Baltimore County

Joe Hairston, Baltimore County schools’ first African American superintendent, dies at 71

Dr. Joe A. Hairston, Superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, smiles as newly named 2012-2013 Teacher of the Year, Angela Rountree, an art teacher at Ridgely Middle School, delivers remarks.

Dr. Joe A. Hairston, who served as superintendent of schools for Baltimore County for 12 years and championed an “all means all” credo of equality in education, died Friday at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore from complications related to a previous illness, according to his wife. He was 71.

Dr. Hairston, who started his career in education as a teacher 50 years ago, was Baltimore County’s first black superintendent. He served three four-year terms, from 2000 to 2012, a long tenure for most superintendents around the nation. He was superintendent for an entire generation of students in one of the largest public school systems in the country.


At the end of his tenure, Dr. Hairston could claim improved academic achievement of African American students, a rise in test scores and the graduation rate, greater student participation in Advanced Placement classes, a significant increase in National Blue Ribbon schools and more students going on to two- and four-year colleges.

Dr. Hairston guided the Baltimore County system through significant demographic shifts, as city residents and immigrants came to the county looking for better schools and neighborhoods. During his tenure, much of the system was seen as running efficiently and parents expressed satisfaction with the education their children received.


One of Dr. Hairston’s long-standing core beliefs was that struggling schools would improve only if students were held to the same standards as those in the best schools, and that every student deserved a quality education. “He was really committed to that,” said Roger Plunkett, who was an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction under Dr. Hairston. “He wanted to empower principals to do their very best for all children.”

Dr. Hairston invested heavily in getting more Advanced Placement courses into schools and encouraged average students into taking higher-level courses.

“He was an equity leader when it came to education,” said Verletta White, a former interim superintendent who served in Dr. Hairston’s administration. “He often reminded all of us that ‘all means all,’ that regardless of a child’s zip code or socioeconomic background, our job is to ensure that they all get a high quality education.”

Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Darryl L. Williams, who currently leads the district, said in a statement “with every action, [Dr. Hairston] exuded the ‘quiet confidence’ that he often advocated.”

“His strongest mark on Baltimore County Public Schools was his recognition of the ‘seismic shifts’ coming in education and his devotion to every child,” Williams said. “'All means all’ was his mantra, his commitment, and his goal. He will be missed, but his legacy lives on in the lives of every student, educator, and community member who benefited from his service.”

Dr. Joe A. Hairston, Superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, Peter Negroni, CollegeBoard senior vice president, Lindsey Hoffman and Brittani Sipes, talk in the hallway of Arbutus Middle School. Hoffman and Sipes wanted to meet Hairston so they stopped to talk to him between classes. The superintendent and Negroni visited a Language Arts 8 where students are using CollegeBoard's SpringBoard program to prepare them for entering advanced placement classes in high school.

A native of Virginia, he was born to Tommy Joe Hairston and Virginia Harper Hairston. Dr. Hairston earned an undergraduate degree from Maryland State College, now the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. He received a master’s degree from American University and a doctorate in education from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

He began his career as an educator in 1969 in Prince George’s County. He was a high school and middle school teacher for seven years before becoming an assistant principal and principal in the 1970s. As a principal, he turned around a poorly performing high school in Suitland. “It went from being a school nobody wanted to go to, to one where people were standing in line to register their children,” said Dr. Hairston’s wife, Lillian, a retired social studies teacher. The reforms he instituted at Suitland earned Dr. Hairston recognition from the White House and a National Award of Excellence.

Dr. Hairston became an area superintendent in Prince George’s County in 1989. He then served as schools superintendent in Clayton County, Georgia, for five years before taking the job in Baltimore County in 2000, replacing Anthony Marchione.


During his long tenure, questions were raised about Dr. Hairston’s management of the system. He was viewed by many teachers and administrators as a complex figure who provided a steady hand but didn’t take criticism well. By 2011, some parents, lawmakers and county residents were angry about the lack of preparation to deal with overcrowding at elementary schools along the York Road corridor and protested a rule that kept school buildings from being used as often by the public. And Dr. Hairston was twice summoned to Annapolis by lawmakers, who in one instance had received a deluge of letters from teachers and constituents angry about several issues.

Dr. Hairston tried to institute a computer grading system, called the Articulated Instruction Module, which an employee had created on pen and paper and copyrighted. But teachers complained and he backed away from the idea.

Dr. Hairston forged a strong relationship with teachers but lost their trust over time. That tension was exacerbated by Dr. Hairston’s decision to not fill nearly 200 vacant teaching positions, which came amid the hiring of a $219,000-a-year administrator.

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In a profile in The Baltimore Sun in 2010, Dr. Hairston spoke often about the difficulties of a superintendent’s life, with weeks spent negotiating with adults instead of thinking about children and with a schedule that had him at legislative hearings early and awards banquets late.

Of the decisions that came to define his tenure, Dr. Hairston did not apologize for his approach, asserting that he made tough decisions through personal reflection. “I’m not someone who’s going to call for advice all the time,” he said. Asked at his farewell news conference, if the public criticisms of his administration made him rethink any of his decisions, he said, “No.”

After leaving Baltimore County schools, Dr. Hairston turned to something he loved: preparing the next generation of administrators for urban school systems. He became an associate professor at Howard University, teaching classes in educational leadership and policy. He helped coordinate a superintendents academy, a partnership of the university and the American Association of School Administrators.


“He believed in service leadership, that we existed to serve schools, teachers and students first,” Ms. White said. “He was always interested in grooming the next generation of educational leadership.”

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski called Dr. Hairston, “a pioneer for equity and inclusiveness in our schools."

In addition to his wife of 48 years, Dr. Hairston is survived by two sons, Jahmal Hairston, a physician in Georgia, and Jason Hairston, a project manager with T. Rowe Price in Owings Mills; and four granddaughters.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete.