DURHAM — If a song could sum up Ann Denlinger's tour as superintendent of Durham Public Schools, she would exit her post to Frank Sinatra's signature tune, "My Way."
Like the late Chairman of the Board, Denlinger ignored the expectations of others. She spent the last weeks before the start of her retirement today on vacation. She skipped her final board meeting, robbing her vocal critics of one last verbal shot. She shunned media requests for the obligatory final interview, saying she was finished and did not feel the need to look back.
That has been Denlinger's style during her rocky nine-year tenure leading the state's seventh largest school system. She does things on her terms and does not mind stepping on a few toes if she thinks something will improve student achievement.
Her many and varied supporters say this trait gave Denlinger a laser-like focus and an unwavering commitment to not let politics sidetrack her even as she became the target of increasingly brutal criticism. Her detractors, just as varied and numerous, say she was a cold autocrat, unbending and disinterested in the concerns and ideas of others.
"Ann has a certain level of stubbornness about her," said Mayor Bill Bell. "In a way, it has worked for her, because when she becomes focused on something, you can't see anything take her off it, and that's the reason we've seen the [academic] gains. In some ways, I think that might have hurt her, also."
Denlinger's handprint has indelibly defined a district that was but a few years old when she took over.
There are fabulous highs. Under Denlinger, Durham schools have improved by almost every academic indicator. SAT scores are the highest in district history, as are the numbers of students reading at grade level. Durham has become a go-to district for school systems looking to learn more about innovative small high schools. She launched the state's only districtwide program to give novice teachers full-time teacher mentors.
"When I think about the improvements that have been made for student achievement, particularly for those who had the farthest to go, it is truly remarkable," said Kathryn Meyers former school board chairwoman. "I believe our community owes her a great debt, a great thanks."
But there are crushing lows. Denlinger is leaving a district that this year will face state sanctions for the number of schools failing to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards. And a state judge has threatened to shut down or force restructuring of two high schools because their performance on state tests has for years been among the worst in North Carolina.
"This is an issue that ultimately falls upon the leader of Durham Public Schools," said Jack Gibson, president of Durham's PTA Council. "Yet I don't remember [her] stepping up and saying, 'This has happened on my watch. This is my fault, and I could have done better.' "
Durham Public Schools was still in its infancy when Denlinger took over in 1997. The majority white county system and predominantly black city schools had been merged by county commissioners just six years before her arrival. A student reassignment plan aimed at integrating the schools had been put in play, and white flight was well under way.
The remnants of that painful birth scripted Denlinger's entrance. During the superintendent search, rumors spread that Denlinger had problems working with blacks while superintendent in Wilson. Ugly accusations appeared in the newspaper, and civil rights organizations came out against her. The school board split along racial lines in a tumultuous meeting to select Denlinger.
"I think from the first time she walked into Durham, she walked into a firestorm," said Meyers, the former board chairwoman who voted to hire Denlinger. "You walk into that with body armor; you don't have time to be gentle."
From the beginning, Denlinger made it clear that she would run things her way, said Mozell Robinson Knight, a former school board member who voted against hiring the superintendent. Denlinger fought setting a 2007 deadline for schools to have 95 percent of all children reading at grade level, but not because she didn't believe in it, Knight said.
"Dr. Denlinger did not like to be boxed in," Knight said. "I think that was just her personality, not wanting to be dictated to or appear to be dictated to."
Eventually, Denlinger embraced the deadline. And critics and supporters alike say that when Denlinger decides she wants to do something, little can stop her. She moved Durham from a district with a dreadful literacy record to one that competes with other Triangle districts.
Denlinger's autocratic image is belied by an uncanny knack of finding the right people to get the job done, supporters say. She filled her central office with leaders who share her drive. Principals called her a "principal's superintendent," one who supported them and did not rule from a downtown office.
But while Denlinger excelled in some areas, she received failing marks in others.
Denlinger worked very hard to forge relationships with business, universities and prominent parents. Her connections brought more money, equipment and expertise into the school system. But some say she put forth little effort in reaching out to grass-roots groups and parents with lesser status.
In her annual reviews, Denlinger earned low marks in communication, even from board members who were staunch supporters. At school board meetings, she would often refuse to acknowledge board members or parents who offered criticism. And if she didn't like what someone was saying, Denlinger had a cutting way with words that could make an adult feel like a chided child.
At times, she booted principals and installed their replacements without consulting the parent and teacher groups that usually take part in selecting school leadership. Parents raised a ruckus a few years back when she decided to change Mangum Elementary to a year-round school without asking their opinions -- eventually, the board overruled her. In 2004, Denlinger angered parents when she announced that the district was changing high school scheduling without giving them a say.
In what would be her final year as superintendent, Denlinger's relations with some board members and certain segments of the community deteriorated. A tiny but vocal group of parents made it their mission to hurl nasty insults at her during board meetings. They picketed her at places where she was receiving awards. In their eyes, Denlinger could do no right for black children -- even though under her leadership black students made the greatest gains of all students.
During a school board meeting in October, Denlinger said she woke up one day and realized it was time to retire. She built a house in Raleigh and will do consulting work.
In a May meeting with The News & Observer editorial board, Denlinger was asked what she could have done better.
"I have reached all of my goals. I have no regrets," she said, her back straight and her tone a tad defiant. "I would have done nothing differently."
Staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones can be reached at 956-2433 or nikole.hannahjones@ newsobserver.com.