For Walts, Year Held Triumphs, Controversy

In September, Superintendent Steven L. Walts, with daughter Delaney, chats with Zachary Robinson before visiting Westridge Elementary School.
In September, Superintendent Steven L. Walts, with daughter Delaney, chats with Zachary Robinson before visiting Westridge Elementary School. (By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)
By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

Looking back on his first year as Prince William schools superintendent, Steven L. Walts says one of his most rewarding accomplishments was visiting every one of the county's 82 schools -- in 82 days.

Although critics called it an obvious public relations ploy, many teachers and students said they enjoyed the unusual amount of face time with their chief executive. However brief the visits, they said, the gesture was symbolic of Walts's commitment to understanding a school system much more vast and demographically complex than the one he ran at the Greece Central School District in Upstate New York.

"I was very pleased to have that opportunity to meet so many people and see them in action," Walts said in an interview. "It gave me a real working knowledge of what's going on in the classrooms and the physical facilities."

Since Walts was hired last summer to become Prince William's first new schools chief in nearly 20 years, he has won plaudits for his eagerness to modernize the school system with upgraded technology and for making its curriculum more competitive with those of other Northern Virginia school districts.

Parents and teachers have praised him for several academic initiatives he has pushed: an expansion of all-day kindergarten that next year will include two-thirds of the schools; institution of a high-profile International Baccalaureate program in several elementary schools; and an agreement to finance PSAT exams for sophomores to boost the county's SAT scores, which are among the lowest in Northern Virginia.

But some of Walts's critics -- who include a cross section of parents, school principals and other senior school officials -- say he should engage more when major issues hit. They point to a recent case in which Walts recommended the demotion of Freedom High School Principal Dorothy McCabe, 60, who alleged she was being pushed out because of her age and said she had not been fully evaluated.

Parents, teachers and students complained that Walts had made an unfair decision and that he had never addressed them to explain it. After McCabe announced she was filing an age-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, some in Prince William worried that Walts was importing a problem that occurred in the Greece district.

There, more than a dozen school employees filed EEOC complaints against his administration, alleging age or disability discrimination; the EEOC ruled that five of the complaints had merit. Some of the complainants went on to sue in federal court, resulting in costly out-of-court settlements and legal fees for the Greece school system and its insurance agency.

Walts argued simply that personnel issues are difficult to address in public because the details must be kept confidential. "You're never really able to explain the other side of the story," he said.

When Walts arrived, there was some anxiety over the fact that he had presided over a school system far less diverse and far smaller than Prince William's. But Walts, who served for several years as an associate superintendent in Baltimore County, faced that criticism head on.

He is pushing to hire more minority teachers, hoping that by 2009 the teaching staff will be diversifying at a faster rate than the student body. He also is working to have more school announcements translated into Spanish -- including papers that are sent home with students and announcements posted on the school system Web site.

And when this year's immigration debate on Capitol Hill energized students across the Washington area -- particularly in Prince William, which was ground zero for student protests and walkouts -- Walts spoke on Spanish radio stations to encourage students to go back to school and even delivered the message in person at one of the protests.

But Walts said his main focus is on curriculum, and many of his initiatives are designed to improve what educators like to call the "front end," or elementary schools. Among those plans is a program that next year will use state money to start a pre-kindergarten program for the neediest children. Walts said a center catering to such students is planned to open in the fall.

Some parents said they've been relieved to see that Walts launched a task force aimed at improving how schools handle crises. Instead of schools having individual emergency plans, the school system has one standardized plan that includes updated building maps and unified strategies to help emergency workers.

Martina Boone, chairman of the Prince William County Parents Executive Committee, who served on the task force, said the planning was useful, especially in the wake of an incident in 2004 at Bull Run Middle School in Gainesville. A 12-year-old boy entered the school with a high-powered rifle and threatened to shoot school employees and students; he eventually surrendered to police without firing a shot.

Walts "made a policy on how to deal with it," Boone said. "That's where he really needed to step in."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company