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SCHOOLS CHIEF VOWS TO KEEP ASKING, `WHY?'

After her parents' divorce, Darline Robles attended seven different elementary schools in the Los Angeles area as her mother sought better jobs and safer housing for her two children.

"I was always questioning why certain things didn't happen to me. I think for a long time as a child, I wondered why no one asked about me or wondered why I'd gone to so many schools. That bothered me," Robles said.She vowed if she became an educator, she'd ask those questions. As superintendent of Salt Lake City School District, she's still asking those questions.

When research presented to the district school board in March suggested more than 300 minority students in Salt Lake district high schools in 11th grade did not complete their senior year of high school, Robles called for a comprehensive dropout study.

When the Utah State Board of Education passed a new school attendance rule that effectively squeezed some site-based school calendars out of existence, the Salt Lake district was first in line to seek a waiver. The request was denied, but Robles sent a message she is unafraid to wage political battles.

Education pundits recognized that propensity early in Robles' Utah debut. Scarcely unpacked from her move from California, Robles became a fixture on Capitol Hill during the Legislature, urging lawmakers to earmark funding for at-risk students.

"She came in January and went right up there, which was very unusual. I'm not sure how much they listened to her because it was her first time up there, but I think she'll be a strong force for teachers and students," said Elaine Tzourt-zouk-lis, president of the Salt Lake Teachers Association.

In her first six months as superintendent of the state's sixth largest district, Robles has become known as a listener, consensus builder and a tireless advocate for children.

Robles meets regularly with representatives of the teachers association and other employees' organizations, a first in the Salt Lake district tradition.

"As far as the first six months, they've been really great for us. She's opened up channels we haven't had before. When our teachers call her, she calls them back, which is different," Tzourt-zouk-lis said.

As the first permanent superintendent of the district since John Bennion stepped down in the fall of 1994, Robles puts in long days as she sifts through pending issues.

"The hard part for me is trying to get a history - what's true and what isn't true. Two years go by and things tend to get exaggerated. So that way, I tend to be slower in making decisions than I'm used to," Robles said.

"But the community has been very willing to give me the time to do what I have to do. Eventually, like me or not like me, they'll get a decision out of me."

Robles' workaholic tendencies became evident this spring during the district's budgeting process when she requested an increase in her staff's budget.

"You have a superintendent who creates work. My style is very hands on," Robles told the school board in making her pitch. "As the staff will tell you, I answer every letter and telephone call."

Robles attempts to spend each weekend with her family, either flying to Los Angeles to visit or hosting them in Utah. Robles' husband, a Pacific Bell executive, and son have remained in California.

Frequent telephone calls and visits help Robles cope with the limits of her commuter marriage. Mostly, she tries to keep busy.

"Usually the first day back is the toughest. If I come back and go straight into work and get busy, it's a little easier," she said.

There's been no shortage of issues to delve into, the West High School dispute perhaps the most controversial. The issue started over a Jewish student's complaints about the selection of Christian songs for the a cappella choir's holiday concert.

This spring, the matter mushroomed into a lawsuit. The plaintiff obtained a federal court order to block the performance of two "devotional" songs during the school's graduation exercises. Some students and parents defied the court order and sang one of the songs anyway, an act of civil disobedience that captured national media attention.

"I expected there would be a reaction locally. I didn't expect all the national or statewide attention it received. It took on a life of its own," she said.

"My concern right now is to make sure West High gets off on a positive note. There's 1,500 to 1,600 students there who have a lot of pride and deserve that."

In her first six months on the job, Robles has visited every school in the district. She has appointed four new elementary school principals, meeting with the school communities before making each appointment. She plans to directly supervise all principals, which will help keep her apprised of important building-level decisions.

In her next six months, Robles plans to "get a handle" on site-based management, everything from programs to facilities.

"Another thing I'm working on is how do I improve staff development for teachers? That, to me, is the biggest challenge. We only have so many hours in the day. How do we do that? I really believe whatever I do has to impact the teachers and students," Robles said.

Even though she is the only minority, one of only two women and among just three non-Mormons now serving as district superintendents in Utah, Robles said the state superintendents association has welcomed her, despite individual differences.

"When you're a superintendent here, there so few of us, you know what the others are going through. Big or small, we still basically have the same issues to deal with," Robles said.

Robles recently started taking golf lessons, in part, to force herself to occasionally leave the job and admittedly, to help her pal around with the other 39 superintendents statewide.

Asked about her golf game, Robles said coyly, "I hit a bird."

"You mean a birdie, right?" this reporter probed.

"No, a bird," she said, wincing. "But, I told them (fellow superintendents) to put it down as a birdie."