Arundel schools chief off, running


The superintendent roared. He pounded the lectern. He punched the air. And then Eric J. Smith, the supercharged new schools chief in Anne Arundel County, shocked his audience with a blunt promise.

"If we can't improve the level of achievement in the Anne Arundel County school system," he told hundreds of principals and administrators at a late-summer pep rally, "I will resign."

To make himself clear, he said it again: "If we can't come up with strategies and mechanisms to improve achievement, I will resign."

No one who has met Smith thinks that will happen. They have no doubt that Smith will help turn Anne Arundel's sleepy school system - long an underperformer on standardized tests - into a state leader.

Neither does he.

In less than two months on the job, Smith has made fundamental changes in the way business is done in Maryland's fifth-largest school system, which begins welcoming back students tomorrow. He imposed a back-to-basics reading and math curriculum in 14 schools. He overhauled school construction, cutting the cost of new schools by 20 percent.

"He's made more decisions in the last two weeks than were made in the last two years," said state Del. James E. Rzepkowski, a Linthicum Republican who is a product of the county school system. "I'm impressed."

Smith insists that's just his style, and that he won't let up.

Carol S. Parham, the previous superintendent, was known more for her motivational and people skills than for instruction initiatives. She retired amid great fanfare in December, after eight years as superintendent. Though she was well-liked, the county's ranking on the state performance test fell from No. 6 in 1993 to No. 14 last year.

School board member Tony Spencer said Parham took over "a system that didn't have any data recorded properly, and reorganized it into a system that can be respected."

But, he added, "It's a new level that we're trying to attain, and we're going to."

Smith has set a breakneck pace for the rest of his staff to follow. His workdays begin at 7 a.m. and usually run more than 12 hours long. He likes his meetings kept short, and he eats his lunch in his office. He zips around to many of the county's 117 schools, then gets on his car phone and calls his staff with ideas and questions.

One of the biggest changes is cultural. A staff that had spent years studying issues is now being told to get on with it. For instance, a committee has been considering for months whether to bring the challenging International Baccalaureate program to some county high schools. Smith decided he wanted the program, and he told the committee to be ready to present a proposal to the school board next month.

"Public education is being systematically dismantled in places across the country," he told administrators this month, pointing to districts where schools are being run by private companies.

To avoid a similar fate, he said, Anne Arundel schools must prove they are working.

"We can't do it from the lawn chair," he said. "We have to do it at a fast pace, and we have to prove it beyond question. ... I think we can push a lot harder, and we will."

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