In the first hour of Robert Shoenberg's tenure as president of the Montgomery County Board of Education last week, every member had something to say.
No votes were taken, no decisions were made. It was a time to muse, to question, and to make certain board members understood their colleagues' priorities.
For Shoenberg, it was, for that day at least, the board's finest hour.
"I was pleased with how the morning went," Shoenberg said, after adjourning his first meeting as president of the seven-member body, which oversees one of the state's largest school systems.
"Those are the kinds of things I think the board should do -- review and exchange ideas about what it is that we'd like to see happen with education here."
Missing from the exchange was a combative style for which the school board was known as recently as four years ago, when it had to wrestle with the issue of school closings. Those debates were what prompted Shoenberg, a PTA member who had always thought he would like to serve on a school board, to run for a seat in 1982.
"I think the board is more responsive . . . and doesn't have such an adversarial relationship with the public," he said. "The board has now pulled back into its primary role of policymaking and it is focused on educational issues."
As the dean of undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland, Shoenberg has supervised the curriculum and developed general education requirements for that institution. As the father of two girls, he also has been a volunteer at public schools in Wheaton.
"I see a great deal of crossover in my job at the university and here," Shoenberg said. "I can bring to the board my understanding of curriculum, and I can take back an understanding of what is going on at the schools here."
Shoenberg, a graduate of Amherst College and the University of Michigan, told fellow board members that he would not set any new goals or agenda for the board this year.
Rather, he said, he would, "in my own way and my own style," lead the board toward already defined goals of improving the academic achievement and thinking skills of all students, whether they were headed for college or jobs after graduation.
If met, those goals would be one link in strengthening what should be the role of public education elsewhere, Shoenberg said later.
"The public schools of America are an enormous strength," he said. "For all the criticism we make of them, they are still the best way for students to learn to get along with each other . . . ."