Graduating globally competitive students [Commentary]

Tomorrow is not just the first day of the 2014-2015 school year for 110,000 students in Baltimore County Public Schools. It's also the launch of initiatives to create opportunity-rich environments in every school, in every classroom and for every student.

It has never been more important to educate students to high levels for their own individual success as well as the success of our county and nation. However, decades of data tell us that far too often being a student of color or a student from a low-income family correlates to lower academic achievement. In Baltimore County — where more than half of our students are students of color and nearly half come from families living in poverty — we are determined to interrupt these patterns of achievement gaps by making sure that every student has access to opportunities rich with possibility regardless of his or her skin color or zip code.

Team BCPS set the stage for this transformation two years ago, developing a five-year strategic plan — Blueprint 2.0 — focused on academics, safety, communication and organizational effectiveness.

Based on our collective goal to graduate globally competitive students, we made two promises: equitable access to effective digital learning environments through our S.T.A.T — Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow — initiative and developing second language proficiency. These are our promises for every student to ensure equity and access across our county.

Creating these opportunities starts with believing that every student can achieve at high levels, looking for new ways to engage every student in personalized learning and ensuring that every student is surrounded by adults who care.

Deliberate planning from the past two years now shifts to the hard work of transforming 173 schools, programs and centers into learner-centered environments, where students actively construct meaning and defend their work — both hallmarks of what future careers will demand from them.

Visiting classrooms in every BCPS school, I've been struck by stark differences across our county, which spans almost 700 square miles. I have seen contrasts in comfort, a range of technology and differences in student access to challenging courses — along with a wealth of creativity, innovation and skill employed by educators in schools consistently recognized for excellence in art, writing and music. All of these differences reflect decisions that we as adults have made that affect the opportunities available to our students, and differences we have the ability to correct as we turn our focus to equity and every student.

At its heart, S.T.A.T. recognizes that many of our learning environments have not kept pace with the modern world and is helping to level the playing field with technology as one tool to support deeper learning of skills and content. Every school now has the support of an instructional leader or "S.T.A.T. teacher" to work closely with teachers on tailoring instruction to student needs. All BCPS teachers received their devices this past June in advance of ongoing, intensive training this summer.

S.T.A.T. is also strengthening home-school relationships system-wide with parent access to student grades, schedules and assignments through the BCPS One portal. Through our recently-launched Parent University, we are providing training for parents on how to use BCPS One.

Another way that BCPS is preparing students to be globally competitive is through earlier exposure to world languages. Ten of our "Passport" schools will pilot a Grade 4 Spanish program this year that combines a self-paced, interactive online program with face-to-face instruction. We're putting students on a path to graduate proficient in a second language knowing that will benefit their college and career preparation as well as cultural awareness.

Shaping Blueprint 2.0 with input from the community was just the beginning. Five community forums this fall will inform improvements in BCPS' facilities, and we'll continue new outreach to neighborhood associations as well as engaging businesses and families from every part of our county. This involvement from the community is critical to providing a great school year for every student and shaping the future of our evolving student population.

All across the country, families and staff are going through a familiar ritual of checking off their back-to-school lists of supplies, clothing and other goodies for the new school year. My list is full of questions to refer to from now through June 2015.

How are we creating conditions for every student to thrive? How can we ensure that each student has an opportunity-rich environment? How will each decision affect all students across the county?

What's on your list?

Dallas Dance is superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools. His email is

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