Percy Clark Jr. likes a challenge.
He knows how to turn tough times into good times.
As a youth, he traveled to his grandparents' place in southern Alabama each summer and registered black voters during the civil rights movement.
As a superintendent, he made a second-rate Indiana school district so attractive that families moved into town so their children could attend.
And he bounced back after a romantic relationship with a subordinate nearly doomed his career.
When Clark takes over as superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District on Wednesday, he brings with him a reputation for making the impossible possible. A turnaround wizard, so to speak.
But even Clark concedes that Pasadena Unified, which ranks in the bottom third of districts in the state, may be his toughest challenge. Still, he exudes optimism.
"I think this school district is waiting to happen," said Clark, 59, a burly former college linebacker with a doctorate in education, who delivers motivational speeches that Tony Robbins would envy. "There is a lot of energy here for excellence."
Though Pasadena is the home of Caltech, half a dozen Nobel laureates and many of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's rocket scientists, that academic excellence isn't reflected in the public schools. In the 23,600-student district, nearly a quarter of the teachers are on emergency credentials--almost twice the state average. Administrators are far more numerous than average elsewhere, and test scores lag.
After a yearlong search, Clark was selected by a newly elected school board with a mandate to overhaul the district that serves Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre.
It is a community where for more than two decades many wealthy and middle-class parents have sent their children to private schools instead of public schools.
"We wanted someone with a proven track record of success. This isn't a learn-as-you-go situation," said Mike Babcock, school board vice president and former principal of Pasadena's renowned private Polytechnic School. "He brought a lot of people together in Indiana and generated a belief in students and teachers. He turned their schools into some of the strongest anywhere."
Babcock said Clark's $170,000 annual salary--about $35,000 more than his predecessor earned--reflects the need to get the best person for the job.
From 1982 to 1996, Clark served as superintendent of the Lawrence Township School District, a 15,000-student suburban Indianapolis system.
Under his leadership, test scores climbed, the school year grew longer, and he created a math and science magnet school and an elementary campus dedicated to international studies, where students learned foreign languages. He won praise across the spectrum, from the Urban League to Indiana's Republican Sen. Richard Lugar.
"People come to Lawrence because of the school system and that school system was built by Percy Clark," said Tom Schneider, mayor of Lawrence. "He is by far the most aggressive and innovative superintendent I have met. He is always ready for the challenge."
Clark's appreciation for challenges began early in life. At age 10, his family bought a farm in Bangor, Mich., a rural community where it was the only African American family.
Much of Clark's drive in early life was chiseled by his summers in southern Alabama with his grandparents--"a time when Rosa Parks was deciding to take the front seat of the bus," he said. In the 1960s, Clark said, he signed up black voters in Alabama when such activity could prove deadly.
In Pasadena, he said, he plans to create an education movement that would have the same sense of mission as the civil rights movement. Four out of five Pasadena students are minorities, and nearly two-thirds receive free meals at school.
His belief in the power of teachers and coaches was fostered at Western Michigan University. "I had planned to go to law school," he said. He became a substitute teacher to earn money, but "I fell in love with education."
Clark describes his first job, teaching 39 students in Michigan, as being right out of "Welcome Back Kotter." This fall, he'll work a half-day each week as a substitute teacher, as will all his administrators, to bring them closer to the classrooms.
"We've got to make a strong statement that teachers are important," he said. "Overall, I don't think our teachers feel appreciated."
Clark took the helm in Lawrence after it had received a court order to integrate its schools. Few teachers wanted to work there.
He said he emphasized not just good teaching, academic achievement and universal math and reading programs, but also building a better self-image.
"Lawrence had an inferiority complex. They didn't walk the walk and talk the talk," he said.
In time, Lawrence's standardized test scores were the best in the county.
At the peak of his success, Clark fell from grace. He resigned, with the school board accusing him of lying about his romantic relationship with an elementary school principal.
After the board suspended him and a day before his resignation, Clark was rushed to the hospital after an overdose of prescription medication.
"I made a mistake. I could call it a mistake of the heart. But I didn't totally disclose to my board my relationship with a member of the staff," he said. "And that's wrong, as a board has to know everything.
"It was a very hard fall for my family," said the married father of three. "I made a serious mistake."
Clark rebounded by joining a foundation and then became a regional director for Edison Schools, a for-profit company that operates public schools.
That experience, Pasadena board members say, makes him a good choice to implement reforms recommended by an auditor and a citywide task force.
Clark has held 43 meetings with local leaders. He's talking about changing school admission boundaries to keep students nearer to their neighborhoods and starting partnerships with other institutions.
Though Clark doesn't believe he alone can bring change, he does think leadership makes a difference.
"Why are the Lakers winning?" he asks. "Does the coach have anything to do with it?"