EW YORK -- Claire McIntee's school in Little Neck, Queens, was small enough that she was able to remember each student's name, safe enough that she was able to focus all her energies on teaching, not security.
In her 13 years as principal of Public School 94, Ms. McIntee became one of the most admired administrators in District 26, an independent-minded school district that hugs the Long Island border in northeastern Queens and consistently records the city's highest reading and math scores.
And like her school, the district often seemed an independent enclave, sheltered from the problems afflicting other school districts. So it may not be a surprise to hear Ms. McIntee say she was unprepared for the recent political swirl surrounding her choice as the district's new superintendent.
But Ms. McIntee, who describes herself as very private and a political neophyte, was nonetheless caught in the crosswinds created by an unusually assertive school district and a newly empowered schools chancellor.
"Maybe there was a little naivete on my part that if you come to this level, that's not what you'd expect," she said. "There is a very strong political element to this. So I guess I should have been better prepared for it. I am now."
In May, District 26, which includes the suburban neighborhoods of Little Neck, Douglaston and Bayside, chose Ms. McIntee, 57, as superintendent from a pool of five finalists and submitted her nomination to Chancellor Rudy Crew. Crew, after reviewing her application and interviewing her in person for about 15 minutes, vetoed the nomination, exercising for the first time the authority that the state Legislature granted him last year. Under the old system, local school boards selected their chief administrator.
Crew said that Ms. McIntee, whose school has an enrollment of 340 children, lacked the administrative experience to run a district of 20 elementary and 5 middle schools and 16,000 students.
There was an uproar in the district -- teachers passed out leaflets in supermarkets on weekends, parents enlisted local politicians to lobby for Ms. McIntee and about 300 people gathered at a rally in her support.
On Monday, Crew agreed to grant her a one-year term instead of the standard three-year-contract. At the end of the year, her performance will be reviewed.
Some school officials speculated that Crew initially rejected the district's nomination because he favored another candidate or because the school board submitted only one name. But as Ms. McIntee visited schools in her district during her first week as superintendent, she said she did not want to dwell on the past.
"He said it was the top district and he said he wanted to get someone with more global experience," she said. "I have to take him at face value."
Parents and school officials in the district described Ms. McIntee as a quiet, though strong, consensus builder, to whom other principals instinctively turned for advice. In a district where parents and teachers take education very seriously, Carol Gresser, the Board of Education member from Queens who lives a few blocks from P.S. 94, said that she had "never heard anyone say anything negative about Claire McIntee."
At the school, Ms. McIntee attended every event, said Marta Agosti, the president of the school's PTA At an annual autumn festival, she would dress as Bugs Bunny, a witch or a pumpkin, and the children tried to guess her true identity.
Ms. McIntee greeted students each morning. "There are parents who can't leave without saying hi to her," said Mrs. Agosti, who moved from Jackson Heights to District 26 seven years ago because of her children. "After we moved here, people would say: 'Oh, your children are in P.S. 94. You have Claire McIntee. You're so lucky."' Mrs. Agosti added: "She looks very friendly, very approachable. People who don't know her think it's lack of strength."
After Ms. McIntee was born in the Bronx, her family moved to Pelham, N.Y., where she was educated in Roman Catholic schools. She received a bachelor's degree from the College of New Rochelle, a master's degree from Fordham University and a degree in school administration from Lehman College.
Before coming to Queens, she worked for four years in the early 1980s for a Board of Education division that advised troubled schools and as a teacher in the Bronx for 17 years. Frank Macchiarola, an educator who was schools chancellor when she worked for the Board of Education, said Ms. McIntee's background was typical of a district superintendent's.
Among real estate brokers in Queens, "District 26" are magic selling words, akin to "park view," "southern exposure" or "24 hour doorman" in Manhattan. District 26, the sales pitch goes, offers top schools without Nassau County's high property taxes or private school tuitions.
As a result, District 26's superintendent is under enormous pressure, said Gail Cohen, co-president of a council that represents the district's parents.
"Parents will not hesitate to call the superintendent if they are unhappy," Mrs. Cohen said, adding that parents at Public School 26 had done so when test scores fell two years ago.
Ms. McIntee cited a changing school population as one of the challenges now facing the district. Until a decade ago, the district was nearly all white; now it is about 38 percent Asian, with blacks and Hispanics accounting for about 11 percent each. Some newcomers lacking English fluency excel in math and the sciences, and classes must be tailored to their particular needs, she said.
What's more, as recently as five years ago, underused school buildings were being closed. But overcrowding has now become a problem as the district's reputation has attracted younger families with their children and educational expectations, Ms. McIntee said.
"I saw it in my little school," she said. "Parents would come to me and say, 'In my church in Flushing, I heard about 94 and I heard it's in the northern corner of the district.' And they would be very eager to get their children into the school. I will see it more in how pervasive it is in the district."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company