New Arundel schools chief off and running

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 it 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 construction, cutting the cost of new schools 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 of water damage and poor air quality.

"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."

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."

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 high schools. Smith wants 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.

"I think we can push a lot harder, and we will," he said.

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 math program that emphasizes drills and repetition. And he plans to raise the number of Advanced Placement courses offered in high schools.

The emphasis on instruction has not gone unnoticed.

"It's good that we have a superintendent who is putting instruction on the line," said Germantown Elementary Principal Bonnie Schmeltz.

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

"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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