A Baltimore County educator who rejected an offer last year to direct the school system's efforts to boost minority achievement has agreed to take the job amid continuing concerns that the gap between black and white students remains too wide.
Barbara S. J. Dezmon took over the school system's Office of Equity and Assurance -- formerly the Office of Minority Achievement and Multicultural Education -- yesterday, a day after school board members approved her appointment without comment. James H. Wilson, who had held the job, was moved into Dezmon's old post -- assistant to the deputy superintendent.
The switch comes several months after African-American leaders criticized the school system, saying not enough had been done to close the achievement gap. It also places a woman known for her expertise in multicultural education and her community involvement into the highly visible post. Dezmon is secretary of the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
School officials said yesterday the switch was not a reflection on Wilson's job performance, but rather an endorsement of Dezmon's abilities. Dezmon headed a state task force on minority achievement and is a member of the State Department of Education's Achievement Initiative for Maryland's Minority Students.
County schools spokesman Charles A. Herndon said the position will be expanded to ensure all students have equal learning opportunities.
Recommended by Hairston
Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston recommended Dezmon for the job.
"She's a natural fit for the position," Herndon said. "Dr. Hairston wants to make sure he has the best people possible in these very sensitive positions."
The spokesman said he did not know what Dezmon's salary would be.
It was unclear yesterday why Dezmon had accepted a job she refused last year.
At the time, she said she had "moral and ethical concerns" over what she perceived as a lack of support for the post.
Dezmon did not return calls seeking comment.
Some community members lauded the change.
During Wilson's one-year tenure, "too much time was spent spinning wheels in the wind," said Ella White Campbell, chairwoman of the Minority Achievement Advisory Group, which has worked with the school system to close the performance gap between white and black students.
"Dr. Wilson is a very fine individual," Campbell said. "However, he was cast in the midst of a foreign land. Too much time was spent researching what was already researched."
Wilson could not be reached for comment.
'An excellent choice'
Anthony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the NAACP, called Dezmon "an excellent choice."
"I've worked with her," Fugett said. "She just brings charisma to the job. She brings passion to the job, and clearly our children are in very good hands."
The schools have made some progress in closing the learning gap, as measured by standardized tests.
However, third-grade reading and math scores on the 1999 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests showed that half as many black students as white students scoring at satisfactory levels.
The county NAACP issued a statement this year reinforcing its concerns about gaps in achievement levels and about the treatment and placement of minority educators.
The statement was prompted by the resignation of Deputy Superintendent Elfreda W. Massie, then the highest-ranking black administrator in the school system.
At the time, Fugett had pointed to a "loss of confidence in the school system" by minority leaders.
Patricia Cook Ferguson, vice president of the county NAACP chapter, praised the choice of Dezmon and said the superintendent and school board need to make certain she has the resources to do her job.
"I think [Dezmon's] biggest challenge is to come up with an instrument ... that's going to show progress," Ferguson said. "Everyone wants to see the gap closing. If it's not closing, we want to see a plan that will work. There have to be goals that can be reached."