence that students with disabilities and language hurdles pass the FCAT like everyone else.

Last year, school districts smacked by hurricanes pleaded for their students to be exempted from The Test. But Winn said no, they'll do fine. And in the end, the storm-struck districts did better on the FCAT than the fair-weathered ones.

Winn's background "gives him an affinity and an appreciation (for marginalized students) that most of us don't have," says Betty Coxe, a former deputy commissioner at the Education Department.

Critics learn different lessons.

Some point to Winn's 20 years at the department, his ability to thrive under seven different commissioners, his close ties to Bush. Lesson: He's "a company man," says Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Miami Democrat who led the movement for the class-size amendment.

Others say a compelling personal story doesn't make up for bad policy.

They point to Florida's low graduation rates, its cellar-dweller status in education spending. They discount evidence that suggests in the early grades, at least, Florida students are gaining on their national peers.

"Whoop-de-damn-do," says Pinellas teachers union chief Jade Moore.

Even some supporters are starting to wonder if the administration's hard line is too hard. Winn recently threatened to withhold millions of dollars from school districts that don't follow orders on charter schools and performance pay for teachers.

"More and more," says state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who heads the House Education Council, "I see that teachers and administrators will have to be the agents of change, not the objects of change."

Who knows whether Winn worries how other people see him.

But the fact is, Winn has never seen things the way other people do.

A tough shell

Winn was born with a defective optic nerve. He doesn't need a Seeing Eye dog or use a cane, but the state considers him so visually impaired he is not allowed to drive a car.

It's not something he discusses freely.

"It's interesting," says Winn's oldest daughter, Sherry Kitchens. "I'm not saying he didn't have to make adjustments, but he never made it an issue. ... There was never, "Well, I can't take you there because I can't."'

When he was a boy in Tallahassee, Winn's mother enrolled him in a school for the blind. But she changed course when she realized students there were only being taught what Winn panned as "basic life skills."

Mom's decision to mainstream Winn left him with a tough shell. Kids teased him. Big brother protected him. Mom told him to suck it up.

Winn says his impairment forced him to plan, plan, plan. On the high school debate team, he outstudied his rivals, then ripped them to shreds.

Even now, he won't be outworked.

Horne says as education commissioner he wanted to be the first person in the Turlington Building and the last to leave. But Winn, his chief of staff, would pore over reports until late into the night, then, after a 16-hour day, greet Horne in the morning.

"He'd say, "You ever think about the correlation of this and this and that?"' Horne says. "And I'd say, "Let it go! Let it go!"'

An inventive approach

Sunland, it was called.

Winn, an undergraduate majoring in psychology and philosophy, was assigned to the now-defunct mental health facility with a few other FSU students, all with idealistic notions about better living through behavior modification. Winn got the women's ward.

Some of the 40 patients were mentally retarded; some, psychotic. Most did not eat with utensils. Eight were not toilet trained.

For help, they got pills.

"If you think state government is bad now, imagine having a hospital for ostensibly disabled, largely mentally retarded people ... and not having any psychologists," Winn says.

Winn knew he had to win the nurses over. So he tapped his inner teacher.

Cue the candy corn.

In the short term, he knew using his favorite treat as a reward to change patient behavior would be more work. But in the long run, he thought the staff, too, would benefit.

"I said, "Look, if they're toilet trained, you don't have to wash soiled clothes, you don't have to mop the floor,"' Winn says.

The staff was skeptical.

But three weeks later, all but one woman was toilet trained.

The accidental teacher

Winn never dreamed of being a teacher.

In 1970, he had just begun graduate school at the University of Florida. His first wife was pregnant and hospitalized repeatedly for dehydration. The couple needed health insurance.

Forty miles away, Putnam County was integrating its schools, teachers first, and white teachers were resigning in protest.

Winn was assigned to Central Academy, an all-black elementary school in Palatka, a blue-collar, blue-crab kind of town of 10,000 people on the banks of the St. John's River. The district paid $6,000 a year.

"They were desperate," Winn says.

He got a temporary teaching certificate, joined the PTA, shot for the moon: "I was going to make all these kids Ph.D.s," he says.

But teaching turned out to be far tougher than he imagined.

A veteran teacher, Evelyn Green, watched the young man with thick glasses struggle. But she sensed sincerity and eagerness. She offered to help.

Winn was "an aggressive learner," says Green, now 78 and still living in Palatka.

From Green, Winn learned tips on classroom management, on discipline, on the subtle art of unfolding a lesson plan.

She saw improvement. Winn did not.

On a self-evaluation at the end of the year, he gave himself failing marks.

After Central Academy, Winn went back to school. He immersed himself in a branch of philosophy known as linguistic analysis, did brain crunches with heavies like Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Two years later, he had all the course work completed for a Ph.D. and visions of an office in an ivory tower. Then the economy tanked. Nobody needed another Sartre expert.

Winn returned to teaching.

A few years later, he joined the Department of Education as a $20,859-a-year program specialist in dropout prevention - the first step on a 20-year climb.

Along the way, Winn never forgot his mentor.

Days after starting the commissioner's job last September, he paid a visit to Palatka and invited Green to a ceremony. He announced a reading grant, then singled out Green for praise and yellow roses.

"Nothing like' teaching

Floridians will elect a new governor next year, but Winn says he has no plans for moving on. The education commissioner serves at the pleasure of the Board of Education, and the board remains supportive despite a roller coaster start.

Winn couldn't convince the U.S. Department of Education to bridge the disconnect between the federal grading system and Florida's. The Legislature shot down Bush's education package.

The FCAT, meanwhile, threatens to become a broken record, with elementary school students making strides, again, and middle and high school students foundering, again.

"Unless some other challenge suckers me in," Winn says. "I hope in the next three years or so I'll be able to make some inroads on secondary education."

After that?

Winn is training to be a guardian ad litem for abused children. He plans to be a community mediator.

He wants to return to the classroom, too.

Not full time. A class or two. Middle school science.

Why teaching? "There's nothing like it in the world," he says. He leaves it at that.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

JOHN L. WINN

Age: 56

Birthplace: Brunswick, Ga.

Family: Wife, Mary; four grown daughters, Sherry, Casey, Liza, Irene; two Labrador retrievers, Sydney, Gregory.

Education: Bachelor's degree in psychology and philosophy, Florida State University; master's in philosophy, University of Florida; graduate studies in curriculum, evaluation and education at FSU and UF.

Annual salary: $205,000

Previous bosses: Ralph Turlington, Betty Castor, Doug Jamerson, Frank Brogan, Charlie Crist, Tom Gallagher, Jim Horne.

Indulgence: One Starbucks latte per day. ("A grande, not the grande kahuna.")

Getaway: Jogs three to four times a week.

Last car: 1963 Plymouth Valiant. (Winn was able to drive for a few years in the 1970s under a state program that allowed some people with visual impairments to drive if they had certain corrective contact lenses and glasses.)

Movie choice: The Big Chill.

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