Incoming schools chief Foose wants to ensure 'all voices are heard'

The Board of Education has finalized its contract with Howard County's next superintendent, Renee Foose, currently deputy superintendent of Baltimore County schools.

Details of the four-year contract were not released, but will be made public at the Board of Education's April 26 meeting, when a formal vote on Foose's appointment is expected. Foose will take over July 1 for Sydney Cousin, who is retiring after 12 years as superintendent.

Before the April 26 meeting, the board will host an open reception for Foose at 3:15 p.m., in the board room of the Department of Education in Ellicott City.

Last week, in advance of her formal appointment, Foose sat down for an interview with Howard County Times reporter Sara Toth, talking about her plans, hopes and expectations for the next four years. Excerpts from that interview are below.

Come July 1, what will your first order of business be?

I'm hoping, before July 1, that I have the opportunity to sit down with the board and map out a 90-day plan and map out what the strategic initiatives are, as well as create an entry plan. ... But from Day 1 forward, in the middle of the summer, all school systems around the country are focused on opening day of school. So first order of business is to make sure that we are completely in program mode for Day 1 of opening, making sure all the vacancies are filled, making sure we have highly qualified teachers in all the classrooms. That's business as usual no matter where you work.

What do you envision that 90-day plan to look like?

There seem to be some themes that have emerged that I think the school system is looking to focus on. If I'm correct in what I'm assuming, the 90-day plan would be focused on those themes. The themes, I believe, that have emerged to me, are the strategic alignment. For instance, we have the new teacher and principal evaluations coming with the Common Core State Standards that are coming. What are the alignment of those mandates to the strategic direction we're heading in?

I believe communication and collaboration, to make sure that we are communicating and collaborating with all stakeholders, that's important, making sure all voices are heard. Community groups, PTAs, the business community, as well as making sure our internal stakeholders are heard.

There is a strong sense that there is a desire to move our students that are flying at a high altitude to a higher altitude, so what strategies do we want to put in place, or what systems are in place to make sure we're doing that, while at the same time, eliminating any achievement gaps that might exist, whether it be a demographic or service achievement gap. There's also, from my understanding, a need for some technology enhancements.

Is there something you would identify as the most pressing issue facing the school system right now?

The economy, and how we're going to manage the pension shift from the state for the teachers. That's one of the biggest things. The other piece, I believe, is making sure we have systems and structures aligned with the Race to the Top initiatives we've taken on as a school system. That's anxiety-producing for teachers, so to make sure we're taking any angst out of that is important.

You mentioned during the public forums conducting a root-analysis to identify any achievement gaps. Is that still the plan?

We have to do that within the first 30 days. I want to see the data summaries on multiple points. I want to see where the gaps are. ... If we're talking about the SAT, that's something you just can't fix in the course of a year, because it's not curriculum-based, it's more or less something that we have to prepare students for over the course of their academic career. If we're seeing an achievement gap based on the proficiency exams, the MSA, the HSA, that's a content-driven test, those are more immediate solutions because it's the content they're being assessed on, versus their aptitude.

Where do teachers fit in to closing any achievement gaps?

If it's a curricular issue, we have to ask if they understand the curriculum that they're teaching, are they properly monitoring their students along the way so that when we come to the end, there are no surprises. There's many things we can do along the way. The other piece is do teachers understand how to differentiate what they're teaching to students with various needs and various learning styles?

They're the front line in this. They're at Ground Zero doing the most important work in the school system, so they have the biggest piece of closing the achievement gap, truth be told.

Do you have a plan as to how you'll facilitate outreach to the community, to get parents and community involved?

My goal would be to see in the transition what already exists and where is there room for improvement. What's working well, and how can we scale what's working well in other areas?

What strategies worked well for you in the past?

When I was in Montgomery County, we had a Parent-Community Engagement Academy. What started out as something small, where you had a group of folks going out and doing talks in the schools of various topics of interest to the community, the school was the venue. ... It eventually scaled into this huge, huge, entire office with dozens of staff members whose whole job was engaging the community.

The other very successful initiative Montgomery County had, and I would like to see here, was called Montgomery County Business Education Roundtable. We partnered with the business community, and you had top leaders in that community coming in and mentoring the executive school staff. ... We learned how to leverage technology so that the work that teachers were doing were fewer clicks on the mouse, learning how to do what we do faster, better and cheaper. In partnering with the business community, we took their expertise. It works well in Montgomery, and I'm sure it would work just as well here.

What can Howard County learn from other school systems in the state and in the country? Or in the world?

I'm a firm believer that this is one of the best school systems in the state based on assessment measures, arguably the best in the country. How do we showcase that? How do we continue to develop our workforce? ... ...How can we go to the next level? Why aren't we leading? In Montgomery, they communicate, they collaborate, and they're effective at those. We could learn how to become more of a partner with our internal stakeholders, like the union groups, our parents, our PTAs, different CACs that exist and move forward from there. I get the sense there's a need for some more of that occur.

What are some of the weaknesses and some of the strengths of the Howard system?

There's many more strengths than there are weaknesses. The strengths are, obviously, the rich academic program, the very talented and dedicated workforce. We obviously have very engaged and very motivated students, and that doesn't automatically come — that has to speak to what is happening in schools for that to occur. There's already a pretty good level of community engagement and involvement.

How can the budget reflect the challenges the economy faces?

We have to look to see where we have redundancies. If two offices, or two parts of the organization are doing the same thing, maybe it can be done with one office. ... What can we do moving forward in integrating technology and expanding technology? Are we making sure that what we're doing is smart? Everyone has a cell phone now, so with that, what can we do to so that we're increasing our access and overall effectiveness with technology and are we being smart with that? ...

It's not more with less, but doing more with a better approach to what we're doing. Let's find way to take things off the plate, re-prioritize. ... I think there's a lot of redundancy and duplication of effort. Let's find ways to work smarter and more efficiently as we move forward.

What is the role of the superintendent in interacting with the Board of Education? What is an ideal dynamic?

An ideal dynamic is open, it's collaborative and it's transparent. That's an ideal working relationship. We're colleagues, collegial, and knowing that they can approach me in my office, and knowing that if they have a packed board room with a very contentious issue, that I'm going to provide the leadership necessary to help with whatever the situation is.

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