For Pr. George's Schools, a Scene They Know Well
Deasy's Departure and the Search It Sets Off Come at a Difficult Time

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.

At a news conference yesterday, Deasy promised a "seamless" transition and said the system was in good shape for the future.

"This decision was a difficult one to make. I am so proud and humbled by what we have accomplished together for the youth of Prince George's County Public Schools," Deasy wrote in a letter to the school system's staff.

"The work of student achievement will continue to progress," Jacobs said. "Together we were able to achieve stability for our school system. . . . We are grateful to the passion and energy brought by Dr. Deasy."

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said that he's sorry to see Deasy go but that it probably won't harm the school district: "People can go, but the institution will continue to do better because of the commitment to excellence among the people who remain."

The county's results on this year's Maryland School Assessment, a state test of elementary and middle school students' reading and math skills, improved at every grade level. The number of schools on a state watch list for poor academic performance has declined from 76 in 2006 to 58, and many more schools are poised to leave the list.

But some of Deasy's initiatives never reached fruition. An idea to create smaller schools teaching a variety of specialized subjects has yet to take effect. A plan to make elementary schools run from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade was put on hold because of tight budgets. The future of these programs, as well as those getting underway, is unclear.

When asked whether his departure had any connection to an investigation of his doctoral degree announced last month by the University of Louisville, Deasy said "none whatsoever," adding that the Gates Foundation had been courting him for months.

At the Gates Foundation, Deasy will join a swelling cohort of leading education policy thinkers investing billions from Microsoft founder Bill Gates's fortune in innovative models to increase graduation rates and college preparedness among the nation's most underperforming students.

The foundation is rapidly expanding staff at its Seattle headquarters, where Deasy will move to work as deputy director of its U.S. education program.

The Gates Foundation had been watching Deasy's work in Prince George's for several years, said Vicki L. Phillips, director of the Gates Foundation's education program. She approached Deasy a few months ago, and the two recently began serious talks about a job at the foundation.

"We did seek him out," Phillips said. "We obviously follow the work of a lot of people around the country, and certainly we've been aware of John for some time."

Phillips, a former schools superintendent in Portland, Ore., said the Gates Foundation's senior officials were impressed with the attention Deasy has paid to classroom relationships between students and teachers, as well as expanding opportunities for Advanced Placement courses.

As for what would come next for Prince George's, the consensus seemed to be that the county's schools would muddle through a leadership transition once again.

"Schools are still on, kids are still in class and we have to make sure that we continue to deliver instruction" to make federal standards of academic achievement, said Monica Goldson, who heads the system's high schools.

Staff writers Philip Rucker and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company