For Pr. George's Schools, a Scene They Know Well

John E. Deasy will become a deputy director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
John E. Deasy will become a deputy director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
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By Nelson Hernandez and Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Residents of Prince George's County awoke to an all-too-familiar situation yesterday morning: For the fourth time since 1999, they were searching for a superintendent to run their struggling school system.

The departure of Superintendent John E. Deasy, who confirmed yesterday that he will step down after almost three years to work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was a disappointment, several local leaders and parents said. An energetic reformer, Deasy presided over a rise in test scores and a narrowing of the achievement gap between wealthy and poor students since taking over the state's second-largest school system in May 2006.

Faced with many of the same problems as D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, Deasy did as much to shake up his school system without triggering as much public outcry. Deasy's short tenure illustrates a problem faced by many urban school systems across the country, which have difficulty keeping superintendents sufficiently long to finish the overhauls they've begun.

The combination of political pressures, demands from the federal No Child Left Behind law and, now, unpopular budget cuts, have contributed to the rapid turnover. Rhee is the District's seventh schools chief in a decade. St. Louis is looking for its eighth superintendent since 2003, and Kansas City has its 25th superintendent in 39 years.

In Prince George's, local leaders and parents worried about the implications for the county, which ranks second from the bottom, ahead of only Baltimore, among Maryland's 24 jurisdictions on most measures of academic achievement. Deasy's departure leaves hanging a number of initiatives meant to spur school improvement.

"I hate to see this disruption," said Howard Stone, a former member of the school board who had voted to hire Deasy. "It will take them nine months or a year to find a replacement. . . . It's a major loss for the system, but it may present new alternatives either inside or to go on a national search."

"Can Prince George's County get a break?" said Debra Ross, the mother of two children who were educated in the public school system. "I was very disappointed when I heard he was leaving because he apparently knows what he is doing, what the county's schools need."

The school board's chairman, Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large), said that William R. Hite Jr., Deasy's deputy, would become interim superintendent and that Deasy and Hite would "work in tandem" until Deasy leaves. She did not offer a target date for the hiring of Deasy's permanent successor, nor did she detail how the board would go about searching for a superintendent or what qualities it would look for.

In the search for Deasy, the board advertised for a consultant, who helped form a search committee including community activists, government officials and education experts to advise the board. The eight-month process considered national and local candidates.

The board will be seeking a superintendent at a challenging time. No Child Left Behind continues to escalate demands on students, teachers and principals. Hundreds of the county's high school students could fail to graduate in May because of a new set of state exams required to receive a diploma.

The county will probably face deep budget cuts next year because of the faltering economy and skyrocketing foreclosure rate. Numerous initiatives proposed by Deasy, such as a pay-for-performance program for teachers and the creation of smaller schools, will have to be funded, curtailed or abandoned.

"I think John is smart enough to get out of here, frankly, before the [expletive] hits the fan," said Doris A. Reed, the executive director of the Association of Supervisory and Administrative Personnel, the union that represents principals and other administrators.

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