Harford schools' ``customer-first'' policy will seek ways to serve students better Superintendent stresses county's accountability

September 02, 1997|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

In the business world, the customer comes first.

Now Harford County wants to apply that principle to its schools.

In a program funded by corporate donations, every employee -- from custodian to superintendent -- is being trained in teamwork, problem-solving and other elements of the customer-first philosophy. Local officials say the Continuous Quality Improvement program marks the first time in Maryland that such training has been applied so broadly.

Superintendent Jeffery N. Grotsky said the changing face of education calls for school systems to increasingly "be accountable and show improvement," much like businesses. Harford's system -- which welcomes students back today -- has about 5,000 employees and a budget of more than $200 million.

"We are the second-largest employer in the county behind Aberdeen Proving Ground," Grotsky said. "As we look at public education and see that we have competition from charter schools and others, we have no choice but to look for ways to be more effective."

State officials appear to agree. Nancy S. Grasmick, the Maryland superintendent of schools, wrote to Grotsky this summer: "As you know, it is my hope that eventually all school system staff around the State could be trained in quality practices."

Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said that although the department has no immediate plans to implement such a program statewide, Grasmick supports Harford's plan. "She most certainly felt that the school systems could benefit greatly from quality-control programs," Peiffer said.

A two-day seminar adapted from Xerox Corp's. "Leadership Through Quality" program encourages employees to become involved in better serving "customers" -- the students.

The approach is the latest brainchild of Grotsky, who brought a corporate style to the fast-growing school system last year. He has implemented programs such as using administrators to work occasionally as substitute teachers.

About 800 employees have been trained, including 42 administrators, supervisors and principals who will act as trainers, officials said. The remaining staff members will be trained by region, beginning with Edgewood Middle School and William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School on Sept. 29 and 30.

Grotsky said $90,000 of the $92,000 needed to fund the program has been provided by businesses, including Upper Chesapeake Health Systems, the Harford County Association of Realtors and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

"The business community has been really great about helping us to launch this," Grotsky said. "We are all very excited."

Linda J. Chamberlin, principal of Forest Lakes Elementary, and her staff have had the opportunity to use what they learned. Her school will open for the first time today, and staffers have used the problem-solving techniques to iron out last-minute details such as hallway traffic and the placement of supplies.

"It's been very effective," said Chamberlin, whose school will have 600 students. "We have learned how to function as a team, and you really need teamwork when you are opening a new school."

Christina Reynolds, supervisor of professional development for the Harford schools, said Continuous Quality Improvement training focuses on "the language of quality," interactive skills and a six-step problem-solving process.

"We want everyone to feel valued and to be more involved in the decision-making at the schools," Reynolds said. "We also believe that once teachers fully understand CQI, they will be able to impart that knowledge to their students.

"The best thing is that we will all be speaking the same language."

Bob Anastasi, a former Montgomery County principal who is executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable Foundation, introduced Grotsky to local Xerox officials to get the program started. Anastasi said the partnership between businesses and schools will grow stronger over time.

"The business community knows that we all have to work together to raise student achievement," Anastasi said. "It's everyone's problem."

Pub Date: 9/02/97

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