New superintendents, old challenges

Our view: School chiefs have their work cut out for them in Howard and Baltimore counties

March 27, 2012

It's not often one sees two appointments to top school posts in Maryland occur at virtually the same time. Yet by a curious stroke of serendipity that is what happened this week with the appointments of Renee A. Foose and S. Dallas Dance as superintendents, respectively, of the Howard County and Baltimore County school systems. In both cases, it looks like county school board members — who, it turns out, were competing against each other for the two same candidates — made promising choices.

When Ms. Foose, Baltimore County's current deputy superintendent of schools, takes over the top job in Howard County she will be the first woman to hold that post. Likewise the 30-year-old Mr. Dance, who is presently chief middle school officer in the Houston public school system, will in all likelihood become the youngest schools chief ever to hold the top job in Baltimore County.

Yet while it may have been coincidence that both systems announced their choices within hours of each other, the two new schools chiefs face very different challenges. In Howard, Ms. Foose's mission will be to focus on raising academic standards in what is already one of the top-performing school systems in the nation, while at the same time answering to what has at times been a fractious school board.

In Baltimore County, Mr. Dance will need to address the thorny problems that have led to wide disparities in educational outcomes among the system's various schools and also deal with serious classroom overcrowding and a legacy of complaints about the system's lack of responsiveness to parents and teachers.

Ms. Foose, whose job in the Baltimore County schools covered a broad range of responsibilities for instruction, operations, evaluation, policies and programs, has been in her current post less than year. But she brings two decades of experience with Maryland public schools to her new position. Before coming to Baltimore County she was associate superintendent for the Montgomery County public schools, and prior to that her jobs included school bus driver and school secretary as well as a classroom teacher and administrator. She knows public education from the ground up.

She'll need that broad perspective to build on the legacy of her predecessor, Sydney Cousin, who is retiring July 1 after eight years on the job. Making Howard's schools even more effective will require finding new ways to integrate technology into school operations and foster a safe and secure learning environment for county students while maintaining fiscal responsibility and narrowing the achievement gap — which does exist, even in wealthy Howard County. All that will be particularly challenging as Maryland moves to adopt new national testing standards and a core curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking skills.

Mr. Dance inherits a system that is both larger and more racially and economically diverse than Howard County's. Among his first tasks will be finding ways to reduce the number of students suspended from school for behavior problems and developing alternative ways of disciplining youngsters that are less likely to cause them to drop out. He takes over for Joe A. Hairston, whose relationship with parents and teachers soured over the years amid complaints that he didn't listen to their views. Mr. Dance has developed a reputation as a charismatic and dynamic leader, and he will need those attributes to rebuild trust in the system.

Mr. Dance had only two years of classroom teaching experience when he applied for the superintendent's job — most of his time in the schools has been spent as an administrator — but the Baltimore County school board decided what they needed was a leader who could grasp the big picture and move the whole system forward. As Baltimore County school board president Lawrence Schmidt said in announcing the appointment, "There are some people out there who are remarkable individuals not withstanding their age, and we believe that Dallas Dance is one of them."

Ms. Foose and Mr. Dance were each in the short list of finalists for both the Howard and Baltimore county school posts, even though the school boards that selected them hired different search firms to recruit applicants. These are two of the most important jobs in Maryland public education, and the fact that a rigorous search by two different firms both turned up their names inspires confidence that the people who have been chosen to fill them are up to the task.

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