Dallas Dance

Dallas Dance at the Young Women's College Preparatory Academy in Houston. (J. Patric Schneider, Baltimore Sun / April 7, 2012)

In the crowded glass and steel lobby of the Houston school headquarters, Principal Susan Monaghan paused briefly to touch the shoulder of her boss, a man with far less experience in the education field and young enough to have been her student.

"I am OK, right?" she asked, searching his face for reassurance.

S. Dallas Dance told her everything would be fine. Dance had initiated an audit after she discovered money missing from her budget in a case that has been referred to authorities, ending her ordeal. "He has our backs all the time," she would say later.

Hours after that exchange, Dance checked in on a girls school he helped launch this year and hugged the school's principal, who has known him just two years. Her eyes welled with tears as she talked about his impending departure for Baltimore County.

The selection of Dance, 30, as the youngest person to head the Baltimore County public schools in at least 50 years has set off worry here among parents, teachers and administrators that he has too little experience to lead. The county school board had to obtain a waiver from the state to hire him as superintendent because he did not have the requisite teaching experience.

Houston school leaders say they, too, were skeptical when he came at 28 to be middle schools chief. But they say he has fostered confidence among principals, who say he shields them from administration politics, and among parents and education advocates, one of whom likened his skill level to that of Michael Jordan.

Dance has won supporters despite being part of an administration that critics say has sowed discontent with a rapid-fire succession of unpopular changes, from high turnover to unnecessary testing and classroom funding cuts. In contrast to Houston Superintendent Terry Grier, a controversial figure, Dance is considered a calming influence and an impressive communicator with a direct, I-do-what-I-say approach.

Several principals, teachers and parents interviewed by The Baltimore Sun in Houston sought to reassure their counterparts in Baltimore County.

"He is wise beyond his years. Trust me, give him a chance," Monaghan said. "We are losing a great leader."

"We have a real morale issue. I think he was a very significant cushion for his administrators" and was able to "get a lot of people through some rough stuff," said Peggy Sue Gay, parent of a high school student.

Dance, who has quickly risen through school ranks, took the high-profile job in Houston in 2010. Even supporters there acknowledge that he is untested as a superintendent, and that it is difficult to judge his two-year track record in a complex urban system of 203,000 students.

Based on Texas state test data from Dance's first year, at least 18 of the 48 middle schools under his watch dropped to a lower level of achievement in the school rating system while few improved. But the rating system was changed significantly when he arrived, making it difficult for schools to stay at their previous level.

He helped launch a program called Apollo that revamped four failing middle schools, among others. Results for those middle schools in the first year of turnaround are mixed, but few schools get radically better in the first year.

Michael Holthouse, a Houston businessman whose foundation has been involved in the Apollo project, said Dance is "good at listening to other perspectives and incorporating them in his actions."

He acknowledged that Dance is inexperienced, but said, "If we are dealing with a Michael Jordan here, which I think we are, then yes, he has things to learn, but he can achieve."

One of the criticisms in Houston has been over principal turnover; about 50 of 288 principals were replaced over several years. Ray Reiner, executive director of the Houston Association of School Administrators, has questioned the rapid turnover, saying principals cannot be expected to change a school in six months.

Dance is unapologetic, saying: "We were not looking for incremental changes."

He also acknowledges missteps. "I made two bad hires. When you make a bad hire, you correct it," Dance said, even if that means replacing a principal in the middle of the school year.

Dance has been criticized for spending too much time away from Houston.