A blog called Houstonisdwatch.com posted a document showing that Dance has been away from the district 41 days since he began the job in 2010. Seven days were vacation, one was jury duty. The rest, Dance said, were days when he was working out of town at education conferences around the country.
As Dance settles into his job in the Baltimore County district of 105,000 students, Houston observers say the question is whether Dance will emulate Grier — he has not been critical of him — or whether he will find his own way.
A diverse, decentralized, urban system, Houston has adopted many of the changes that Baltimore City has embraced. Parents have a choice of what schools their children attend beyond their neighborhood school. Fifty percent of teacher evaluations are based on student achievement. Charter schools are common.
Baltimore County, which has largely ignored education reforms instituted in cities across the country, could be shocked by such changes if adopted by Dance. What he will bring won't be known for months. Dance hasn't said what he would do. He said he wants to talk to many people from all parts of the county before making any moves.
Only his first day in the new job is planned. He said he wants to gather a group of dropouts for breakfast and ask them what would have kept them in school.
Because the Baltimore County school board kept the search for a new superintendent a secret, Dance did not have the freedom to visit schools. So he hit 7-Elevens instead. He drove around the Beltway, stopped in the stores and struck up conversations with strangers in Dundalk, Randallstown and Catonsville. He told them he was thinking about moving to town and asked what they thought of their schools.
He was pleased to find that many said the schools were good, but he said some told him they felt the school system did not communicate well with the community.
It's the kind of hands-on approach often taken by Dance, who seems to take on work and life with intensity.
During a tour of schools in Houston last week, he emerged from a classroom and picked up a trace of something in the air. He said to the principal, "What is that smell?" Before the principal had finished telling him that sewage ran underneath the floor, he had pulled out his phone and sent a text message to the district's facilities department, which told him they would evaluate it the next day.
Dance chatted up a cafeteria worker and found that the card-swiping device used by students in lieu of cash wasn't working. Out came the phone again. A manic texter, Dance could keep up with the most adept communicator in middle school and his fingers are never far from his phone.
His next conversation was with the school's technology officer, who explained a problem with laptops. Dance also talked to the security guard.
No task appeared too mundane. At the next school he visited, Dance found a picture in a hallway that was crooked. He lifted the picture to study how it was hung and tried to straighten it.
Dance arises at 4:30 four mornings a week to run three miles. He eats five small meals a day, starting at 7:30 a.m. Three come from a trash can-size container in his office filled with protein powder. He goes to bed at 11:30 p.m. but often wakes with a thought that prompts him to get up to write it down.
"We'd get emails from Dallas at 2, 3, 4 in the morning," said Marcus J. Newsome, superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia, who worked with Dance before he left for Houston. "He appears to be one of those people who doesn't need very much sleep because he's at meetings at 7 or 7:30 the next morning, full of energy.
"He's one of the most unique young people that I have ever met. He has a combination of intellect, strong work ethic, interpersonal skills and political savvy. He works tirelessly," Newsome said.
Pictures of his 2-year-old son, Myles Dallas Dance, who lives in Richmond, Va., with his former wife, are scattered around Dance's small, windowless office in Houston. Sitting at his desk, he can look at the opposite wall and see two identical clocks, with signs above them that read "Dallas" and "Myles." One is set for Eastern time and one for Houston time.
Myles, he said, is one of the main reasons he wants to move back east, and he can envision driving from Baltimore to see him on a weeknight. He dreams that one day Myles might be a student in the school system he runs.
Shaun Dallas Dance was born in Richmond to a father who was a truck driver and a mother who was an occupational therapist.
"When he was young he always had a book. And when I used to come home from work, and he was about 7 or 8, he would always say, 'Mom, where's the paper?' I used to take him to the library, and he would always come home with about 30 books," Leatrice C. Dance said in an interview.