Next Montgomery schools chief hears parents’ concerns

While public education in the United States is undergoing major reconstruction, the incoming superintendent of Montgomery County schools made one thing clear during his debut appearance Tuesday night: “This is not a reform job.”

Speaking to a crowd of parents in a Rockville school cafeteria, Joshua P. Starr said his new job is a “wonderful position” because he can take an already “great school system and work to make it better.” He gave credit to outgoing superintendent Jerry D. Weast, the 22,000 staff members he will soon manage and, not least, the parents: “You should be so proud of the work you have done,” he said.

On July 1, Starr will inherit the nation’s 16th-largest school system with 144,000 students, and by many measures, one of the nation’s best. Under Weast’s 12-year tenure, the diverse system changed substantially as the community worked to narrow achievement gaps and raise academic standards for all students.

But the 100 parents gathered on a warm June evening at Richard Montgomery High School to meet the new schools chief did not appear ready to take stock and congratulate themselves.

As they introduced themselves, the parents moved quickly to issues they think require the new chief’s urgent attention: inadequate services for special-education students, the higher dropout rates for black and Latino students, and lower-performing schools in some of the county’s less-affluent neighborhoods.

“Speaking frankly, we can have a wonderful system, but we need each school to carry out wonderful policies,” said one parent. Another asked Starr to consider how test-driven the curriculum had become. Later, another parent shared her worries that the county’s test scores were slipping. Speaking through a Chinese interpreter, she said she wanted to urge Starr to increase the workload and level of rigor for students. “It’s too easy,” she said. “The kids come home, and they are just playing on their computers. They don’t have enough to keep them busy.”

Starr does not expect to overhaul systems or revamp standards, as he did in Stamford, Conn., where he has been superintendent since 2005. He will face a different set of challenges in Montgomery, namely the unrelenting pressure of unlimited expectations and a national spotlight.

At the same time, he is inheriting a shrinking pot of resources and still-simmering tensions between the county council and school board over the protracted budget battle .

For now, the 41-year-old Harvard graduate said he is focused on listening, meeting people and “getting up to speed as quickly as possible.”

During a jam-packed, two-day visit, Starr met with central office staff, principals, state lawmakers, student leaders, and officials from teacher and service employee unions.

He made his first visits to a few of the 200 county schools Wednesday, including Newport Mill Middle School and Oakland Terrace Elementary School, where he said he was impressed to find instruction still in high gear on the second-to-last day of the academic year. He met with parents both Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tuesday evening, Starr told the group that while Stamford’s school system is a tenth the size of Montgomery’s, it is demographically similar: a majority minority district where more than 60 languages are spoken and a mix of very rich and very poor families.

Starr announced that he’ll be working with a transition team of school leaders both inside and outside the county to help identify key issues. And he said he had no immediate plans to make changes or introduce new programs.

“This is a major system,” he said. “I don’t want to make any decisions that aren’t thought out.”

He did leave the room with a few nuggets of his educational philosophy. On expectations, he said: “I’m convinced in America today that our standards are not high enough for kids.” On testing, he said — to a few cheers — that its value can be limited: “They can tell you when something is wrong, but they can’t always tell you when something is right.”

And on leadership, he said he would like to try to make decisions according to what he would want for his own three children. (Starr and his wife are purchasing a house in Bethesda, and he expects his two oldest will attend Burning Tree Elementary in the fall.)

Many of the parents who met with Starr said they were excited about his questions and ideas and impressed by his confidence.

As he begins his new job, Starr wants to start some conversations in the county, including, “What would it look like in five years for Montgomery County Public Schools to be considered one of the most innovative systems in the world?” And, “How do we raise kids to be wonderful people, not just wonderful students?”

Montgomery Board of Education members said they found Starr to be a good researcher and a good listener.

Board member Laura Berthiaume (Rockville-Potomac) said his measured approach is encouraging when so many reform plans and programs are being introduced by the state and the federal government. “It’s easy for schools to experience whiplash,” she said.

But Starr told the parents gathered Tuesday that early deliberation would not be a substitute for urgency, high expectations or improvement for the school system. He left them with an invitation to work together. “Let’s turn on the heat and make it better,” he said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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