New chief of schools sponsors retreat

in Baltimore Co. focus of session with board

June 12, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Joe A. Hairston,soon-to-be schools superintendent in Baltimore County, rallied school board members at a retreat over the weekend, saying he wants to show a united front to the "99 percent of people who respond negatively to schools."

Hairston, who will become the county's new schools chief July 1,said he wants no bickering between board members, school administrators and county politicians. It is too destructive to the school system, he said.

"Children won't benefit from our best effort if we are at odds with each other," he said. "Children do pretty much what they see us do."

"We are a good school system, but we can't rest on our laurels," he said.

After serving five years as schools superintendent in Clayton County,Georgia, Hairston is returning to Maryland, where he worked for 27 yearsin the Prince George's County school system. He will replace retiring Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione.

During the retreat sessions Saturday and yesterday, which were open and optimistic in nature, Hairston said he has no personal agenda, and called for input from various groups, including the teachers union, parents, and even local media.

"I can't do this without you," he told members of the Board of Education, several of whom seemed energized by his words. Later, he asked a newspaper reporter to "join the team."

Hairston surprised board members with facts they seemed not to know about the school system they oversee. Many were amazed when he told them that only half of Baltimore County high school graduates meet admission requirements for the University of Maryland. Also, only half of county high school students take the SAT, an exam most colleges and universities require for admission.

Apart from motivational comments, some initial insights and gentle reminders about keeping meetings on track and on time, Hairston let school board members do most of the talking.

They spent some time expressing frustrations.

Often, school board members don't have the political or fiscal power to do the things they would like, they said. They don't appreciate hearing about major funding initiatives - such as the recent decision by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger to spend $13 million at Woodlawn High School for an addition - from news reporters. And they don't like it when staff members hide the truth.

"If it isn't as perfect as you'd like it to be, just tell us," school board member James E. Walkersaid.

"We need to make sure everyone realizes that, yes, we are all in this together," said school board member Carolyn Ross-Holmes,who added that she believes Hairston's "positive energy" will ease tensions at school system headquarters in Towson. "We're in for a positive change. I can feel it already."

Board members spent a good part of the weekend discussing how to provide better support for teachers. Too often, they said, countywide and statewide tests are viewed as punitive measures to catch underachievers - both teachers and students - resulting in low morale at some schools.

Board members want to beef up curriculum offices with moreemployees to provide better direction for teachers so they understand what the board expects children to know and when, they said.

"We have to help them to be the best they can for the good of the children," board Vice President Phyllis Ettingersaid. "Teachers should be at the top of the system, and that's not how it is now."

Hairston and the school board held off from setting specific goals during the retreat. They plan to do so this summer, after a team of five consultants completes a survey of employees.

Said Hairston: "The potential for us to get better is enormous."

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