Montgomery County’s new schools chief should focus resources and attention on consistently underperforming schools and groups of students that are sometimes obscured by the school system’s overall success, according to a report released this week.
The analysis by a team of educators is intended to shape the priority list for Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, who assumed the post in July after the 12-year tenure of Jerry D. Weast that brought national recognition along with stronger academic results to the diversifying county.
“The Montgomery County Public Schools, the 16th largest school district in the nation, has a long-standing and well-deserved reputation for excellence,” the report began. “Still, there is room to grow.’”
While 34 schools have been recognized by the federal government as “Blue Ribbon schools” for their performance, 24 have been targeted for improvement by the Maryland Education Department for low performance. The report highlighted a disparity of nearly 40 percentage points between advanced passing rates for African American and Hispanic students compared with Asian and white students on the eighth-grade state reading test, among other performance disparities.
The 37-page document was written by a “transition team” led by Robert Peterkin, a long-term mentor of Starr’s who directs the urban superintendent’s program at Harvard University that Starr attended. The group of local and national educators reviewed school system policies, research and data over the summer and interviewed principals, employee groups and parents.
The feedback is an important part of Starr’s introduction to the 147,000-student system. He had visited 33 of the county’s schools by Monday, but he has vowed to see all 200 before the school year is finished.
The 41-year-old recruit from Stamford, Conn., will be hosting town hall meetings with students and an occasional public talk in which he will discuss books about different educational philosophies. He also is conducting a series of “listen and learn” events across the county to elicit feedback from parents and community members.
At one such event Monday night, about 100 parents and a few students gathered under bright cafeteria lights at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington to greet the new superintendent. For 90 minutes, they took turns asking questions and voicing concerns into a microphone, while a school employee took notes on big sheets of white paper taped to the wall.
Some parents urged Starr to pay more attention to math and science programs; others said too little attention is being paid to arts and foreign languages. Parents also complained about long waiting lists for language immersion programs and the differences in quality between magnet programs and the schools that host them, or between their children’s schools and those a few neighborhoods away.
In response, Starr spoke frequently of the “delicate balancing act” his job requires, and he distinguished between things he “would love to do as an educator and a parent” and the things that his shrinking budget will allow.
In an interview, he said that addressing variable quality within the school system is his top priority. He said he plans to analyze why some schools with similar demographics — or some classrooms within the same school — produce very different results. Through that process, he hopes to develop more ways to support improvements.
The transition team’s report highlighted a range of additional challenges for Starr, including enhancing teacher training, scaling back bureaucracy and streamlining a range of measures already aimed at school reform.