Jerry Weast, new superintendent for Montgomery County's public schools, had been on the job for one week and already the walls of his office were covered in personal touchstones, children's books and the visual metaphors he so favors in making a point: prominent among them a placard on his desk reading THINK.
He shows off a small acrobat made from horse nails--a reminder of his humble beginnings on a Kansas farm--balancing precariously on a flat disc of swirling blue and white sand that shifts with every shake. Both, he says, are reflections of modern life and the dance he's going to have to learn to lead in rapidly changing Montgomery County.
He inherits a school system that anticipates 131,000 students when school opens next week, 3,000 more than last year and more than twice the population of his last posting, in Guilford County, N.C. Those students include not only the highly gifted and those who make the annual roster of National Merit Scholars, but the highest population in the state of Hispanic non-English speakers who were actually born in this country and those who receive free and reduced-price school meals and are struggling to make it.
Weast, 51, is coming into a system where on average, the growing number of African American and Hispanic students don't score as well and take far fewer advanced classes than their white and Asian counterparts. It is uncharted and complicated territory, but Weast makes no bones he is heading straight for it.
No stranger to controversy, Weast has been both lionized and lashed in his previous school districts and created quite a stir when Montgomery school board members announced his $300,000 annual salary package would make him among the three highest paid school administrators in the nation.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte--from the achievement gap to teacher evaluations to his sometimes abrasive personal style--Weast talked about his plans for a school system that is seem as one of the wealthiest and best in the country. But critics contend it has become complacent and calcified.
He spent his first week following the mail deliverers, gathering data and dropping by the myriad of departments in the central office with complicated acronyms for names, asking people what they do. He's had lunch with the cooks in the cafeteria, and, at a large "voluntary" staff meeting that had people spilling out in the hallways, he asked staff members to draw symbols of who they thought they were and then find others in the audience with the same symbol--an exercise to try to unify what he sees as a fractionalized bureaucracy.
The following is an edited transcript:
Q: One of the first things you said you would do when you met with community members last month is to reorganize the central office and make it more service-oriented. That begs the question, how do you see it now?
A: I think it is a good organization, considering the structure of the building itself and all of the different areas that we encompass. I think that what we have here is an organization trying to do the best it can. It works hard. What I'm asking people, are there ways we can work smarter?
Because if you create an organization that has four pages of acronyms, does that translate to the real world and to helping people? Would people see that as being more helpful or as confusing, a different language?
(He holds up the list of acronyms, which is designed to help staffers better understand hallway talk. It includes, among others, CI - Continuous Improvement, not to be confused with CIP, the Capital Improvements Program, nor CIRF, Conflict Intervention, Resolution and Follow-up.)
After visiting with small groups, the groups themselves said they wanted to change, and they were using my arrival as an opportunity to say, It's okay to change, to do greater things, to do better.
I also made it fairly clear we wouldn't have any more people because we probably don't have any more space and because I want to get more energy down in the classroom. So, I began to ask, if we get more asked of us, by all kinds of different people, how can we organize to work smarter to accomplish that, what could we consolidate in all of these acronyms to make some sense?
If you've got a good organization, what you try to come in and do is to continuously improve that organization. You don't come in and try to tear that organization down.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you see facing Montgomery
A: I think size is always a big challenge and how you can take a large organization and make it less bureaucratic and as responsive as any small organization.
We're growing about 3,000 children a year. We're doing a lot of restoration work, and we're having to do building, so it's how to intertwine that growth and that restoring and tie that with the educational programs, tie that with the community at large and do that in a way that you can work efficiently and effectively to deliver an educational opportunity to all children that is highly rigorous and results-oriented.
Another one of the challenges we have, I think, is that, overall, the district is doing well. But when you start taking a look at different groups of children in the district, either by geography or by scores, you start to see some unevenness, for want of a better word, people around here call it the gap.
One of the things we've got to do is examine what's creating this issue, because generally, the scores are high. So what are those impediments? One of the areas I'm going to look at are early childhood education, early literacy.
Some of the things I did this morning were to take a look at the different clusters, the projected enrollment, what percent that is of the whole district, the numbers of professional staff, the percent of the total professional staff, and, most importantly, look at educational load. It's a good formula here. They look at poverty, older than grade age children, mobility, academic achievement and free and reduced meals, or FARMS, and developed a formula called educational load. They found, the higher the ed load, the higher the impact on learning.
So I'm trying to compare the ed load with how they were staffing, to see if there was a correlation. And I will be gathering this information for the first few months to see if we're walking what we're talking. And if we're not, why not.
Q: The Reading Initiative here is one of the strategies the county is using to try to close the achievement gap, by lowering class sizes, adding more teachers and giving more focused instruction.
