Next Montgomery school chief is Joshua Starr of Stamford, Conn., system

April 25, 2011

Montgomery County school officials Monday night named Joshua P. Starr, head of a small but distinguished district in Connecticut, as their replacement for Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, who is retiring after 12 years as head of Maryland’s largest school system.

During the meeting, Starr was praised as a man of infectious personality and big ideas. Patricia O’Neill, the only member still on the Board of Education from when Weast was hired in 1999, said members were drawn by Starr’s “enthusiasm, his research of us, his commitment to data-driven decision making and his youth.”

“This is a passing of the torch,” said O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase).

Board President Christopher Barclay added: “We have a good thing going here, and we were not looking for candidates who were going to change direction. We were looking for candidates who were going to take us to the next level.”

Starr, 41, who is married with three children, has presided over the Stamford, Conn., school system since 2005. The appointment in Montgomery is contingent on the completion of contract negotiations and approval of Maryland’s state superintendent.

Weast plans to retire in June.

Stamford has 15,000 students in 20 schools, about one-tenth the enrollment of Montgomery. Like Weast, Starr has sparred with local elected officials over funding and has enacted cuts that have eaten away at his reforms.

“When in this business, you want to be with the best,” Starr said in a conference call shortly after the board voted unanimously to appoint him. “And in many ways, Montgomery has been certainly on the forefront.”

Weast is among the longest-serving superintendents in the Washington region, and his initiatives to narrow academic achievement disparities in the D.C. suburbs have attracted national attention.

Starr did not attend Monday night’s board meeting, but in the conference call, he drew on comparisons between Stamford and Montgomery, both urban-suburban systems largely defined by the competing needs of rich and poor.

He discussed possible changes to the Montgomery system in only the broadest terms and emphasized that he didn’t think it was a system in need of major reform.

Starr added that he isn’t opposed to charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, but said he “doesn’t know why they would be needed here in Montgomery County.. . . I don’t see what the value add would be,” he said. Charter schools have struggled to gain a foothold in Montgomery during Weast’s tenure.

On another controversial subject in public education, Starr said he was “not a strong believer” in paying teachers based on the academic performance of students.

Starr has a doctorate in education administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University.

He began his career as a special education teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., and later helped guide reforms in early childhood education and gifted and talented education in the New York City school district. There, he helped design one of the nation’s best-known programs for measuring performance in public schools.

In Stamford, he took a scattershot curriculum and united it under a common lesson plan — mirroring an initiative undertaken in Montgomery by Weast.

“We had 150 different ways of teaching reading. He came in and made it much more uniform,” said Wendy Lecker, co-president of the Parent Teacher Council of Stamford.

Starr also dismantled a program in the city’s middle schools that had grouped students by academic ability, a controversial practice known as tracking. Some parents — particularly those with students derailed from the upper track — still resent the change.

Starr, like Weast, labored to narrow the gap between black and Hispanic students and Asian and white students, with mixed results. He said Monday that the gap had shrunk by 12 percentage points in math.

To replace Weast, a Chicago-based firm conducted a national search for superintendents, winnowing applicants to 30 from 15 states. Three finalists were then selected for closed-door interviews with community stakeholders — including representatives from the teachers union, the parents association and advocates for special needs students.

“He’s younger than [Weast] but equally energetic and open-minded,” said Doug Prouty, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, who sat in on the interviews. “He [was] a very promising candidate.”

Weast raised achievement and tests scores as the district became more diverse and developed higher concentrations of poverty. He carved the district into red zones and green zones to identify lower-performing pockets, then was able to invest money into the poorer, red-zone schools.

But Starr faces grimmer economic prospects. Each year, the school district has had to fight the county and the state to prevent cuts in per-pupil funding. Enrollment has continued to increase as revenue has stagnated.

School superintendents often seem to fall into two broad camps: change agents, brought in to enact reform, raise scores and ruffle feathers; and consensus-builders, hired to heal rifts and — if necessary — to repair the relationships frayed by change agents. After the hard-charging Weast, some longtime county leaders voiced hope that Starr will come in as a healer.

“The system is set up to be a good system. People know how to do the job, there’s no doubt about that. I think they need someone to come in who’s a little kinder, gentler,” said Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), a former county school board member.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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