Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast was hired for the specific task of closing the troubling achievement gap that separates students of different racial and ethnic groups. Yesterday, he presented his plan to do that.
His much-anticipated "Call to Action," delivered yesterday to the Board of Education, outlines some hard truths that accompany increasing diversity, immigration and poverty. And, while still vague on details, the plan proposes some innovative ways to, in Weast's words, "bend the trend" of test scores and achievement upward.
It includes such proposals as increased teacher training, parent resource centers, hands-on algebra instruction and "limitless" parental and community involvement in a system that once was viewed as an ivory tower.
"We've had a myopic view about who we are in Montgomery County and this arrogance," Gene Kijowski, a businessman, told the board. "And thousands and thousands of young people have not been served."
When Weast arrived in August as superintendent, Montgomery students' test scores and other measures of achievement mirrored a nationwide phenomenon: Black and Hispanic students generally scored lower than their white and Asian classmates. Weast likened the school system to a supertanker headed for an iceberg, with the successes people liked to talk about perched above the surface and the problems they didn't lurking underneath.
"The iceberg metaphor really struck me," Weast said in an interview. "Underneath were a lot of strong feelings, a lot of hurt and a lot of data that should direct decision-making to find new and innovative ways to solve problems."
Weast said his plan, which he calls a work in progress, is the first major attempt to turn the supertanker around.
Hiawatha Fountain, associate superintendent for pupil and community services, called the presentation of the plan in the packed board room a "rare and precious moment." In a new school system video set to rock music, the narrator said that, finally, the world-class school system admitted it had been a world-class system for only some of its students. But here was the plan to make it so for all.
While big on themes and sketchy on details, Weast's strategy does include proposals for "looping," or having one teacher stay with a group of students over several years, multi-age instruction, all-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes in needy areas. He plans to back up these steps with money in the budget he will present next month.
And that, say many community members, is one of the things that makes this plan different.
"We've had the Success for Every Student in the past. But there was never any acknowledgment of what it would take to turn the rhetoric into reality," said Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association. "This begins to."
School officials and activists highlighted another difference. Instead of a mandate from on high, with community members commenting or sniping on the sidelines, Weast brought together very different people with very different agendas. Their names are listed on the back page of the plan. They explained different parts of it to the board. They recited together, like the Pledge of Allegiance, the new "mission statement."
And at the end of the meeting, they filled out sheets spelling out what they would be willing to do to help and left them in a big bowl on a side table.
"Because so many people were involved, you're going to see results," said Nivea C. Berrios, a Hispanic community activist and bilingual educator. "I think the change is really coming. I can feel it, from the community."
Board member Nancy J. King (Upcounty) said she could feel the energy in the room. "In the past, we've had community input and we've said 'thanks a lot' and gone ahead and done what we've wanted," she said. "Now, there's huge community buy-in. That will make the difference."
Linna Barnes, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said she particularly supports the plan's call for more parental involvement. "We've been working on that for years, but it's almost impossible to have a volunteer organization provide the necessary support to reach out to those parents," she said. "Now it looks like there will be the resources from the schools to do that."
Not everyone was as enthusiastic. John Smith, who was chairman of former superintendent Paul Vance's advisory committee on minorities in honors courses, said he'd seen it all before. "We've had plan after plan after plan," he said. "I hope it works. But I have to wax conservative. I want to see results."
Weast is clear he has to deliver on a mandate he inherited from Vance: to prevent white and middle-class flight. "We'll get flight if we don't get performance," he said. "That's what this plan recognizes."
CAPTION: Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said new approaches are needed to help close the gap on minority student achievement.