Superintendent Eric J. Smith skipped the platitudes yesterday and gave concrete promises to the Anne Arundel school board on how he would improve student performance.
At the board's summer retreat, Smith pledged to narrow the racial achievement gap in test scores, improve special education and, by the end of his four-year term, get 85 percent of third-graders reading on grade level.
The last is a tall order - last year, 41.3 percent of county third-graders read at a satisfactory level, according to the state. But Smith was undaunted and said that if he can give his staff clear goals, they can meet them.
"Man, I'm champing at the bit. I'm ready to get going," he told the board yesterday, three weeks into his term. He noted that by the end of third grade, the most needy children have been in public schools for five years - enough time to see results.
"If we can't get these little younguns to read competitively by third grade, then we ought to be out selling vouchers right now," Smith said.
He pledged to achieve several other benchmarks over the next four years. Among them: to narrow the racial achievement gap to 10 percent and to increase by 10 percent the number of special education students who graduate with a regular high school diploma.
Smith has a distance to go to meet these goals. On sixth-grade math scores, white students score 32 percentage points higher than black students in Anne Arundel County. Wide gaps also exist in reading and writing scores.
Specific promises such as Smith's are rare in education. More often, Smith said, administrators set impossibly high goals or offer empty slogans. Smith told the school board such gestures do no good.
"You've got 10,000 employees and a $603 million school system waiting for direction," he said. "The talent in this room and in Anne Arundel County wants this board to unleash it."
Smith has a personal stake in setting - and meeting - those goals. He is eligible to receive a bonus of up to $20,000 every year atop his $197,000 salary if he meets goals he sets with the board. Smith will present the board in two weeks with a list of what he would like to achieve this year. The board can revise the list.
His highest-priority goals, Smith said, include increasing the number of eighth-graders who pass a rigorous Algebra I course and the number of high school students taking advanced placement courses. He also wants to increase the number of high schoolers involved in extracurricular activities.
Board members said they've been pleased with what they see.
"It's ambitious, but I think it's achievable," board member Ned Carey of Brooklyn Park said about the superintendent's goals. "He's doing all the right things right now."
Yesterday's retreat at the Arlington Echo Outdoor Recreation Center on the Severn River was a chance for the board members to figure out how they will work with the new superintendent and with each other.
They agreed to streamline meetings, but board President Michael J. McNelly also said he would put on the agenda any item requested by a board member. In the past, two board members were required to get an item on the agenda.
Staffers applauded the specific goals and changes discussed by Smith and the board.
"I think there was major progress made here today," said Ralph Luther, director of facilities and construction, "more than I've seen in an awful long time."