Looking to get schools back on track

Interim schools superintendent moving quickly to address key issues


From behind a lectern in the auditorium of Severna Park High School, Nancy M. Mann fielded questions from about 30 parents and teachers with ease and authority.

Is she thinking about changing the block scheduling that seems to vex so many?

Already on it, Mann said.

What did Mann, as interim Anne Arundel County schools superintendent, plan to do to repair the relationship between teachers and the central office, a middle school teacher wondered.

"That's why I am standing here today," Mann responded, adding that she would work hard to "help us get back on track before a new superintendent comes."

At one of a series of meetings she arranged with the community, Mann defused barbed comments with aplomb, graciously thanked everyone for their contributions and offered reassurance to those with complaints.

But she also wouldn't allow the audience to steer the meeting off topic. When a few attendees wanted to talk about school start times, Mann -- in a stern-but-sweet tone that one might expect from a lifelong educator -- reminded them that the forum on start times would be held the following night, with all of the school board members present.

Mann, 58, has been busy since she returned three weeks ago to the school system where she worked for 35 years as a teacher, principal and school administrator. She retired in June as assistant superintendent for instructional services but agreed to return on an interim basis when Superintendent Eric J. Smith stepped down amid strained relations with the school board and teachers union.

Though she has said that her role as interim superintendent is "keeping the ship straight and on target" and announced that she planned no major changes, Mann has moved quickly to address some key issues.

This month, she successfully recommended that the school board expand the International Baccalaureate program to Meade High School -- a move that had been voted down by the board when Smith pushed for it last month.

She has reorganized the school system's front office, and met with hundreds of teachers, parents and principals.

In the coming months, Mann said, she wants to implement a school committee's recommendations for easing teacher workload. She's also said that raising salaries for teachers and administrators is a priority, as well as ensuring that the county sets aside the resources to comply with a civil rights agreement signed by the board of education and black community members.

Mann conceded that while retired, she hadn't been paying as much attention to school issues. She left to spend time with her family, especially her 2 1/2 year old grandson, at the Severn home she shares with her husband.

She was surprised, she said, when Smith last summer announced plans to resign before Thanksgiving. She was even more surprised, she said, when the school board came knocking at her door. That's when she began giving serious thought to the issues facing the district and things that she felt needed attention.

At last week's community forum at Severna Park, Mann said she's also pursuing changes to the high schools' block scheduling. A group has been formed to study the issue and come up with some recommendations, but Mann said she'd like to see the schedule changed by next fall. The block schedules -- which have four periods a day with each class meeting every other day -- were highly controversial when instituted by Smith in 2002.

Mann asserted that the schedules have been a major reason why many teachers have left the county school system in recent years and that if the schedule is not addressed, she fears a teacher shortage.

"It is so urgent as far as I am concerned," she told the audience.

Debbie Ritchie, president of the Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs who was openly supportive of Smith, said she's not concerned about the changes that Mann is making but wonders what will happen when a permanent replacement is hired.

"She's doing what she needs to be doing to run her ship, which is fine," said Ritchie, a parent. "The four-period day has been a problem. We've been talking about that for a while. We just have to make sure we're not changing just to change."

Mann also didn't hesitate to shake up the schools' administration. Two weeks into her term, she brought back the position of deputy superintendent and reduced the number of assistant superintendents from five to two.

For the acting deputy superintendent position, Mann tapped Kenneth Nichols from retirement, and chose Judy Jenkins, who had also been retired, as acting superintendent for instructional services. Both had been directors of instruction in the school system. Gregory V. Nourse remains the assistant superintendent of business and management. Three other former assistant superintendents and Robert C. Leib, who had been the chief of staff, have been reassigned.

"I had given a lot of thought to what was needed," Mann said of the reorganization, adding that the new structure will "stabilize the school system."

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