Baltimore County schools chief wins praise for raising achievement despite rise in poverty

10-year veteran Hairston says he tries to avoid highs, lows

March 24, 2010|By Childs Walker |

Asked about the best days he experiences as Baltimore County schools superintendent, Joe A. Hairston rejects the premise of the question.

"I try not to have highs and lows. I try to keep it this way," he says, sliding his meaty hand along an even plane.

Almost everything about Hairston fits this picture of low-key steadiness. He walks deliberately with a slightly stooped posture, the product of two recent knee replacements. He greets new acquaintances with a gentle handshake, looking pleased but never beaming like a politician. His voice rarely rises, even when he's asking stern questions of a subordinate.

Some critics have called him aloof, but he says his neutral demeanor is a major reason he has held onto the job for 10 years when, according to national statistics, the average superintendent lasts 3 1/2 years. That stability, Hairston says, has allowed him to bring rigorous Advanced Placement courses to all county schools, design high-tech classrooms that are the envy of neighbors and graduate black males at unusually high rates.

"I think he's brought extraordinary leadership at a time when we really were changing demographically," says school board President JoAnn Murphy. "The poverty rate is up, and when that happens, student performance generally plummets. But not here, and Joe's absolute insistence on high standards and rigor is a major reason."

Running the country's 26th-largest school system is no small task. With 104,000 students and 17,000 employees, it's about the same size as Charleston, S.C., Hartford, Conn., and dozens of other American cities.

During Hairston's tenure, minority students have become the majority in the system. Despite successes in rehabilitating schools such as Woodlawn Middle and Arbutus Middle, others are headed for state-supervised reorganizations because of poor test scores. Another controversy always lurks around the corner, as Hairston learned recently when teachers lashed back against the onerous requirements of the Articulated Instruction Module (AIM), a grading system created by one of his top lieutenants.

The episode revived old criticisms that Hairston keeps his counsel too close on major decisions.

"The system is pretty good, but I just imagine how much better it could have been if he had listened more and relied more on the people around him," says former board member John Hayden, one of three who voted against renewing Hairston's contract in 2008.

Hayden says he became troubled by Hairston's management style early in his tenure, when the superintendent submitted a thick reorganization plan to board members less than an hour before asking them to vote on it.

"I read pretty good, but the only thing I was competent to do with that thing was weigh it," says Hayden, an attorney at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston LLP. "That made me nervous about him right out of the gate."

Hairston forged a strong early relationship with teachers but has lost their trust with poor communication during situations such as the AIM controversy, says Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.

"We really have not had the collaboration we once had," she says. "It has become very frustrating. Once you lose that trust, it's hard to get back."

The superintendent does not apologize for his approach, saying he makes tough decisions through personal reflection. "I'm not someone who's going to call for advice all the time," he says.

Dealing with change
Hairston, 62, says he does not like to toot his own horn, but he speaks with great pride about the job he has done leading Baltimore County. He says his ability to stay ahead of educational trends and avoid nasty confrontations makes him the perfect superintendent for a complex county that is changing, although reluctantly.

Asked if he'd want to trade places with his Baltimore City counterpart, Andrés Alonso, he says, "What I did was much more difficult. They wanted me to move the school system forward, but they didn't want any controversy. That requires a different skill set."

School board leaders share Hairston's view of his record. "He's one of the top superintendents in the country," says Vice President Ed Parker, who served as principal at Sollers Point Technical High School and praises Hairston's focus on data-driven accountability and technology in the classroom.

Parker says the county has been lucky to keep Hairston, who contemplated leaving to run the system in his hometown of Virginia Beach in 2005. "The research shows that student success correlates with stability in leadership," Parker says. "Certainly, that has been the case here."

Other county leaders offer more mixed appraisals of the longtime superintendent.

"Sometimes he hits the nail on the head and sometimes he's off base," says state Sen. James Brochin, who peppered Hairston with tough questions in a Feb. 18 hearing about the AIM controversy. "What I like about him is that when he's off base, he'll listen and change. Joe doesn't dig his heels in."

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