When Cynthia Lane became the Kansas City, Kan., school district superintendent this year, she set a goal that initially struck even her biggest supporters as unrealistic.
"Our journey is to strive to be one of the top 10 districts in the country," she said.
Not in the heart of a woman who couldn't read until the seventh grade and yet has become a powerful force in Kansas education.
Never miss a local story.
The intervention she received at home and at school taught her how important it was to reach out to others.
"I had a teacher who reached out to me," she said.
Lane, 49, now spends her days and nights thinking about ACT scores that trail the state average and the 40 percent of district students who are not reaching basic achievement standards.
As teachers returned for the school year earlier this month, she told them that the district's goals would be difficult — but hardly impossible.
"We are already among the best urban school districts in the country," she said.
To begin accomplishing the goals, administrators this month unveiled a new curriculum that was aligned not just with the state assessment tests, but also the ACT, a college entrance exam.
The curriculum has goals for students and educators. The district will conduct "checkpoints" every four weeks to make sure educators identify and address learning difficulties immediately. The checkpoints will allow the district to take what Lane calls a "laser-like" approach to teaching and learning.
"To get different results, you've got to take bold steps," Lane said.
The district recently moved 50 percent of the teaching staff at one underperforming middle school to other buildings. Yet the move drew little public reaction in a district accustomed to new approaches.
As Lane pushes her goal to be a top 10 district in the nation, there are plenty of skeptics.
Even Board of Education member Richard Kaminski, who called Lane the best superintendent candidate he had seen in more than a dozen years of sitting on search committees, questioned the goal. He noted the district had not met less lofty goals in the past.
"What makes you think that we're going to make (these) goals?" Kaminski asked at a board meeting in July. "I mean really, I just want to be realistic. It is frustrating for me that we're not meeting these goals."
Lane didn't flinch.
"The thing that really is different here, Mr. Kaminski, is that we have expectations for the adults' growth as well," she said about teachers.
"Keep pushing us," Lane told him. "We need that to make sure our students are going to be successful."
Mayor Joe Reardon gave his support when he spoke at the district's employee back-to-school rally, and local leaders applauded her efforts.
"I don't know anyone who has such passion for these kids," said Randy Callstrom, executive director of PACES, an agency dedicated to helping youngsters with emotional and behavioral health concerns and their families. "Cindy is always looking at how she can do things differently for kids."
Lane said she would not reach her goal without help from the community and parents.
"People will say to me, 'Good luck. You've got a big job ahead of you.' Thank you, but I don't need luck," because of a well-trained and able staff, she tells them.
"And then I say to them, 'Are you ready to help us?' "
Lane wants to see the district do more to encourage parent interaction with schools. She knows many parents hold down several jobs to make ends meet, but engagement in a child's education can meet any schedule, she said.
Lane also encourages parents to get their children reading. The practice had a profound impact on her life.
"Reading is the gateway. The ticket to life," she said.
Lane said it was her mother and a seventh-grade teacher who helped her decode the concept of reading.
She grew up in a small Kansas town where her teachers cared about her school work, but they didn't realize the full extent of her reading deficiency. Lane got by because she could sight read and recognize many words, so she never felt truly behind in classes.
"I didn't learn to read until I was in the seventh grade," Lane said.
She praises her seventh-grade teacher and her mother for teaching her how to learn.