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.