Joe A. Hairston, superintendent of Baltimore County schools, opens every academic year with an address to supervisors and administrators, usually about 800 people in all. As he prepared to rally the crowd gathered Friday at Catonsville High School, he said he was just as enthusiastic about his 12th such speech as he was about his first.

"I get butterflies every time," he said. "There is always the excitement, newness and freshness of the new school year. It's like going into a ballgame. You put your best foot forward and do the best you can."

Schools in Baltimore County, the state's third-largest system, open Aug. 29.

Hairston spoke on the theme "Navigating the New Normal." He looked back to a time when the neighborhood school was a microcosm of a community, with the same heritage, culture and customs, and every child was taught in the same way. That no longer exists, he said. The county's enrollment is 52 percent minority; its students hail from 113 nations with 91 languages. The new normal is that the county's 173 schools are more diverse than ever, he said.

"We have diverse schools and equitable practices in place to help all children achieve their potential," he said. "Traditional public schools remain the best chance we have as a nation to ensure opportunity for all children."

A sagging economy has forced many families to transfer students from private schools and could adversely affect Hairston's $1.5 billion budget, school programs and capital improvement projects.

The school system has cut nearly 200 teaching positions through attrition for this coming school year. In addition, the school board learned during a retreat last weekend that the system is facing another projected budget shortfall for next year and will have to make millions of dollars in cuts.

Hairston said he is confident that the system's 17,000 employees, the largest workforce in the county, are up to the challenge.

"It is not about doing more with less," he said. "It is about doing a better job with what you have."

A brief video promoted the accolades of the previous year, everything from improved test scores to one of the highest graduation rates in the country. The piece then looked forward as it featured the youngest of the county's more than 105,000 students, each listing career aspirations that ranged from doctor, engineer and police officer to super hero. The clip ended with each child asking, "Are you ready for me?"

"I was really moved by that video," said Joshua Parker, the county's 2011 Teacher of the Year. "It makes you want to be sure you bring achievement to every student."

To prepare students for higher education and 21st-century careers, schools must maintain their focus on gateway courses that develop thinking, Hairston said. He used eighth-grade algebra as an example. Research has shown that students who master the course earlier learn problem-solving, abstract manipulation and discipline, and are the most successful in college.

"When you stimulate the will to learn, you accelerate academic success," he said.

He urged leaders in the school system to make informed decisions and follow through with firm action. He called for cooperation that would allow Baltimore County to stay at the forefront and make the school system a working model for others across the country.

H. Edward Parker spoke for his Board of Education colleagues, saying the times are interesting for those in public education.

"Students are depending on us to prepare them for all that is ahead," Parker said. "We must nurture a love of learning and strive to create and educate the next great American generation."

The event began with a rendition of "Stand by Me" by the Patapsco Chamber Choir, who are students at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts. The lyrics could set the tone for a year that promises to be filled with academic and economic challenges for the system, Hairston said.

"Our challenge is to reaffirm to the general public that we are still available and still viable," he said. "We will continue to provide the services to educate the majority of the population."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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