Arundel schools chief off, running

New superintendent quick to put focus on instruction

`If we can't improve ... I will resign'

August 26, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The superintendent roared. He pounded the lectern. He punched the air. And then Eric J. Smith, the supercharged new schools chief in Anne Arundel County, shocked his audience with a blunt promise.

"If we can't improve the level of achievement in the Anne Arundel County school system," he told hundreds of principals and administrators at a late-summer pep rally, "I will resign."

To make himself clear, he said it again: "If we can't come up with strategies and mechanisms to improve achievement, I will resign."

No one who has met Smith thinks that will happen. They have no doubt that Smith will help turn Anne Arundel's school system -- long an underperformer on standardized tests -- into a state leader.

Neither does he.

In less than two months on the job, Smith has made fundamental changes in the way business is done in Maryland's fifth-largest school system, which begins welcoming back students tomorrow. He imposed a back-to-basics reading and math curriculum in 14 schools. He overhauled school construction, cutting the cost of new schools by 20 percent.

And -- most shocking to some -- he announced that the beloved 77-year-old Ferndale Elementary School will be closed for the year because water damage and poor air quality make it unsafe for children. The previous superintendent and school board had debated what to do with Ferndale for three years. Smith made up his mind in a month.

"He's made more decisions in the last two weeks than were made in the last two years," said state Del. James E. Rzepkowski, a Linthicum Republican who is a product of the county school system. "I'm impressed."

Smith insists that's just his style, and that he won't let up. When Anne Arundel's 75,000 students return to school, many of them will find a different environment than what they left less than three months ago.

"We've had a little bit of midnight oil burning," Smith said, "and we're going to keep it going for the next five or six years."

Carol S. Parham, the previous superintendent, was known more for her motivational and people skills than for instruction initiatives. Though she was well-liked during her eight-year tenure, the county's ranking on the state performance test fell from No. 6 in 1993 to No. 14 last year.

School board member Tony Spencer said Parham took over "a system that didn't have any data recorded properly, and reorganized it into a system that can be respected."

But, he added, "It's a new level that we're trying to attain, and we're going to."

Breakneck pace

Smith has set a breakneck pace for the rest of his staff to follow. His workdays begin at 7 a.m. and usually run more than 12 hours long. He likes his meetings kept short, and he eats his lunch in his office. He zips around to many of the county's 117 schools, then gets on his car phone and calls his staff with ideas and questions. He says he will meet monthly with the principals of troubled schools.

One of the biggest changes is cultural. A staff that had spent years studying issues is now being told to get on with it. For instance, a committee has been considering for months whether to bring the challenging International Baccalaureate program to some county high schools. Smith decided he wanted the program, and he told the committee to be ready to present a proposal to the school board next month.

"Public education is being systematically dismantled in places across the country," he told administrators this month, pointing to districts where schools are being run by private companies.

To avoid a similar fate, he said, Anne Arundel schools must prove they are working.

"We can't do it from the lawn chair," he said. "We have to do it at a fast pace, and we have to prove it beyond question. ... I think we can push a lot harder, and we will."

Smith is already pushing. He ordered the phonics-based Open Court reading program to be in place in 14 low-performing elementary schools when they open; those schools also are getting a new math program that emphasizes drills and repetition. And he plans to increase the number of Advanced Placement courses offered in high schools and to boost the number of students taking them.

The emphasis on instruction has not gone unnoticed.

"It's good that we have a superintendent who is putting instruction on the line and making changes and saying this is what we're about," said Germantown Elementary Principal Bonnie Schmeltz.

Crediting the staff

Smith is quick to credit the school system's staff and teachers as those who will do the real work to improve student achievement.

"It is a test of organizational culture, of community culture," Smith said in a recent interview. "I have a great deal of respect for the people in this building who have responded so well to this new, defined direction of the system. People pay us to be doing something down here. And there's work to be done -- there's no question about that."

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