The boxes on the big table in his office still need unpacking, but new Prince William County School Superintendent Steven L. Walts said that he can attend to such matters later. So what if a photograph of him and President Bush -- taken recently at his previous school division in Greece, N.Y. -- is still inside one of those boxes and has yet to be framed and hung?
In his first few days on the job, Walts, who turned 51 this month, is trying to spend as much time possible venturing beyond his office and meeting teachers, students, School Board members and county officials as he prepares for the start of the academic year Sept. 6.
Walts officially succeed longtime schools chief Edward L. Kelly on July 1, and the bulk of his first few months will consist of an aggressive courtship and an examination of where improvements can be made.
"When there's a regime change, people are suspect . . . and are fearful of the unknown," Walts said during an interview in his office Friday. "I have tremendous confidence in the staff. I want to know them as people and have some time to hear about what issues are important to them as individuals. How can we work as a team? That's a really big one, and getting their assessment of the district."
When he moved to Woodbridge from his home in Upstate New York a little more than a week ago, he traveled straight to a conference in Boston on school divisions' public relations and returned in the middle of last week. On his first day back -- and first full day overseeing the school division -- Walts visited Swans Creek Elementary School in Dumfries to see a summer school program in action and a full-day kindergarten.
Walts helped bring all-day kindergarten to all the elementary schools in the Greece school division. Asked whether he would like to do the same in Prince William, Walts said he wants to "continue to foster an expansion" of such early childhood education programs, acknowledging with a slight laugh that he doesn't want to alarm taxpayers. In his seven years in Greece, Walts instituted several initiatives that dramatically increased test scores -- as well as the tax rate. They also triggered criticism from a relatively small but ardent group.
For now, Walts -- who said he is careful not to criticize before knowing all the facts -- has many questions, even though, he acknowledged, school officials might have already been working on the answers long before he arrived. What is the system doing to ensure the most advanced professional development courses are available? Is site-based management -- the concept Kelly introduced several years ago that gives schools control over their budgets -- working as best as it can?
"I want to ensure teachers that they have the resources to do an ever-increasing demanding job," Walts said. "Prior to the [Standards of Learning exams] and the No Child Left Behind law, it was a different ballgame."
In addition to closing the achievement gap between minority and white students and ensuring that students are meeting state SOL benchmarks, a priority will be strengthening the county's early childhood education programs to bolster reading and math performances, he said.
"There's so much evidence that if you have them grounded early, you get a much better shot at success," he said.
Addressing Prince William's increasing diversity, he said he hopes to reach out to non-English-speaking parents and make sure that they are encouraged to be active in schools.
In the meantime, Walts has appointments to schedule and positions to fill. He said he hopes to meet individually with each School Board member. He has several high-ranking positions to fill, including an area superintendent.
He also has some boxes to unpack and a picture of the president to display.