School chief takes leave

The Education Beat

Retirement: Montgomery's superintendent looks back at decades of advances and some disappointments, and looks ahead to quality time for research in Israel and Cuba.

June 09, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

PAUL L. VANCE TURNS 68 next week and two weeks later retires after eight years as superintendent of Montgomery County schools. After that he wants to live on a kibbutz.

Vance leaves not under a cloud, but under sunny skies, having declined a third four-year term. That's unusual for a school chief in one of the nation's largest and most prominent districts, one in which political tides shift constantly and parents (who include Cabinet secretaries, medical researchers and illegal immigrants) keep a watchful eye on school affairs.

Born and raised in Philadelphia during the Depression, Vance became a teacher and middle school principal there before moving to Baltimore as a Rockefeller fellow in education administration in the mid-1970s. It was the Baltimore experience that prepared him for Montgomery, Vance said in an interview Monday in his Rockville office.

Here's part of that conversation:

What did you learn from Baltimore?

I learned so much, so much. The lesson I learned above all is what happens to reformers. They don't last long. They're invited in to do their Wyatt Earp act, and then they become politically disposable. I watched that happen to my mentor in Baltimore, Roland Patterson, and it convinced me to become an inclusive type of administrator. I determined that no matter where my opposition came from, I needed to listen.

Sometimes the opposition's views are better than mine. That happened here with special education and gifted and talented programs.

You've spent 21 years in Montgomery. From the outside, the education streets appear paved with gold, but it's actually financially stressed, isn't it?

There've been incredible social and economic changes in Montgomery, and you're right, it is very much a multilingual urban system with all the attendant problems. During my first 12 years, there was a heavy influx of Asians and Hispanics, followed by several other groups. Montgomery is just over half white. It's on the verge of becoming a majority-minority district. One in 20 students was eligible for free or reduced-price lunches when I came 21 years ago. One in four is today.

When I became superintendent, I saw these demographic changes and the myths associated with people of color as potentially damaging. I became preoccupied with middle-class flight, which in Montgomery defies color. With the possible exception of Atlanta, we have more African-Americans with graduate degrees and high incomes than anywhere else in the nation.

The thing I'm most proud of is that not only have we stabilized the system, but we've developed incredible support from the business and corporate communities, who had to be convinced that the drawbridge was down.

Despite all the changes and the stress, our youngsters point by point are doing better today than they were 21 years ago. I love to just put that out there, you know?

What have you accomplished academically?

We raised the bar until our standards are higher than the state's. For example, it's impossible to graduate from high school in Montgomery without three years of higher-level math.

We also attacked reading aggressively. In 1997, after The Sun's first "Reading by 9" series and a major article in Newsweek, we found out that the major brain research was being done by a Montgomery countian at NIH [the National Institutes of Health]. We asked them to meet with our instructional staff. We revamped our program, extended reading instruction to 90 minutes a day, determined that no reading teacher should have more than 15 students and put stronger emphasis on phonics.

Just the narrative of the first-year results, when we did just the low-income schools, was overwhelming. This fall we'll have all elementary schools in the program. We're training the teachers this summer.

What's been your major failure, or disappointment?

The obvious one. We just haven't been able to move African-American and Latino youngsters at the pace we hoped we could. When I came in as superintendent, I thought with changes and initiatives, we'd see a spurt of progress. It didn't happen. I now understand that progress is incremental. It will be incremental.

Also, all the measures we take apply to everyone. So while Montgomery County's African-Americans have higher scores on Advanced Placement exams than any other group of African-Americans in the nation, white scores are wonderful, too. And while black and Latino SAT scores have increased 10 to 12 percent, whites' and Asians' scores are up by 20 to 22 percent.

Social promotion hasn't been a real issue in Montgomery. True to our reputation, our issue is acceleration. It seems everyone has a gifted and talented child. That includes the superintendent. I had three kids go through the system. All were gifted, and I wanted to know why they weren't in honors or Advanced Placement courses, just like the parents who line up outside my door.

You opposed the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) when it came into being. How do you feel about it now?

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