Achievements, disputes mark Hickey's tenure

January 22, 1995|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

In his 11 years as Howard County's school superintendent, Michael E. Hickey has won high praise for running a school system that tops the state in achievement.

But he has also been on the receiving end of tongue-lashings from parents and teachers angered by his decisions to cut salaries, redistrict schools, slash long-standing programs and transfer administrators.

Now the 56-year-old educator, one of two finalists for the top school post in Wake County, N.C., is in the limelight over whether he will run Howard's 36,000-student school system for a fourth four-year term that would begin in 1996.

Fear that he may leave for the Wake post prompted the Howard school board to offer him reappointment Thursday night. The board had earlier planned to wait until it finished his annual evaluation in a few weeks.

Dr. Hickey had said in June that he wanted to stay in Howard County for another four-year term.

Dr. Hickey -- in Raleigh, N.C., this weekend to look over the Wake schools -- did not immediately respond to the board's offer, according to Susan Cook, Howard's board chairwoman.

There are some Howard residents who want to see him go.

"I have not been impressed with his performance in terms of putting the students' needs at the top of the list," said Carol Bradley, a parent who unsuccessfully lobbied to get gymnastics reinstated as a high school sport in 1993. "He showed poor leadership. He wasn't willing to compromise."

"I'd like to see a change," said Pat Flynn, a North Laurel parent, still upset over teacher pay cuts in 1991. "I think he's been here long enough. Maybe he needs a change, and Howard County needs a change."

Praise from many

But there are many who want him to stay.

"He has tremendous foresight and is very progressive," said Jan Smyers, past chairwoman of the school board's citizens advisory committee. "The reason Howard County is so successful is because of that. If it doesn't come from the top, it's not going to happen."

Mary Toth, head of the Howard County Arts Council, praised Dr. Hickey for developing a more defined and sequential art curriculum for county students. She said that without his vision, the county and the school system never would have been able to agree to build a state-of-the-art performing arts theater at Wilde Lake High School, now under reconstruction.

"Dr. Hickey has always been open to new ideas, and that's been very valuable," she said.

'Overall quality'

During his tenure, Dr. Hickey oversaw a school system that won statewide recognition for its innovative programs, such as four-period schedules and human relations initiatives.

"The overall quality of the instructional program is one of the things I'm most proud of," Dr. Hickey said in an interview last week. "That's been the people I have hired and promoted and put in leadership positions."

'A long way to go'

Dr. Hickey is credited with fostering strong parent involvement in the schools and school-business partnerships. More than 150 businesses have signed up to volunteer personnel and services to help the county's 57 schools since 1986.

"It's started and grown to the point where it's not a limited partnership, but partners are more than willing to get into the school building and roll up their sleeves and do whatever is necessary," the board's Ms. Cook said.

In an interview last week, Dr. Hickey calls his "biggest disappointment" his inability to close the achievement gap between black and other students. "I've not been able to do more to do that," he said. "Although we've made some gains, we still have a long way to go."

The BSAP program

Dr. Hickey started a Black Student Achievement Program (BSAP) in 1986 to boost black students' performance. But black students still have the lowest test scores and a disproportionately higher suspension rate.

"He really has tried," said Bobbie Crews, head of the BSAP's parent advisory council. "But as anything goes, it may be a little bit too late. He really did try to do the best in his power."

Dr. Hickey was in Wake County Friday and yesterday, meeting teachers, students and staff. Wake school officials tried to entice him with a much larger system with an urban-suburban mix, in a fast-growing, affluent county rated "most livable" in the nation by Money magazine.

"I thought he was a very good fit for the county," said Susan Jernigan, the Charlotte-based consultant who found him for Wake County. "They'd like to be No. 1 in everything too. I think he's the right person to get them there."

Tough competition

Dr. Hickey faces tough competition from Wake County's other finalist, 50-year-old Jim Surratt, a North Carolina native who heads a 37,000-student suburban school system near Dallas. Wake school officials have said they would like a native of their state to become superintendent.

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