A: I like the Reading Initiative. I like the smaller class size, but I think we've got to do some other things in conjunction with it. One question I asked this morning is, where are they? How many are there? Are they in the right places?
Research has told me and time has told me, even if you break into smaller units, if you do it the same way, you won't be effective. Research tells us that if we break into smaller units and change the instructional delivery and the organizational pattern of the bureaucracy at the same time, to the third power you become more effective.
I have more questions than I have answers. I think that's helpful.
Q: Speaking of unevenness, a few months ago, it came to light that high schools were setting their own passing scores for Algebra I, and they varied widely. The same score would have given you an A at one school, a D at another.
A: Maybe we ought to think about that. The question becomes are we, because of our structures, promoting or creating some of the unevenness?
Q: With passing scores varying so widely, what does that say?
A: That's the question I'll be asking, what does that say, why are we doing it? I'd like to hear what that answer is.
Q: It certainly seems from the outside you're lowering the standard some places so it looks like all are succeeding.
A: That's why you would ask that question. Are we sending a clear message? Or are we sending a message that we're uneven and we accept the unevenness?
Q: Do you?
A: No. I want the same child, regardless of where they live, regardless of their circumstances, to have the highest quality education we could possibly deliver. I want that child in a safe environment. I want that child in a learning culture. I want that child to have an excellent teacher. I want that child to develop a vision that they can do it. And I don't think I'm much different than any parent.
When you give us that child for those few hours every day, you want us to have a bond and connection with your child. You want to understand us, not through educationalese, what we're really about. You want us to understand you, what barriers you may have.
And you're going to want us to work on any issues that we possibly can to help that child in the learning process. And you're not going to want us to identify it six years later. You're going to want us to identify it as early as possible and you're going to want us to get on it in a way that will utilize and increase their potential.
Q: Yet there's a perception in the community that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, so to speak. If you're well-educated or know how to work the system, you get the best for your child. If you are perhaps less sophisticated or don't know how things work, your child gets left behind. Some blame some of the unevenness on an administration that has been willing to placate the squeaky wheels and lose sight of the silent ones.
A: We can't afford to lose sight of anyone. And we have to be an advocate for everyone. I do think we need to somehow gather together to work on this children's agenda in a less splintered way. Just like I found four pages of acronyms, I've had people call to set up appointments with me, and I'll bet there are several pages of groups.
My willingness to help make the organization a little more understandable has to go hand in hand with all these groups' willingness to work together, to create a seamless opportunity for every child, for children who have no advocate, as well as the child who has the greatest advocate. We can't ever underestimate the power of the group. It releases energy individuals just don't have.
I think the biggest concern that I have is, can we work together, can we build a common agenda that works for everyone? And if we can, will we? I read a report about the unevenness that I liked. It asked, if not here, where, if not now, when?
Q: That was from the Gordon Report on the achievement gap. It was written in 1990. And, some argue, little has changed since then.
A: And I'm reminding people that that was 1990. It's 1999 now and we're about to turn the century mark. I think we need to organize for that. I think we need to staff for that. I think we need to work together for that, because I think we have the ability in Montgomery County to build a template that is inclusive and works for everybody at high levels and high standards.
I don't think we'll get there overnight. I don't think we'll get there alone, we'll have to see what else is going on in the world. I don't think we'll get there without carefully studying and definning the problem. Unless we work together, unless we have the courage to call some of the difficult questions. I do believe we can get there. I do believe this is the place we can do it.
Q: You've said teachers are critical to closing the achievement gap. A recent report to the Board of Education showed teacher expectations play a big role in whether minority students take Honors or Advanced Placement classes in high school.
A: I think you have to start much earlier and look at teacher expectations, not in high school, but way down, in literacy skills. From what we know about early childhood education, it starts with awareness, how much language is utilized in these neurons and pathways. How much are we developing these channels for language skills? So you have to build a rigorous environment from pre-K on up into high school that has expectations for every child up and down the line, that has to be supported at all levels of the institution and the community.
Q: How do you do that?
A: I think it would be very presumptuous of me to say. But I can say that this is the location. We've got to quit fixin' to get ready. Nine years is a long time to have a report around that tells you it's time to do something.
Q: In North Carolina, you created an uproar over a program to evaluate teachers called HELP, Helping Evaluators Lift Performance. More than 100 teachers were found less than adequate and in a year, half of them had quit or resigned. Some people hated you for it. Others packed rooms at national education conferences to hear you talk about it. What do you plan to do about teacher evaluations in Montgomery County?
A: A group has been chewing on a teacher evaluation plan for about a year and a half. I was very pleased with a lot of the components, like involving other teachers, helping to determine strategies to improve teacher education, early staff development, targeting issues that need to be worked on at the individual, group and district level.
