Baltimore County, Meet Stuart Berger

ANDREW RATNER

September 05, 1992|By ANDREW RATNER

The board of writers and editors that helps form the editorial opinions of The Sun meets several times a week with newsmakers from around the state for briefings on various topics. The speakers include ambassadors, political candidates and corporate executives. Few of them, however, have ever held the board so rapt as Stuart D. Berger, the new superintendent of schools for Baltimore County.

The board had been anxious to meet him because he replaces a very prolific superintendent, Robert Y. Dubel, in the fourth largest school system in Maryland (and the 26th largest in the nation), and also because of the controversial reputation he acquired as a superintendent in Frederick and Wichita, Kan. His record is of an agent of change who shook up those school systems.

Few editorial board guests have ever been as unpretentious as the 49-year-old Dr. Berger, either. He didn't bring an entourage, didn't comb his hair, came in through the building's delivery entrance, and dove into a free-flowing monologue with hardly an introduction.

Some people you meet are a closed book emotionally; Dr. Berger is an electric billboard. It might be hard to present a clearer sense of Baltimore County's new school chief than through his own words.

The following quotes came primarily from a principals' retreat in Middle River and at one-on-one sessions with some new teachers at his office in Greenwood, both of which he allowed me to attend:

On teachers: "You know the bumper stickers that say, 'If you can read this thank a teacher.' Why not, 'If you haven't a clue as to what this says, it's the teacher's fault.' . . . The teachers [under me] will be given much more freedom than they have ever been given before. They will also be more accountable than they've ever been before."

On parents: "I believe they should have very little say about what happens to other people's children and a great deal of say in what happens to theirs."

On the county system: "(Baltimore County) gives grades A, B, C, D and E in 1st grade. Does any other system in Maryland do that? No. It's part of this blankety-blank academic rigor game you're playing. It's morally bankrupt to give a little kid an A, B, C or D."

On Dulaney High School, which draws students from one of the richer areas of Baltimore County: "I have a bad attitude about that school already . . . At one point, Dulaney had no teacher in the school less than 45 years old. They'd leave Dundalk and go to Dulaney. People escape to that school . . . The major philosophical change is that the system must be equitable, but not equal . . . If Landsdowne (High) can do what Dulaney does, we will be an outstanding school district. Will we do it? No. Will we try? You bet."

On his fiery reputation: "My wife said we don't need to move here. We know what's going to happen. Why don't we just send 'em the script . . . They have a pool [among employees on how long I'll last.] I tell them, 'Take a high number.' . . . I have three children in college. I will not last a year and a half. It's impossible. I have to last at least four."

His words may come off as harsh, arrogant, egotistical; in retrospect, maybe Dr. Berger's quotes don't do him justice.

Beneath the bluster, you feel that the man will cherish and reward teachers who have a strong sense of what they want to accomplish, as much as any boss they will know. He views students and parents as consumers and the school system as a merchant that must provide what the consumers need.

It's a credit to the Board of Education that it was willing to risk the discomfort his style will evoke in an attempt to squeeze greater accomplishment from the system's strained resources.

Dr. Berger's start may go more smoothly if he does two things:

First, as he admonishes his staff not to judge the potential of BTC children too hastily, he shouldn't be so quick to size up his staff. Although he strongly believes he can intuitively analyze personnel, adults, like children, can be underestimated.

Second, Dr. Dubel earned admiration in his 16 years of leading the system. Dr. Berger might tread lightly on criticizing the way things have been done, even as he seeks change. He must win over the people who so trusted Dr. Dubel; some of them will be his greatest assets.

Education is unique as the single field in which everyone has experience. Many people have never visited a steel factory, police headquarters or newspaper editorial board, but everyone has been to school. The profession has become so masked in educationese and condescension, though, that public confidence has been lost. Dr. Berger will go a long way to putting straight-talk and rapid response back into public education.

Andrew Ratner writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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