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New Montgomery schools chief takes a measured start

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Twelve years ago, the Montgomery County School Board was looking for a leader to increase performance during a wave of immigration that was intensifying stark academic disparities.

Jerry D. Weast achieved that goal as superintendent — and thrust himself into the national spotlight — by ushering in barrier-breaking changes that directed new resources and opportunities to poor and minority students.

With the arrival this summer of Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, the urgency for change has given way to confidence in the system, punctuated by anxiety about sustaining success. The 41-year-old recruit from Stamford, Conn., faces the challenge of succeeding a retired leader with a strong record. But he has the luxury of time to chart his own course.

“I have been thinking about how to slow down a bit,” Starr said. “At some point, you have to take a deep breath.”

In his first month on the job, Starr launched an analysis of where the 144,000-student system stands after more than a decade of change. He has arranged meetings with key people in schools and the community “to sit down and ask questions and find out what would they do if they were in my shoes,” he said.

A transition team composed principally of his long-term mentors and former and current county schools staff members is also delving into school system data and research. The team is planning focus groups and developing a report about the system’s challenges and strengths. It will be delivered in the beginning of the school year.

In the fall, the school system plans to start a series of “listen and learn” events across the county for Starr to hear from parents and staff members. He also will convene online town hall meetings with students and host public talks about books that reflect his educational philosophy.

Starr has made only one major staff change, appointing a former classmate, Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, from a Harvard University urban school leadership program to a new post as community superintendent.

“Sometimes you need to let things settle down after a lot of disruption or change,” said Martin J. Blank, president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership, which recently appointed Weast to its board of directors. “You need different leaders at different times.”

Starr’s situation resembles that of other school leaders who followed trailblazers. Sometimes, the job is not so much to shake the buildings but secure their foundations.

The most striking example is Kaya Henderson, who took over as D.C. schools chancellor last year after Michelle A. Rhee’s tumultuous school overhaul. (In her first year, Rhee closed 23 schools and began firing large numbers of central staff members.) Henderson, who was Rhee’s deputy, is committed to continuing improvements in the workforce and accountability systems. But she also is responsible for repairing fractured relationships with teachers and community members who were alienated by Rhee.

Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s predecessor was the nationally known Daniel A. Domenech. Recruited to Fairfax in 1997, Domenech sought to improve student performance while raising the bar for the poor, all while immigration was transforming the county.

Domenech, an immigrant from Cuba, brought a lasting emphasis on the needs of second-language learners and won additional resources for schools that serve low-income communities. His impassioned, headline-grabbing style set the agenda for equity in the school system and won extra resources, though he frequently clashed with county supervisors.

In choosing Dale, the Fairfax County School Board was looking for more of a collaborator, said board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville). Under his tenure, budget meetings with county supervisors have taken on a more restrained tone. And although he has continued to emphasize equity, his hallmarks, particularly in austere budget times, have included less flashy changes, such as aligning management practices with business principles and advocating for educational technology.

Starr also is taking over a cash-strapped school system amid heated battles between the Montgomery School Board and the County Council over money. He has started meeting with council members this summer.

“I’m hoping that his arrival will engender a whole new way of working together with an improved tone and improved communications,” said school board member Laura Berthiaume (Rockville-Potomac).

Many board members say Starr’s deliberative approach represents a refreshing shift from his predecessor’s hard-charging style.

“Weast was faster to the starting line,” said board President Christopher S. Barclay (Silver Spring). “We pushed hard to get things done. They were important, but they’ve had some consequences.”

Barclay cited the rush to accelerate students in math, which helped advance the system’s goal of getting students ready for college but also led to a backlash from teachers and parents who found that students were poorly prepared for the advanced classes. The push was dialed back last fall.

In Starr’s first board meeting in July, he signaled a penchant for pausing to think when he suggested delaying a vote on the county’s first charter school to study the repercussions of a last-minute change in the proposal. A revised proposal was approved at the next meeting. This month he is taking a two-week vacation with his family in Cape Cod.

When school resumes, his measured approach is likely to be tested by parents with urgent concerns about special education, services for gifted children or school discipline.

But after Starr spoke last week at an event at Richard Montgomery High School to distribute donated school supplies, parents and teachers, one after another, said the new chief’s main job would be to keep up the good work.

When asked what the new superintendent should focus on first, Mary Ginyard, a school bus attendant, shrugged. “Things are going pretty good,” she said.

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