Patricia Harvey swept into office as St. Paul Public Schools superintendent in 1999 with an agenda to end social promotion for struggling students and to hold schools accountable for chronically low test scores. By the time Harvey left in 2006, the district was basking in five years of climbing scores and a flourishing reputation as an urban district on the rise.

Harvey died Feb. 24 in Alexandria, Va. She was 72.

Years after she left the district, a collection of photographs of Harvey with schoolchildren of all colors and backgrounds still filled the office in her Virginia home, said niece Kimberly Jackson. They all were St. Paul kids.

“Her entire life, she fought for ‘her’ kids,” said Jackson, who said a yearslong battle with multiple sclerosis contributed to Harvey’s death. “She had a special gift of letting everyone know when she was talking to them that they were the most important person in the room.”

She was born March 13, 1947, the third of four daughters to the Rev. Albert Lee and Maeola Wilson. Harvey began her teaching career in Chicago public schools before becoming principal at Helen M Hefferan Public School. She would eventually lead the Chicago district’s accountability office. In 1999, Harvey became the first black woman to lead St. Paul schools.

An intensely private person, Harvey burst on the scene in St. Paul driving a new Jaguar with vanity plates and immediately began pushing schools to improve grades and test scores. While she was criticized by teachers and parents for putting a “probation” label on struggling schools, improvement quickly followed and test scores started climbing.

She launched a Leadership Institute to train principals and ended social promotion, holding back hundreds of students from advancing to fourth, sixth or eighth grade if they couldn’t prove they were ready. And Harvey snared unprecedented support from the business community, persuading the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce to throw its weight behind the district’s excess-levy proposal in 2000 after previous efforts failed.

Kent Pekel, who was Harvey’s research director, said she was “committed to raising expectations for children living in poverty, about what they can accomplish if they’re given the opportunity.”

Harvey, Pekel said, was an unflinching advocate for bolstering school accountability — using data and test scores as a barometer — years before No Child Left Behind.

“What Pat did in St. Paul wasn’t the cure, but it was the diagnosis,” Pekel said.

It wasn’t all about numbers, though. Pekel remembers a community meeting where a local barber had a $100,000 check to give to the school district. Harvey’s idea: Use that money to give direct grants to teachers to “accelerate learning any way they wanted to, in any subject area,” Pekel said of a program that became known as the Challenge Every Child grant. “But it had to be about raising the bar.”

Even to those with whom she worked closely, Harvey could seem distant and hard to know. Elona Street-Stewart, who was elected to the school board shortly after Harvey became superintendent, said: “At the time, I only called her Doctor Harvey in recognition of her expertise. But over the years, I really enjoyed working with her.”

Harvey, she said, brought a new way of looking at schools, of assigning teachers and of choosing school leadership.

“She had her finger on the pulse of what was beginning to come out of Washington at that time,” said Street-Stewart, who would become chairwoman of the school board. “She was prepared to shift the district to focus on students and how we could make systemic changes.”

What Harvey was doing at the time in St. Paul raised her profile nationally. She was wooed by public schools in Portland, Ore., and Denver before she decided to leave St. Paul to work with the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, D.C., and did consulting with Pearson, the ACT and Harvard University.

Jackson, executive director of the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College in Seminole, Fla., called Harvey “a fighter” and her role model — a strong woman confident in her convictions. “She talked about how everyone leaves a footprint. To the end, she did that.”

Harvey was preceded in death by her parents; her first husband, Maurice Harvey Sr.; and her second husband, Fred Hiller. She is survived by son Maurice Harvey Jr.; sisters Dr. Grace Wright, Geri Lee Griffie and Mary Elizabeth Branch; and many nieces and nephews. Services have been held.