‘Scientist superintendent’ heads to Montgomery

As Joshua P. Starr was leaving his office here one day last week, an elderly woman stopped the city schools chief to offer congratulations. She had heard that Starr was just named the next superintendent of the prestigious Montgomery County public school system.

“One piece of advice,” the woman said, beckoning the 6-foot-5 educator to come closer. “Work on your people skills.”

In six years as superintendent in this city just outside New York, Starr has built a resume strong enough to win over the board of Maryland’s largest school system. The number of Stamford schools reaching academic progress goals doubled in the past year, to 16. The portion of black sixth-graders who reached a state goal in reading increased from 32 percent in 2006 to 48 percent last year. Starr champions the analysis of data to help target lessons for student, calling himself a “scientist superintendent.”

But supporters and critics agree Starr has shown a vulnerability: He can be too blunt. Those who have disagreed with Starr complain he was too dismissive, particularly when parents questioned his decision to curtail tracking students by ability in middle schools.

“I’ve worked with four superintendents and lobbied a fifth,” said Ellen Camhi, who served on the Stamford school board before Starr arrived. “He was a very good superintendent when it came to the curriculum. But when it came to communication, he failed miserably.”

Whether he can blend charisma with academic smarts will be a crucial test for Starr in July when he becomes Montgomery’s first new superintendent in 12 years, replacing the savvy Jerry D. Weast. At a time of tight budgets, many parents in the county are not necessarily looking for a scientific superintendent. They want a political one.

Starr acknowledged that he “could have been a better listener” in his tenure here.

“I’m really focused,” he said. “Sometimes you forget that there are other people who are really focused and might see things differently, even though you’re working toward common interests.’’

At 41, Starr will be an evolving leader for a school system that is looking for continuity. The Montgomery Board of Education announced Monday that it has chosen to hire him. It will be a big move up for Starr. Stamford has 15,000 students. Montgomery has 144,000 — and a national reputation for high student achievement.

“The challenge in Montgomery is figuring out how I can take the district to the next level,” Starr said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to doing.”

After the elderly woman imparted her advice, Starr jumped into his black Nissan Murano and drove to Turn of River Middle School for a routine walkthrough.

The 10-minute ride cruised through a stratified city, from gritty Washington Boulevard, lined with modest bodegas, to High Ridge Road, where large shingled houses sit on green hills. About 40 percent of Stamford students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 31 percent in Montgomery. Like Montgomery, Stamford is a majority-minority suburb. Forty percent of this city’s students are white, 21 percent black, 32 percent Latino and 7 percent Asian.

“That’s the beauty of Stamford,’’ Starr said. “By 2042, this is what America will look like.”

At Turn of River, Starr helped a social studies teacher adjust her projector so students could more clearly see a map highlighting the Middle East. In an English class, he knelt down to talk to an eighth-grader who was writing about the significance of prayer in Elie Wiesel’s “Night.”

In another class, he watched the teacher run through a creative writing exercise. The students were asked to continue a story where it left off, employing the same sorts of devices the original author used to establish a voice.

‘Didn’t fit the mold’

Starr’s story in education began much differently than that of the man he will succeed. Weast grew up in Kansas, where his mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse. Starr grew up in Upstate New York, son of a therapist and a computer programmer who worked for IBM. 

Weast’s doctorate in education comes from Oklahoma State University; Starr’s is from Harvard University.

From 1993 to 1997, Starr taught social studies in Brooklyn to emotionally disturbed kids. But he quickly gravitated toward graduate school and administration.

Andres Alonso, who now leads the Baltimore school system, recruited Starr to work for the New York City school system in 2003. He tasked Starr to parse analyses, uncover useful education statistics and find ways to go beyond test scores to evaluate special programs. Alonso said such work helped lead to the creation of a report card system for city schools.

“When it came to the area of data sets, a lot of people doing work in that area were originally bankers and business people, not educators,” Alonso said. “Josh had the same skills and some experience in the classroom. He was very sharp and a team player.”

When Starr arrived in Stamford in 2005, at age 35, some were skeptical.

“He didn’t fit the mold of a traditional superintendent,” said Paul Gross, a principal at Stamford’s Academy of Information Technology and Engineering.  “He didn’t spend much time in the classroom. He was never a principal. I have children older than him.”

But he won over principals and teachers, keeping good relations with labor unions.

One of his first mandates was to create a unified curriculum for every school. He spent his first two years guiding the process. “We had 153 different ways of teaching reading in elementary schools,’’ Starr said.  

Then he tackled tracking. When Starr arrived, Stamford middle school students were channeled into one of five groups, based largely on fourth-grade test scores. Starr said another factor was that some parents lobbied to get their kids into the highest-achieving groups, which were disproportionately white and Asian.

Starr consolidated five tracks into two. When some parents voiced concerns that the move would limit progress of top students, Starr wrote in a local newspaper that they wanted to “slow down progress.” He also suggested that critics were against eliminating “the vestiges of tracking that has kept generations of students of color in Stamford from attaining high-quality education.”

Some parents complained that he was fostering divisions. Others wanted more reform, saying two tiers were one too many.

“What he did was really courageous,’’ said Susana Valdan, a mother of two students in the system. “The middle school transformation was a big change and it needed to get done. I only wish he would be here to carry it through.”

On state tests last year, math scores for Hispanic sixth-graders slipped slightly. But the city’s black sixth-graders continued an upward trend in math scores: From 2006 to 2010, the portion who scored at or above a key state benchmark rose from 18 to 42 percent.

A stake in the outcome

In Montgomery, Starr said he hopes to continue to probe data to help improve achievement. He also plans to hold community forums to get suggestions on what he can do to better the system. He said he wants parents to call him Josh.

“I always knew I could do the work, that I had the knowledge and background in education to be effective,” Starr said. “But I didn’t know I could rely so much on just being Josh. That is effective in getting stuff through.”

Josh keeps an acoustic guitar by his desk and strums blues and country songs to relax between meetings. On a nearby table, there’s a birthday gift of an image of himself superimposed next to Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.

Over the years, he said he has learned that he relates best to parents when he thinks about the students who have contributed the most to his office decorations: his three kids. He plans on sending 9-year-old Eliza, 7-year-old Harrison and 3-year-old Graham (when he’s older) to Montgomery public schools.

When he makes decisions, the superintendent said, it’s important to remind parents that his family has a stake in the outcome, too.

 
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