Drawing on the last drumrolls of the Perry Hall High School marching band, Baltimore County schools superintendent S. Dallas Dance greeted 700 applauding administrators Friday to deliver his inaugural back-to-school address, sending a message he hoped would resonate for the next 10 months.
"That explosive sound is what every team needs when they're about to take the field," said the 31-year-old superintendent, who took the helm of the 26th-largest school system in the nation on July 1. "And I have no doubt that 'Team BCPS' are indeed about to take the field for a championship school year and a championship journey."
The presentation at Loch Raven High School was sprinkled with sports analogies, data, references to his 3-year-old son Myles and videos illustrating the tumultuous journeys of his heroes (including Abraham Lincoln). Dance emphasized the theme of "Building a Culture of Deliberate Excellence," which will guide his journey of taking the historically high-performing district to the next level.
"We are good, clearly very good, but, we are not yet great," Dance said. "Just as the data points to our successes, it also points to the areas that need more attention. And, we must not be content with just seeing how we fare in comparison to the state."
Using data from Montgomery and Howard counties, the highest-performing districts in the state, Dance outlined areas where he would like to see Baltimore County's schools improve.
For example, the county's 2011 mean SAT scores fall short of the benchmark the College Board sets for college and career readiness; and the county trails Montgomery and Howard in graduation rates — Howard's is about 9 percentage points higher. For special-education students, the 52 percent graduation rate is more dire, he said, showing that the emphasis can no longer "be about services and compliance."
Dance also called for improvement on the state High School Assessments, where the system trails Howard by a large margin in the percentage of students in 10th grade who met requirements.
And while the gap is smaller in elementary and middle school performance on the Maryland School Assessments, he said the system must focus on middle school performance, particularly in eighth grade math.
Dance emphasized that the data were not meant to point out failures, but to establish a call to action.
"I have no interest in us using data to be critical or as a 'gotcha tool' — no one deserves that," he said. "We're a team, and being all in this together, we want to use data to inform our decisions — not drive them — but to inform them and to make clear what is working."
Dance's message, which received a standing ovation, seemed to inspire many in the crowd.
Maralee Clark, principal of Woodholme Elementary, a national Blue Ribbon School, said she took notes during Dance's address and is planning to welcome teachers back with music — "Chariots of Fire" and "We Are the Champions" — to set the tone for a year of "innovative instruction."
"We're training like athletes, and you don't train to maintain, you train to win," Clark said. "Every child in front of us shows promise, and it is our responsibility to help them reach their potential."
Breana Echols, a senior at Towson High School, said she appreciated that Dance, who is new, didn't just focus on making changes. The superintendent also called on educators to connect with students, saying that every student in the system should feel a personal connection to at least one adult.
"I like the way he talked about continuity, progressing rather than just starting over," Echols said.
Dance said that as the system begins to focus on restoring confidence, the traditional 'State of Schools' address would come in the winter, when the system takes stock of its progress under his leadership.
"We have to be honest about where we are," he said. "But it's a long year, and you want your people energized when they walk in the door."