Armed with a list of recommendations compiled for him by education experts, Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston appears to be primed to enact bold changes.
Among the possibilities are a review of magnet schools, a reshuffling of administrators at school system headquarters and giving more students free breakfasts.
But Hairston and members of the Board of Education caution that nothing from the list has been set in stone, and that the experts' suggestions are more of a "big picture" look at the school system than a to-do list.
"Do you know any business that is surviving and not adjusting?" Hairston said. "That's all we are doing. We're adjusting. But this time we are not guessing. We are making critical decisions where we are in the best position to evaluate ourselves. "
The recommendations under consideration came from four experts who were hired this year after Hairston was appointed. Their report, which cost $44,223, is drawing favorable comments from school board members and leaders of education groups.
"I do like how much of this is tied to increases in student achievement because that is what we are all about," said Laura Nossel, president of the Baltimore County PTA Council.
Hairston, who took control of the 107,000-student system July 1, has assumed the role of aggressive business manager. He has asked for an organizational study of the school system by outside consultants and is adapting a quality control program named for former Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige.
He believes that a realignment of the school system will greatly benefit teachers and children.
"It's clear that some students are not coming to school ready to learn," said Hairston. "What we need to do is create an organization that can help teachers to provide the assistance these children need at whatever level they are at. It must be absolutely clear that any student who is enrolled is receiving the best possible schooling that we can provide."
To reach that goal, Hairston has apparently decided to tinker with administrators first and teachers second - a plan that could shake up a few departments. Hairston is confident that if he sets out his business plan for all to see, no one should be surprised.
"It is so important that we arrest the anxiety in anyone's mind relative to a new administration coming in and arbitrarily creating change," said Hairston, who recently worked with the board to place two key school administrators in new positions.
Board members seem to share Hairston's vision. They approve of what they call his "assertive" and "judicious" management style.
"The feeling of the board is that there has to be a realignment," board member Michael P. Kennedy said. "We need to be making sure that we are using personnel in the best interest of the system. ... Maybe it's not business as usual, but we know we have to do some things better."
Improvement is the message behind the list of ideas released last month to the school board and last week to the news media. The Sun subsequently circulated copies of the list to key education organizations, including the teachers union and the PTA.
Reaction from those groups, including the Minority Achievement Advisory Group, formerly known as the African-American Advisory Group, has been positive overall. (Hairston recently asked the group to change its name to be more inclusive.)
Ella White Campbell, chairwoman of the advisory group, agreed with experts who recommended that the practice of school-based management, in which principals order books and supplies independently, be revised.
Hairston "should define the functions that are school-based," White Campbell said. "A terrible mistake was made when this concept of school-based management was implemented because some things should clearly be done from the central office."
Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, called the document "interesting" in that it deals with issues such as curriculum instruction for teachers and regular student assessment that the teachers' group has been advocating for "quite some time."
Beytin noted that no one from the team bothered to interview teachers. "If you're talking about curriculum, you'd think you'd talk to teachers," he said.
A review of the magnet school program would be fine by Emily Wolfson, a longtime education activist. Yet she worries that officials might dilute the schools' academic standards. "Of course there should be general access to the magnet schools, but that access must be qualified," she said.
Hairston's team of education experts advised him to:
Develop a comprehensive student database that would be available to parents, teachers, principals and administrators.
Create a team of educators that could offer short-term help to troubled schools.
Use a weighted formula based on socioeconomic indicators to set budgets for schools.
Hire a second deputy superintendent to oversee facilities and budgets.