Hairston holds talk with black community

Says minority children need positive role models

March 10, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

African-American parents, teachers and residents met last night with the man who is expected to become Baltimore County's next schools superintendent and asked him to explain his views on student achievement and the proper use of school resources.

"Race is scientifically insignificant when it comes to academic success," Joseph A. Hairston told members of the African-American Advisory Group, the Baltimore County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Baltimore County Alliance of Black School Educators.

"Something else is at play," he said. "Labels are separating us."

Hairston said many black children are not focused academically and that too many of them believe they will be sports stars or entertainers. In the end, some leave school without the skills they need to survive in a complex economy.

Hairston's answer to the problem: positive role models.

Hairston believes that supportive, high-achieving mentors -- from the superintendent to classroom teachers to parents -- can turn around a school system and close the achievement gap. "I've seen it work before," he said.

Hairston wraps up a weeklong series of meetings with parents, teachers and administrators today. He is expected to return to Towson on Tuesday, when the Board of Education is expected to approve his appointment, making him Baltimore County's first black superintendent.

School board members delayed Hairston's appointment for two weeks Feb. 29 at the request of the county executive and the County Council to allow him more time to meet with the public.

At yesterday's meeting, Hairston said he hopes to put together a plan for the school system to balance the distribution of school resources -- including books, phones and computers -- within three to six months after he takes over the county's 162 schools around July 1.

For the first time in a public meeting, Hairston provided a glimpse into his past.

As a child, he moved often because his father was in the Navy, an experience that would teach him to be open-minded and flexible and to "look at life a little differently," he said.

Hairston recalled a time when a teacher whispered in his ear, "You can do this. I know you can do this."

It's a lesson he's never forgotten.

Russell Kelley, a member of the African-American Advisory Group, asked Hairston to describe his initial perception of county schools.

"There is a lack of equal distribution of resources throughout the system," Hairston said. "It's not unique to Baltimore County. Even in Montgomery County they have the same problem."

To remedy the situation, Hairston recommended "strong accounting" to prove to county officials -- who control the school system's operating budget -- that more money is needed.

Winfield Elementary School Principal Elliott Burgess, a member of the Baltimore County Alliance of Black School Educators, asked Hairston how he would deal with the flight of young teachers from poor performing schools to those with better test scores.

Hairston said it's up to principals to hire teachers who show a commitment to a community. He sympathized with Burgess, acknowledging that a national teacher shortage and a booming job market has made it difficult for many school systems to keep good teachers.

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