Call it a changing of the guard. Or maybe a new class act.
Iris T. Metts, the new superintendent of schools, is creating a stir in the county's schoolrooms and company boardrooms. She's talking up a new business-education partnership that she plans to announce Aug. 27 at a convocation ceremony at US Airways Arena. And she is attempting, she said, to run the school system more like a business.
Metts has pledged to cut 150 staff positions at the county's central school office, making it a leaner, more business-like machine. "My management style is much like it works in the business world. I want to be efficient and effective," she said.
Metts's style of mixing education and business is something the business community hopes will jump-start the county's work-force development and spur economic growth. County business leaders say they can grow and attract other businesses to the county only if the schools are seen as strong and healthy. Past partnerships with the school system need to be revived, and business leaders say they would like to work with Metts to make that happen.
Thomas Haller, a lawyer and former president of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce, said the school system should approach business with a wish list. "I don't know if we had a situation where we had [former school superintendent Jerome Clark] call us in to say, 'We want X,Y and Z,' " Haller said.
Haller said Metts "needs to tackle the perception of the school system, and I think she can do it because she came in from the outside," he said. But she has to move quickly, before she becomes an insider defending her own record, he said.
"From the chamber's standpoint, we want this to be a place for people to come in and do business," he said.
Shelby L. Burch, marketing and public relations director for the county's Economic Development Corp., echoes that view. "We hear it all the time, 'Education! Education!' and, 'How are the schools?' "
Businesses considering a move to Prince George's care first and foremost about the state of the schools, she said. They also care about having a strong work force, so the EDC hopes to work with the school system to develop a curriculum that will help train a future work force.
Joseph J. James, EDC president and chief executive, met with Metts for about three hours last month to discuss school support from business and the links between education and economic development. "She made it very clear: She's very interested in business-education partnerships," James said. "We hope she'll embrace what's going on [already] and offer a little better coordination. She's an eager beaver and a hard-nosed manager and the asset that we all welcome to take that leadership."
The business community needs to step up to the challenge, too, said Susan Levering, a former teacher and vice president of human resources for Branch Electric Co. in Upper Marlboro. Levering is a member of a business advisory group for Career Connections, a two-year-old school-to-work program funded by a state grant. She has worked in school-business partnerships before and has seen some of the pitfalls.
"These things are not fads; there really needs to be consistent support and rewards for the people who are doing things," she said. Levering said the only way a partnership between business and education can be sustained is with strong business support. The message from business needs to be, "We're going to do this, and we're going to keep doing this," she said.
Blueprint for Change
Some longtime business leaders in the county recall a time when the partnership between business and the schools was strong.
Jerry Brady, president of West and Brady Inc., a Greenbelt-based advertising firm, said that 15 years ago, businesses used to join with the schools to mentor, recruit teachers and work on improving the image of the schools. That relationship atrophied, and a new generation of business leaders in the county hasn't revived it, he said.
"That relationship began to erode after [former school superintendent John A. Murphy] left" in 1991, Brady said. The business community was turned off by a succession of less dynamic school superintendents, he said, and it essentially gave up. "The business community walked away from their involvement," Brady said.
Arthur L. Curry, the director of Career Connections and a former employee of the county's public schools, said the school system also got sidetracked. "Over the past six years in Prince George's County, because of the push toward accountability being driven by test results, people dropped what they were doing and focused on that too much instead of focusing on what could help them," Curry said. "Test scores took priority over all." He said the system was remiss in thinking through ways the schools could address some of their weaknesses, including getting help from outside the system.
To be successful, schools need financial and political backing through thick and thin, said Amy Wilkins, a principal partner in the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit education group. Wilkins cited a recent example of businesses in Pueblo, Colo., that worked to improve "horrible" test scores. There, when test scores were announced, the chamber of commerce held a joint news conference with the superintendent of schools and thereafter helped recruit better teachers and build more schools, she said.
In most places where partnerships are really fruitful, business has had very candid discussions with educators about the skills and knowledge they require for an entry-level job, she said. Furthermore, establishing the partnership formally is important, "because reform movements that are personality driven are vulnerable and fragile," she said. It is difficult but necessary for business and education leaders to speak the same language yet understand that a school's bottom line is not the same as it is for a business, experts say. And that means accepting dual responsibility.
For now, the county's education and business partnerships are very local. In Seat Pleasant, City Council member Thurman Jones runs the Patriots Technology Training Center, a business-sponsored nonprofit that offers computer seminars for children and teenagers who live inside the Capital Beltway. In Laurel, a grass-roots effort is in the process of collecting $3.6 million in private donations to upgrade computer facilities in the 10 schools in Laurel's school cluster.
Douglas Peters, president of the Prince George's County Board of Trade and president-elect of the county chamber of commerce, serves on the nine-member board that oversees the implementation of suggestions from an audit of the school system last year. "This gets at the issue of how we bring business back into the fold; the way you bring business in is to demonstrate progress," he said. "If they see that it's inefficient, then they're not going to do anything, because 60 percent of the tax money from the county budget is going to the schools already."
"I don't think we have enough countywide networking," Peters said. "I want to sit in the room with all the players" and outline a strategic plan, like a business would, he said.
Arthur Curry said he believes Prince George County's time has come. "We're trying to put together one initiative instead of dealing with 1,001 different approaches," he said. After 30 years in the school system, he's never been more excited about its future. "Not only can we go back to that, but I think we can surpass it," he said.