Ga. official top candidate to head Balto. Co. schools

Hairston held posts in Prince George's

February 26, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Joseph A. Hairston, who resigned last month after a stormy tenure as school superintendent in an Atlanta suburb, has emerged as the leading candidate to head Baltimore County's 106,000-student school system.

Members of a county search committee, including the school board president and vice president, met with Clayton County, Ga., school officials yesterday to discuss Hairston's job performance, according to sources in Baltimore County and Georgia.

Search committee members who went to Atlanta to meet with Hairston, and his former colleagues, could present their findings to the school board at a meeting this weekend, Baltimore County school sources said.

A favorable report could put Hairston, a former Prince George's County principal and area superintendent, on track to become Baltimore County's first black superintendent.

"Dr. Hairston is a very capable person, and if Baltimore County were fortunate enough to attract him, it would be a significant coup for the county," said Alvin Thornton, a former chairman of the Prince George's County Board of Education who worked with Hairston at Potomac and Suitland high schools, and when Hairston was an area superintendent. "The county would really benefit from the long years of experience he's had."

Hairston, 53, did not return phone calls to his home yesterday. Since his resignation as chief of schools in the 45,000-student Clayton County system last month, he has been working for that system as a consultant, said interim Superintendent Dan Colwell.

The reasons for Hairston's departure Jan. 10 after five years at the helm of the Clayton County system are unclear. "It was sudden," Colwell said. "I don't know that I can explain it. It is kind of a mystery."

While chief of the Clayton County schools, Hairston was known as an innovative educator who held teachers accountable for student achievement, sources said. High school students' SAT scores rose an average of 22 points in 1998, the largest increase in any metropolitan Atlanta school system that year.

As superintendent, Hairston focused on bringing technology to every classroom, making the Clayton County school system a national leader in that regard, said Steve Holmes, the school system's technology coordinator.

All 3,000 Clayton County teachers have classroom computers, Holmes said, and each classroom has at least four computers for student use.

Tackling achievement gap

Hairston tackled an achievement gap between black and white students by insisting that principals and teachers hold black students to the same high academic standards as white students, Colwell and others said.

Hairston clashed with members of the Clayton County school board and residents, according to newspaper articles, and drew complaints for how he treated staff.

Two years ago, he encountered a backlash from principals and board members when evaluations showed that some principals needed to improve. At one point, tensions between Hairston and the Clayton County Board of Education were so high that Hairston asked for a mediator to be present during an annual performance evaluation.

Hairston once shoved a local gadfly who shouted disparaging remarks at him after a closed meeting with the school board in 1997, according to a published account. A magistrate dismissed the complaint against Hairston, a former football player.

Hairston's consulting contract with the Clayton County school system is valid until next year, said Colwell, who couldn't say what effect a move to Baltimore County might have on Hairston's employment in Georgia.

If questions emerged regarding Hairston's job performance, Baltimore County school board members could consider other front-runners and schedule additional visits in seeking a replacement for retiring Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione. No such visits have been scheduled.

A profile of Hairston when he was in the running for the Clayton County job in 1995 listed him as having an undergraduate degree from Maryland State College, now the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. He received a master's degree from American University and a doctorate in education from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

He began his teaching career in Maryland and was a high school and middle school teacher for seven years before becoming an assistant principal in 1976. He became an area superintendent in Prince George's County in 1989.

High standards

In a biographical sketch distributed by the Clayton County system, Hairston demands teacher accountability and high standards for students.

"We are at the threshold of educational transformation as we move toward the 21st century," he said. "I am unequivocally committed to shape contemporary public education as it attempts to address the unique and emerging needs of a richly diverse student population."

Sun staff writer Howard Libit and staff researchers Dee Lyons and Paul McCardle contributed to this article.

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