S. Dallas Dance is young. He will be just 31 when he takes the helm of Baltimore County's school system. And he has not stayed in any one place for long — a couple of years teaching, a couple as a principal, a couple each in administrative posts in Virginia and Texas. He had to get a waiver from the state because he lacks the minimum three years of teaching experience required to be a superintendent in Maryland. Moreover, he was selected through a completely closed process; the only inkling most Maryland parents had of his existence came when he appeared at a public meeting in Howard County, where he was also up for the top schools job. His hiring in Baltimore County was announced less than 12 hours later, and at that point, he was already on a flight back to Houston. For Baltimore County parents unhappy about the way their schools have been run in recent years, that adds up to a heap of worry.
On Wednesday, Mr. Dance sat down for an extended interview with The Sun's editorial board in which he discussed his experience, philosophy and vision for county schools. Although we cannot promise skeptical Baltimore County parents that their concerns are unwarranted, we can say that the poise, conviction and thoughtfulness that so impressed county officials are immediately evident. He has much to prove, but he also has the potential to be a star.
Mr. Dance will replaceJoe A. Hairston, whose relationship with parents, teachers and other stakeholders soured in recent years amid complaints that he was unresponsive and insular. Mr. Dance has gone out of his way to praise aspects of Mr. Hairston's record, in particular his success in improving academic performance for minorities. But he has also made clear that he views open communication as the crucial element of a superintendent's job. As such, he has already come to the conclusion that a new facilities plan to deal with the county's overcrowding problems — a major source of friction between parents and the system — will be among his top priorities.
As for his experience, Mr. Dance has gotten stellar reviews from those he has supervised, even those who are much older than he. And in his administrative positions in Virginia and Texas, he has been involved in the budgeting process, facilities operation and maintenance, curriculum development, teacher training and other major challenges he will face. Whether he is ready to be solely responsible for them remains to be seen. But the one deficiency in his resume that some parents have latched onto — his two years of teaching experience — is a red herring. One year more or less in the classroom isn't what is going to make the difference in his success or failure.
Mr. Dance has, wisely, shied away from making too many pronouncements about what he will do in office. Among the specifics he did offer: He supports the school board's decision to construct an elementary school in Mays Chapel, saying the needs of the schoolchildren in the area outweigh other concerns; he supports the use of student academic growth as a factor in teacher evaluations, provided that it isn't measured by a single assessment; he supports charter schools only insofar as they offer something the district's traditional schools can't provide; and he sees the transition to common core academic standards and new state assessments — and the professional development teachers will need to prepare for them — as a crucial challenge.
There is a risk, perhaps even a likelihood, that Mr. Dance will make some mistakes as he learns his new position and learns the community. But they will be the kind of mistakes he can learn from and correct. The faults that made parents and teachers so furious with Mr. Hairston at times, on the other hand, were never going to change. Baltimore County residents asked for a superintendent who would listen and respond to the community's concerns. They got one — and, if he can live up to his potential, a great deal more.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun