An outsider with experience in leading a neighboring state through sometimes-unpopular reforms will become the next Maryland superintendent of schools, the state school board announced Friday.
Delaware Secretary of Education Lillian M. Lowery, a 57-year-old with more than 35 years of teaching and administrative experience in several states, will take over July 1 as Maryland's schools enter a year of transition.
"We think we have gotten the best person that could have taken this job. She has a long track record of success on all the important education issues," said school board President James DeGraffenreidt.
In the next two years, Maryland schools will switch its curriculum for all grades in English and math, change its state tests and institute a new teacher evaluation system, all major transitions that Lowery will have to navigate without experience in the state.
Seen as a personable consensus-builder, Lowery will have to bring together superintendents, teachers, parents and legislators from around the state who have expressed doubts about some of the education initiatives the state has embarked on.
She will draw on her experience in Delaware, which has three counties and 19 school districts and is making many of the same adjustments to its educational program.
Lowery said she was attracted to the Maryland job because she has worked in two neighboring states. "It was philosophically the same work," she said, because they both have focused on early learning and K-12 reforms.
Lowery said she was so impressed with former state SuperintendentNancy S. Grasmickthat when she first took the job as education secretary in Delaware about three years ago, she brought her staff to Maryland to talk to Grasmick about how it had become a top education state.
"Maryland has been one of the cutting-edge states around reforms. It is a state that a lot of other states have watched," she said.
She also said she knew Gov.Martin O'Malleyand that he and legislative leaders had shown strong support for education. "It was a natural transition," she said.
The school board is expected to take a formal vote on Lowery at its monthly meeting Tuesday. Lowery will be in Baltimore for the vote and said she hopes to begin meeting people in the state over the next couple of months. But she said she has also promised Delaware's governor that she will stay in her job through that state's legislative session, which ends June 30.
Lowery will earn $210,000, slightly more than Grasmick, who made $195,000 when she retired nearly a year ago after 20 years in the job. Lowery could earn up to $260,000 if students make enough gains on Advanced Placement tests and in closing the achievement gap, DeGraffenreidt said, adding that those goals would be difficult to meet. She will take the reins from Bernard Sadusky, who has served as interim superintendent for the past 10 months.
Under Lowery's leadership, Delaware was one of the first two states to win a federal Race to the Top grant, which provides an infusion of federal dollars in exchange for a commitment to education reforms. Maryland was chosen in a second round, winning $250 million. Before her appointment by the governor to that job, Lowery led the 17,000-student Christina School District, which is Delaware's largest system, during a time when it had a $26 million deficit. Supporters say she skillfully managed the crisis.
Lowery is not well known among Maryland's local superintendents, some of whom say they have met her at education conferences and meetings but do not know her personally.
However, Maria Navarro, special assistant to Baltimore City's chief academic officer, worked directly under Lowery when she Lowery headed the Christina School District. She called Lowery a "kid-centered superintendent" who focuses on instruction.
"She talks academic talk at all times," Navarro said. "It doesn't matter if it's a conversation about budget, about policy; it all circles back to 'How does it improve kids' ability to learn?'"
Lowery will "bring a fresh and strong perspective on how we need to think as a group of school districts and work with each other to improve our systems," she said.
Born in Gastonia, N.C., Lowery taught English in North Carolina and Virginia before becoming principal of a Fairfax County, Va., high school. Daniel Domenech, now executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, appointed Lowery as principal when he was superintendent in Fairfax County. He called Lowery a "fantastic choice."
"She has great people skills," he said, adding that he provided a reference for her. "She is a very easy person to be with. She doesn't put on airs and doesn't pretend to be anyone but a person interested in kids."
School board member Kate Walsh said, "I am inordinately pleased. She has just the right mind-set. She is very committed to reform issues. ... She is very open to doing things differently, and she is respected nationally for the work she has done."
Walsh said she believes the state's teachers, who have not been enthusiastic about some of the reforms the state has undertaken in the past several years, will be pleased with Lowery. "I think she has been very sensitive in Delaware to the kind of changes" that teachers are not usually comfortable with, she said.
"I am really glad to see Maryland look outside ... to bring in a great educator. It is going to be a real benefit to the state."
Adam Mendelson, a spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, which represents teachers, said the organization is still learning more about the new chief, but "she is committed to collaboration and teacher input and strong external and internal communications, which are all real critical issues."
Carl Roberts, who represents Maryland's local superintendents, said Maryland's diversity of rural and urban districts is similar to Delaware's.
"We hope Dr. Lowery comes to Maryland looking to be collaborative, seeking to understand what makes Maryland different. Local superintendents will look forward to working with Dr. Lowery as we determine what initiatives are in the best interests of Maryland's children and assess our current reform initiatives ... to ensure that the learning needs of all children are being met."
Lowery was a fellow in the Broad Foundation's urban superintendents academy in 2004. The academy has produced a number of superintendents around the nation.
DeGraffenreidt said the board recruited Lowery through its search firm and narrowed its list of candidates to three finalists, all of whom were interviewed by O'Malley. Although the governor does not have an official say in who is appointed superintendent, DeGraffenreidt said O'Malley "agreed that all three would have been great for Maryland."
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that Lowery has been instrumental in Delaware's work to improve early education and reforms in K-12 education. "Lillian Lowery is a fearless leader and tireless advocate for children," Duncan said in a statement.
Brian Selander, a spokesman for Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, said that Lowery "kept her teacher's heart in her move to the administration" in 2009. He said that when the Christina district was in serious financial trouble, "she helped us get out of that by bringing people together."
"Maryland is a larger stage for her, more kids for her to help," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Erica L. Green contributed to this article.
Lillian M. Lowery
Born: Gastonia, N.C.
Education: Bachelor's degree in English and secondary education from North Carolina Central University; master's in education in curriculum and instruction from the University of North Carolina; doctorate of education in educational leadership and policy studies from Virginia Polytechnic and State University.
Teaching experience: Taught middle and high school in Virginia.
Career: Delaware secretary of education; superintendent in Christina School District in New Castle County, Del; assistant superintendent in Fairfax County, Va; area administrator in Fort Wayne, Ind.; principal, Fairfax County,Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun