Pr. George's Schools Chief Starts to Make Mark

Schools chief John E. Deasy sought to rally his leadership at a retreat last week.
Schools chief John E. Deasy sought to rally his leadership at a retreat last week. (Andrea Bruce - Staff)
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 3, 2006

How do you build public trust in a school system known for upheaval? What do you say about the statistics that show your students trail their peers across the state and nation?

New Prince George's County schools chief John E. Deasy offers this answer: "No shame, no blame. But no excuses about where we are and what we need to do."

Two months into one of the toughest jobs in U.S. education, Deasy is beginning to flex his administrative muscle and select new leaders for campuses and the central office. He also is developing detailed performance targets for each school, each regional division and each branch of the organization, with rewards for progress and sanctions for stagnation. He seeks to launch this home-grown accountability initiative when schools reopen in August, adding to what the state and federal governments require.

Deasy is joining those actions with what he hopes will become an attitude overhaul, infusing his ranks with optimism, realism and moral purpose. That appeared to be a prime goal of a retreat he held last week with more than 200 senior administrators and principals.

At the Bolger Center in Potomac, Deasy asked principals to have what he called "courageous conversations" with any teacher or staff member who didn't share the belief that "every single, solitary child can and will achieve at high levels." He urged them to reject low expectations and scrutinize every class from the perspective of a parent.

"The litmus test is, would you put your child -- your chil d -- in that classroom?" he told the principals.

Deasy also quoted the poet Langston Hughes and 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass and cited the desegregation legacy of Brown v. Board of Education as he called educational achievement no less a civil right than educational access. That theme resonates in a majority-black county with stubborn racial achievement gaps.

"Just one promise to me," Deasy asked of the principals: "Be in a hurry about this work."

The principals gave him a standing ovation.

"We need to be in a hurry," Seat Pleasant Elementary Principal Kasandra Lassiter said afterward. "I love that. There's an urgency."

One education expert who observed Deasy's speech said she was struck by his comfort with the language of race and achievement. "For a skinny white guy, he lives very easily in that skin," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that supports reducing achievement gaps. "Most white superintendents, in my experience, can't even get the words out right."

When Deasy took over the 133,000-student system May 1, moving from a Southern California district that was only one-tenth as large, he had consensus support from the school board, employee unions and a community hungry for stability and results. There is no sign that this backing has weakened.

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