Weast says he'll step down in '11

(Jerry. D. Weast)
By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast announced Tuesday that he will retire in June, ending a 12-year run and initiating an election-year discussion about the future of one of the country's largest and highest-performing school systems.

Weast set his sights on attacking the persistent achievement gap that separates white and Asian American students from their black and Hispanic peers - and succeeded in narrowing it on many measures even as the county became significantly less affluent and more diverse. At the same time, the school system's top performers have continued to make gains, winning the system national accolades.

Weast's announcement will undoubtedly change the dynamic of an election year in which many school board and County Council seats are up for grabs. A national search will begin in December, after the election is resolved, and Weast's successor will have to strike a balance between being a caretaker and a visionary in straitened fiscal times.

"He's one of the finest superintendents in the country," said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and a former superintendent in Fairfax County. "What Jerry has done is something that few superintendents do in a system as complex and the size of Montgomery." Still, Domenech said, Weast's successor can't passively imitate his policies and expect results.

Weast has been a forceful personality in Montgomery, and his departure might clear the air for a wider-ranging reevaluation of the school system's priorities, observers said. His long tenure has brought unusual stability to the system. The average tenure of a superintendent is three years. Since Weast arrived in 1999, Prince George's County has had five superintendents and the District six. His record also shows that given the right circumstances, a large, diverse school system can make progress with unified goals, although some disparities remain.

"We have the cooperation and the collaboration," Weast said Tuesday. "I'm confident that we'll continue to make progress."

Weast has been adept at navigating Montgomery politics, forging alliances with labor unions and a broad network of elected officials. One symbol of the close union relationship is an unusual peer-review program in which the school system identifies struggling teachers and then works with the union to either help them improve or dismiss them.

Reform efforts

Early in his tenure, Weast had demographers divide Montgomery into a red zone in the east, designating schools with high proportions of low-income and minority students that he would target with extra resources, and a green zone in the west, home to the county's historically top-flying schools.

Because of the extra attention to the red zone, the share of black students in Montgomery who graduate with a passing score on at least one Advanced Placement test has doubled since 2000, and the percentage-point gap in reading pass rates for black and white students has narrowed from 32 points to 14. Last year, the county helped Maryland become tops in the nation in the share of graduates who passed at least one AP exam. And countywide SAT scores have increased to record highs this year, Weast said.

Weast's reform efforts filled a book, a 2009 Harvard study that is read by school systems across the country. And those efforts made the county into a national brand: An agreement signed in June with a major textbook publisher will take a curriculum that is under development and spread it across the country under the Montgomery name. The federal government recently awarded the county schools a $5 million grant to support the project.

Education experts said Weast's focus on the lowest-performing students is unusual for a school system in which a sizable proportion of children are doing well. It is even more impressive, they said, that the top-performing students continue to improve as efforts are concentrated on the lowest-achieving.

"A lot of suburban districts do not want to admit they have an achievement gap problem and go through all sorts of gymnastics to hide it," said Andrew Rotherham, a partner at D.C.-based Bellwether Education, which focuses on improving education for disadvantaged students. "Montgomery County has taken some admirable steps to address it on the low end. There's still a long way to go on that front."

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