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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 | childs.walker@baltsun.com

Brochin says he has brought many touchy issues to Hairston over the years and watched the superintendent form lasting relationships with the concerned parties. He adds that the system is clearly better than it was before Hairston arrived.

"I don't think any of his detractors could say otherwise," Brochin says. "It's one of the premier systems in the country, and he's the one steering the ship."

The talk of national renown is not hyperbole, according to superintendents from other parts of the country, who say Hairston is widely respected for his emphasis on technology and on reaching out to struggling students.

"Coast to coast, people know Joe Hairston and look at him as a representation of a successful educational model," says Steve Joel, superintendent of Nebraska's Grand Island system. "He has influenced me in ways that he'll probably never know. I'm taking copious notes whenever I hear him talk. You know you're listening to someone who's been through the wars."

Learning from the Navy
Hairston grew up as the eldest of three children in a Navy family. His father, a ship's boatswain, sailed in the invasion of Normandy and earned a Purple Heart after shrapnel riddled his body. After World War II, he remained in the service, in part because he couldn't accept the limitations that segregation would place on him at home.

Hairston saw the boiling frustration in his father and vowed never to be consumed by similar emotions, part of the reason he seeks an even keel to this day. He says the peripatetic Navy life shaped him in other ways that would prove essential to his career. He learned to get along with people as a stranger in new situations and to focus on results rather than personal comfort.

"In that environment, you understand that the mission is everything," he says. "You do what you have to do to get the job done. Feelings have nothing to do with it."

When his father succumbed to a spinal infection caused by his wounds at age 47, Hairston, then in high school, became the man of the house. He says he has been comfortable accepting responsibility and making decisions ever since.

In college, he played tackle for powerful Maryland State (now the University of Maryland Eastern Shore). In those days, before many Southern schools recruited black players, future NFL stars filled the rosters at historically black universities such as Maryland State and Morgan State. Hairston played on the same line as future All-Pro Art Shell but carved enough of a niche for himself that he's a member of the UMES athletic Hall of Fame.

Upon graduation in 1969, Hairston faced a tantalizing choice: the Navy's officer candidate school, a programming job at IBM or a tryout with the Washington Redskins. As most young men probably would, he chose football. But he didn't make the team.

He remembers walking out of training camp on a lovely sunny afternoon and seeing a fellow prospect from Texas sitting dejectedly on his suitcase. "Why are you so upset?" Hairston remembers asking. "You have a degree, don't you?"

"He looked at me like I was from Mars," Hairston says. "He had never graduated. At that moment, I looked up to the sky and said, 'Thank you,' because I knew I would be fine."

With that lesson on the value of education in mind, Hairston became a physical-education teacher in Prince George's County and swiftly moved from there to the administrative ranks. He was among the first wave of black leaders rising at integrated schools. He learned a valuable lesson while teaching in a heavily Italian neighborhood.

"This is what I came to understand about parents: As long as you do something good for their child, they will support you," he says.

Nevertheless, he had few visions of leading a school system.

"I didn't think you could do that," he says, alluding to a glass ceiling lingering from segregation. "Not in those days."

As a principal, he became known for using corporate models to improve struggling schools. He arrived with core sets of goals and principles, and made sure every school activity was geared toward his objectives. He insisted on numerical measures to chart progress. Such focus on accountability has become the prevailing trend in American education, but Hairston says his approach created plenty of resistance in the early days.

"People used to look at me like I was crazy," he says.

'Gone With the Wind' country
After 27 years in Prince George's County, Hairston left to become a superintendent in suburban Atlanta in 1995. He was the first black school leader in a county known as the fictional setting for "Gone With the Wind." After five contentious years in which principals and teachers bristled at his accountability measures, Hairston was ousted by a 5-4 school board vote.

So he was used to being a racial pioneer and an outsider when he became Baltimore County's first black superintendent in 2000. The board gave him a tricky mission - modernize the schools but do so without stirring up a lot of fuss.

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