When St. Mary's County public school students return to classes Monday, new Superintendent Michael J. Martirano hopes that everyone will already be familiar with his new motto: "Work hard and be nice."
It has been attached to school system e-mails and will be on school marquees, he said this week, and it illustrates his focus on improving academic achievement and school safety.
Since July 1, Martirano has created a plan to "chart the course to excellence," he said. Among his priorities are better standardized test scores and improved communication among the administration, parents and schools.
He said his goal will be to send the message: "I'm from the central administration, and I'm here to help."
The school system is revamping its Web site, and the changes are expected to be online by September or October, he said. School officials want the site to be more interactive and attractive for parents as well as a recruiting tool for new teachers.
Martirano said he wants to make sure each school's Web site is updated regularly. "We're moving in that direction to be extremely responsive and caring to the community," he said.
As the final days of summer vacation passed, about 20 teaching positions remained unfilled, as did one administration post: the assistant principal at Leonardtown Elementary School.
The new superintendent said he plans to increase emphasis on teacher training to ensure the curriculum is aligned with Maryland's voluntary curriculum. He has rearranged the organizational structure by upgrading the position of staff developer to a new post called the director of professional and organizational development. Jeffrey Maher will hold this position.
"It isn't always about adding resources, it's about ensuring your resources are appropriately allocated," said Cathy Allen, chairman of the Board of Education. "It really elevates the focus on professional development."
When school opens in St. Mary's, two facilities -- Margaret Brent Middle School in Helen and the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center in Leonardtown -- will be undergoing renovations.
The scores on the state High School Assessment tests for St. Mary's County, released this week, indicated that another of Martirano's priorities, to decrease the achievement gap between white and minority students, remains a challenging issue. The achievement gap on the tests widened in biology and government tests. In biology, for example, 72.9 percent of white students passed, compared with 32 percent of black students.
Many of the lowest test scores were found at Great Mills High School, where 33.1 percent of students passed the algebra test. In biology, 43.3 percent passed, a decline of 13.1 percentage points from last year.
This year, all St. Mary's algebra students will use a new instructional program, Cognitive Tutor, which has been adopted in several other Maryland counties. Also, a new database of student performance will be available for teachers and administrators this year so they can more easily identify students who need improvement, Martirano said.
"I don't want the teachers spending their time pulling together all the files, we want to do that for them," Martirano said.
Among the administration's biggest concerns is that the High School Assessment tests will be a graduation requirement for the current crop of ninth-graders.
"I am still working very hard," said Charles Ridgell, director of secondary instruction and school improvement. "We do need to have every ninth-grader pass."