Superintendent touches base with the system

Belle Grove visit marks 100th en route to hitting all 118 schools

December 17, 2006|By Anica Butler | Anica Butler,sun reporter

At just over 6 feet tall, Kevin Maxwell didn't look very comfortable sitting in a tiny plastic chair only inches from the ground.

Nevertheless, Anne Arundel County's schools superintendent chatted easily with third-graders during a visit to Belle Grove Elementary School in Brooklyn Park on Friday. In another classroom, he squatted on a mat with kindergartners as they practiced counting. Again he appeared at ease.

"It's important to get a feel for a lot of different aspects of the school system," Maxwell said.

The visit to Belle Grove marked Maxwell's 100th school visit since the start of the semester. During that first week of classes, Maxwell embarked on an ambitious 35-school tour, including eight on the first day. When he first took over as chief of the county schools in July, he vowed to visit every school by the end of the first semester.

"It has been a priority," he said "It's the importance of relationships and getting to know people and what's on their minds. And it's a good way to meet people."

Maxwell, 55, was hired by the Board of Education to replace Eric J. Smith, who stepped down a year ago amid strained relations with board members. Maxwell formerly was a community superintendent in Montgomery County.

Most weeks, he's spent one day visiting schools, usually hitting about four or five in a day. He spends about an hour at each school. And, true to his word, by early January, he will have visited all 118 schools in the county.

He has been well received at each school he has visited. At Belle Grove, Maxwell saw classrooms of students counting, reading, doing math and even singing. The halls of the schools were lined with student work.

"We're thrilled he came out," said Belle Grove Principal Adrienne Taylor. "It shows he really supports our school. It's good for our staff and children, and even for the community."

Teachers greeted him warmly, but students also were pleased to see him, though some of the younger ones weren't quite sure who he is or what he does. One second-grader, making a guess at how Maxwell spends his day, wondered whether he answers a phone.

A class of fifth-graders, who'd been told about Maxwell by their teacher, said they were honored by his visit.

"I felt very special," said Malcolm Thomas, 10.

"He was much nicer than I thought he would be," added Sierra Ramsey, also 10.

The school visits are important not just for meeting people and being seen, Maxwell has said, but also for understanding the unique challenges each school faces and for getting a feel for each community.

At Belle Grove, for instance, 67 percent of the students receive free or reduced-cost lunch -- a key indicator of poverty. That number has risen from 24 percent six years ago, Taylor said.

When showing off some kindergartners' written assignments, Taylor explained to Maxwell and his entourage that most of the school's kindergartners hadn't attended preschool or prekindergarten.

"Our kids know nothing about Sesame Street," Taylor said to the visitors. "And they've only been in school for 64 days."

Belle Grove has only one bus -- most of the school's 164 students walk to school.

School board member Ned Carey said the school plays a significant role in the older suburb just outside Baltimore.

"Here in Brooklyn Park, it's in one of the first communities to become suburbia," he said. "When you talk about BRAC, this is one area where affordable housing is in the county. It's one of the facts we need to consider." BRAC refers to military base realignment.

The visit to Belle Grove was nostalgic for some who accompanied Maxwell on Friday.

Retiring state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno held the first meeting of his political career 28 years ago inside the gymnasium at Belle Grove, when he pleaded with the superintendent at the time to keep the small community school open. Surveying the classrooms of hardworking students, Jimeno said it was easy to see that the right decision had been made.

"Bricks and mortar aren't everything," he said.

Jimeno, a Democrat, said he came Friday to show his support for the school that his wife once attended.

Carey is also an alumnus. He told a group of kindergartners that their classroom was where he'd attended first grade. He remarked later that the school, which is 54 years old, looks the same as it did back then.

After Maxwell and his staff made note of the yellowing Plexiglas windows, Taylor showed him how three children easily removed a window when they broke in last summer.

"You can't get a picture of facilities from a report," Maxwell said. "You have to lay your own eyes on it."

The superintendent has said that the school board will be taking a look at a commissioned facilities study early next year and that visiting every school will help when it comes time to make recommendations to the board.

Carey said the visit gives him some confidence in the recommendations that Maxwell will make.

Timothy M. Mennuti, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, expressed a similar sentiment. Menutti has accompanied Maxwell on nearly all of his school visits.

"I'm retired military and I always feel better working with people who've had their boots on the ground," Mennuti said. "That's not to say that we'll agree on everything. But it helps that we're seeing the same things at the same time."

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