Since taking the reins of Maryland’s second-largest school system in August, Kevin Maxwell has met with Prince George’s County business and community leaders, toured more than 50 schools, and talked to thousands of employees, students and parents.
Now, the new chief executive officer of the county’s schools, hired by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) with the expectation of turning around the struggling system, has created a six-month plan to address the concerns he has heard and the observations he has made during the past two months.
Maxwell’s top priority is to improve academic achievement, ensuring that high school graduates are ready for college and work. His other five goals — which include improving trust in the school system, establishing a transition team and aligning resources to the school system’s priorities — were developed to move the chronically low-performing district forward.
“We’re not going to get where we need to be if we don’t focus on the academic part of it,” said Maxwell, whose appointment was part of an administrative shake-up that limited the school board’s role and placed more power in the hands of the schools chief. “We have to make sure the kids in our schools are getting what they need to be successful.”
Maxwell has been largely pleased with what he has found in his conversations with students and staff members and while observing classrooms and inspecting school buildings. But he also said he has identified areas of major concern.
Many school buildings are deteriorating and need repairs. Teachers complain of scarce resources, staff reductions and noncompetitive salaries. And instruction varies from school to school and classroom to classroom, he said.
“Something that I would like to see is even implementation of curriculum,” Maxwell said. “I see some inconsistencies.”
Maxwell plans to review the district’s specialty programs, oversee an audit of resources and positions, and carry out an assessment of professional development efforts. He recently formed a transition team to identify the school system’s strengths and weaknesses.
Board Chairman Segun Eubanks said Maxwell’s plan lays a foundation for improvements in the system, adding that he thinks a key goal is building community trust. School leaders generally agree that luring the county’s middle-class families back to the public schools is fundamental to any long-term turnaround.
“There are some good things happening in our schools, but it’s not happening in enough schools and it’s not happening systemwide,” Eubanks said. “Parents don’t send their kids to the county schools, because they don’t trust them. We’ve got to get that back.”
Maxwell said he would like to see whether some specialty programs could be expanded or whether there is room to create ones. He said, for example, that he has had meetings with his staff about arts programs, French immersion, and environmental literacy and education. Maxwell said he has a “big interest” in a Spanish immersion and an International Baccalaureate program for elementary school students. Neither program exists in the county.
Christian Rhodes, who works closely with Maxwell as Baker’s education adviser, said Maxwell’s plan should serve the district well.
“He is focusing in on a number of topics that have been part of the conversation among citizens and stakeholders,” Rhodes said. “We’re happy that he is taking a thoughtful approach rather than immediately coming in and changing things. . . . The approach that he is taking signals to us that he’s interested in the long-term stability and growth of the school system, and that’s refreshing.”
Maxwell said he hopes to gain insight from his transition team, which includes members from inside and outside the administration, faster than he could on his own. The team includes Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery; Charlene Dukes, president of Prince George’s Community College; several principals; and presidents of each of the system’s education and support staff unions. He expects the team to submit a report in December.
Parents, educators and community leaders said they did not expect Maxwell to make major changes in his first 60 days. Some said they remain cautiously optimistic about the school system’s future.
Juanita Miller, chairman of the education committee for the county’s branch of the NAACP, which met with Maxwell last month, said she has been impressed with him. The NAACP originally opposed Baker’s takeover proposal, which gave him the power to appoint the new schools chief, appoint three members to the board, and select the board’s chairman and vice chairman.
She said she likes Maxwell’s responsiveness. She also said she thinks that as a resident and former principal in the county, Maxwell is committed to the school system’s success.
“His perspective was that there are going to be some challenges, but he feels that . . . they will be able to achieve some of the goals,” Miller said.