So I will be joining with groups already working on that, and try to work with them as we try to develop a model that can help lead the nation. Because teacher quality and expectations are a cornerstone of any school system. That's the key.
Q: In a Washington Post poll earlier this summer, teachers were asked if there was a teacher in their department or subject area who should not be teaching. Thirty-eight percent of the teachers polled in Montgomery County said yes.
A: Well, what's the odds of having 9,000 of any particular work force and they'll all be at the same level? I think the answer's obvious, that's virtually impossible. The next question is, what do you do with people who need help? How do you provide it, and at what point in time do you make a decision that, with regard to that individual, you've gone as far as you can go?
I can tell you what I'm looking for in an evaluation system, one that's truthful. It's just that simple. And one that helps the individual not get petrified by that information, paralyzed, but gets them on the road to a continuous improvement plan in a way that is logical, sequential and targeted, not just for the individual, but to help the individual improve student performance. How that's gone about is equally as important as if it's gone about. I've learned that over time.
Q: Some in North Carolina said you had a heavy-handed way of going about that.
A: There was a sense of urgency because it hadn't been gone about for a long time. It was a real problem, with the number of children there being able to read and write. I took over three districts that, the first set of writing scores, when I aggregated them, was 20 percent. So, we had some work to do.
Here, I've got a high quality district that has some unevenness. And here I have, obviously, compared to most places, a highly satisfied work force that is producing. We also need to think about ways of recognizing those that are making a big difference.
Q: You're a believer in testing. But critics say they don't tell the whole story.
A: Do I believe in testing just for the sake of testing? No. I've got a Dr. Seuss book over here that explains probably better than I could. (He reads sections from Seuss' "Hooray for Diffendoofer Day")
"Our teachers are remarkable they make up their own rules." That's point one, if you can do it at the sight level, that makes some difference. "My teacher's Mrs. Bonkers, she's bouncy as a flea. I'm not certain what she teachers, but I'm glad she teaches me." That's a real key.
The story goes on about the principal, Mr. Lowe, under pressure because of new tests. He tells the students: "If our small school does not do well, then it will be torn down, and you will have to go to school in dreary Flobbertown."
But Mrs. Bonkers steps in, "Don't fret, she said, "you've learned the things you need, to pass that test and many more, I'm certain you'll succeed." There's your expectations and there's your broader curriculum. It's more than just a test.
Q: School safety is a big concern, particularly after something like the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. That shook former Superintendent Paul Vance and spurred him to ask for money to put video cameras in all the high schools. But security experts say video cameras will never stop a Columbine, indeed Columbine had video cameras. What you need are more guidance counselors, school psychologists and a principal who knows what's going on. A report to the Board of Education last month showed Montgomery County schools are falling short on that.
A: I thought it was healthy they developed a report. I don't think it is just one magic thing you do, because you're dealing with humans, and humans are complex.
I think each building has got to think of their plan, working with their community and their parents and their children.
The responsibility from my office is to call the question, generate the kinds of support they need to address the issues and help the other agencies in the community concerned about safety to interrelate.
I don't think you can sweep under the rug and think it's not going to happen here.
Q: What about the recommendation for more school psychologists?
A: We used to think if we put a school nurse in every building, we'd cure all the health problems. I don't think we can just put another counselor in and say, this is your responsibility, safety. You're supposed to notice everybody. There are sometimes 2,000 kids in these buildings.
I think we all have to take a piece of the action.
Each parent or guardian or significant person in that child's life is going to have to start watching what's going on with that student. That goes with my whole theme of the factionalized environment.
The more factions you have, the more cracks you create for people to fall through.
Q: In Greensboro, your friend and supporter, school board member Johnny Hodge likened you to Gen. George Patton. Is that the style you intend to bring to Montgomery County?
A: No. So many things that we do in leadership positions are specific to what the issues are you have to address and the sense of urgency with which you have to address it. I think in this particular situation, it's a good organization, we can be better, we're not there, you don't have to go very far to find people to help you understand that.
While I have the same sense of urgency, that this is the only time a child has in school, I think you can temper that. You start addressing issues by asking questions. You start mobilizing forces to find a shared vision.
Q: So how would you describe what your approach will be in Montgomery County?
A: I kind of like Ike Eisenhower. I come from Kansas, too. I tend to think I can be Eisenhower here. And this is kind of a combined force. And what we're trying to do is make a landing and get a beachhead on a very difficult problem, called closing the gap, and no one group will be able to do it alone.
It will take a lot of coordination, collaboration, and you'll have some people take some objectives. But you've got to have more of a united front.