'Assertive' leader to apply audit

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County school officials have hired a longtime educator, who was fired from her last job, to oversee what and how children are taught - matters explored in a soon-to-be-released independent review.

Sonia Diaz, who most recently was superintendent of New Mexico's second-largest school district, is scheduled to start next month as associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Her appointment coincides with the coming release of a 400-page evaluation of the county school system's strategy for teaching youngsters.

Diaz, who describes herself as an "assertive" leader, was dismissed after four months as head of the Las Cruces public schools in New Mexico after employees criticized her management style, the former head of the school board there said.

But after announcing her hiring last week, Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said he isn't troubled by Diaz's work history because he believes she has the right priorities.

"We needed someone who understands leadership," said Hairston, adding that he has known Diaz for about 10 years. "Here's someone who has experience and a track record with regard to bringing about academic achievement in more challenging school systems."

Hairston said the experience in Las Cruces, where Diaz was the fifth superintendent in five years, isn't an accurate reflection of her effectiveness.

"They have given away every competent superintendent because they don't want to change," he said. "Superintendents are lightning rods. People will make them the bad guys when they don't agree. She had the courage to stand up for the rights of children."

Diaz said she has researched Baltimore County school system's strengths, such as initiatives to strengthen science and technology education. She said she plans to follow the curriculum audit's recommendations, and talk to teachers, administrators, parents and students.

"The crux of so much of what has to happen depends upon the strength of the curriculum, the rigor of the curriculum, the content of the curriculum and the alignment of the curriculum to statewide standards," she said. "I want to get to know what has been working well for the school system and build on that."

In August - soon after the system's previous head of curriculum and instruction left for a job in Michigan - Hairston enlisted auditors from Phi Delta Kappa, an Indiana-based education advocacy group, to review the system's curriculum management.

Fenwick English, one of the group's lead auditors, said its review would define the system's weaknesses by analyzing curriculum documents, plans, budgets and policies. Auditors spent a week in December interviewing parents, students, teachers, administrators and community leaders.

Hairston declined to discuss details of the audit until its scheduled release next week but said that the report includes "a strong finding of a need for leadership." He said he will follow its recommendations.

A well-run curriculum and instruction department is critical because it sets the bar for what students need to learn and how teachers will accomplish that, said Margaret Trader, a visiting professor at McDaniel College and former assistant state superintendent for instruction.

"Children are held accountable for school performance on state tests, and we need to make sure that the curriculum is aligned with the expectations of those assessments," Trader said.

Diaz began her education career in 1973 as a first-grade bilingual teacher in Boston. She earned her doctorate in 1996 from Harvard University in education administration, planning and social policy.

She was deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Miami/Dade County schools, superintendent of Bridgeport, Conn., schools and superintendent of Community School District 1 in New York City's school system.

She spent four years overseeing schools in Bridgeport. Although she accepted a buyout after a shift in the school board's composition eroded her support, she also earned acclaim for educational reforms amid controversy. She was among those credited when Bridgeport was named a finalist last year for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, which recognizes districts for overall academic progress while reducing achievement gaps for poor and minority students.

Greg Firn, superintendent of the nearby Milford, Conn., school system, said Diaz was successful during a time when Bridgeport's mayor, who appoints the school board, was convicted on corruption charges.

"She was able to rise above that political climate and put a lot of things in place that are still in place today," Firn said.

The Las Cruces school board placed Diaz on administrative leave in November while it investigated complaints that employee morale was suffering under her management, said Sharon Wooden, who was then president of the school board. Diaz was fired in January.

Diaz said that while she sets high expectations, she considers herself even-handed. She declined to talk in detail about Las Cruces because she filed for court arbitration after the board's decision, saying only that "some places just are not a good fit."

"She was very bright and very knowledgeable. But her management style just didn't work with our school district," said Wooden, adding that Diaz attempted to make changes too soon.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Baltimore County teachers union, said she is hopeful that Diaz will collaborate with teachers in efforts to adopt the curriculum audit's recommendations.

"We don't want a top-down approach," Bost said. "We hope she has the will and the desire to work with us and with the teachers."


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