6 months into job, O'Rourke thrives

Head of schools works by listening, then moving quickly

January 14, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The ladies and gentlemen in the audience sat cross-legged in even rows, their eyes locked on the speaker. It was obvious by the nodding heads and the murmured "umm-hmms" that his speech was moving them.

Afterward, listeners called the man's oration "inspiring."

If there were a choir in the room, you might have called it church.

But it was the Howard County Board of Education. The speaker was Superintendent John R. O'Rourke. And the sermon was O'Rourke's presentation of his first operating budget to his rapt congregation: the school board and Howard residents.

O'Rourke was hired as a quiet leader. Before he was named superintendent in February, then-board Vice Chairman Jane B. Schuchardt said, "I'm not looking for a clean sweep. We want someone who will come in and carry on the work that's been done."

But in the six months O'Rourke has been in his new job, he has made sweeping changes.

He has asked for the names of all third-graders who are below grade level in reading or math, and he wants individual plans of improvement designed for each of them.

He is making many of the county's formerly autonomous schools accountable by implementing a mandatory, highly structured management plan.

And he is responding to parent and community complaints in ways big and small - from considering restoration of vocational education to the county's college-obsessed schools to asking for county-supplied graphing calculators in classrooms.

For many listeners, O'Rourke's presentation of his first spending plan last week sealed the notion that although he may have a laid-back personality, his leadership will be anything but quiet.

"I think the community sees John O'Rourke as a visionary for the school system," said parent Courtney Watson of Ellicott City. "I think a good example of that vision was the presentation he gave [Thursday night] on the operating budget. He addressed so many of the issues that have been raised in the community over the last several years."

Among those issues he detailed with a PowerPoint presentation were equity, achievement gaps, staffing, special education and accountability.

The presentation of the $374.8 million budget was organized in such a way that very few numbers were mentioned.

Instead, he related ideas, beliefs, plans and goals.

Weaving in some of his psychology background, he explained why he was eliminating a term for low-performing schools - "focus schools" - that has been used in the system for six years.

Labels, he said, can sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies, giving "permission" to exhibit the characteristics the label denotes.

"And I am not going to be part of any system that gives permission for less than the very best," O'Rourke told the audience.

After that pronouncement, the "oohs" and "ahhs" became more audible.

"He's very impressive," Eileen Woodbury, the school system's special assistant for equity assurance, whispered to a neighbor in the audience.

Even those who missed the presentation said they were moved by the substance of the speech, as they were by similar speeches O'Rourke has made throughout the county.

"I'm interested in results, and I hear him talking results," said County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone. "I don't hear him talking necessarily about more process. I hear him talking about getting things done."

Descriptions of O'Rourke's style of leadership have made their way to state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, who called O'Rourke "innovative."

"I am very excited about the initiatives he's undertaking," Grasmick said last week. "I love the third-grade one. Accepting personal responsibility ... that was certainly music to my ears. His agenda is so in tandem with what we're doing at the state level, and I really appreciate that."

Even traditional critics of the school system find O'Rourke's leadership encouraging.

"He goes out and seeks input and tries to find out what people think needs to be done and tries to build a consensus," said Allen Dyer, who lost a bid for school board last fall. "It's a Howard County public school system. I think he recognizes that the public education system has to have a much broader base than just the parents and just the teachers."

In fact, community members say input-seeking is something of an O'Rourke hallmark, even just a half-year into his job.

His willingness to listen and his skill at doing so have become almost famous.

"He even came to a HEAR [Howard Education Activists for Reform] meeting when we were throwing bricks at the window," Dyer said. "And that was very impressive."

Although O'Rourke's predecessor, Michael E. Hickey, left the school system as a revered figure, county leaders say O'Rourke's way of listening and leading was overdue.

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