High marks for schools head

The Baltimore Sun

UPPER MARLBORO -- He's been called a "rock star," a passionate visionary, a man who has given hope to people in need of uplifting.

John E. Deasy is not an evangelical preacher or a musician. He's a middle-aged guy in a suit who spends his days worrying about "restructuring implementation" and "adequate yearly progress." And he has what is perhaps one of the most difficult jobs in Maryland.

He's a superintendent of schools, in this case in Prince George's County, a system that has nearly as many challenges as Baltimore and 50,000 more students.

"I can tell you, I have never seen someone to bring such passion and leadership to this county. I don't know where he gets his energy from," said Warren Brown, head of the county's Council of PTAs.

"My impression is that he is doing a remarkable job thus far," said state Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat.

So why are constituents in this majority-black school system - from parents to lawmakers to school board members - so enthusiastic about him?

Some say his predecessors were an easy act to follow. Superintendent Iris T. Metts never got along with the county school board, at the time an elected panel that was itself dismissed. The next superintendent, Andre J. Hornsby, was indicted on corruption charges.

And Deasy has been in the county for less than a year. The honeymoon, even his supporters say, is not over. In the end, they say, he will be judged not on his charm, his work ethic or his beliefs, but whether the test scores go up.

"If there isn't improvement in the satisfaction of the parents and in test scores, we might have a different impression of the progress he is making," Currie said. "The media don't like to love you too long."

But for right now, Deasy, 46, has brought to the county an energy and single-mindedness that has drawn high praise. He routinely asserts that all students have the right to good schools, a simple philosophy that parents were eager to hear. He says this to everyone he meets in the county and around the state. "Rigor can't be an accident of geography," he said during an interview in his office in Upper Marlboro. "It is a civil rights issue. It is a kids' civil rights issue."

System in crisis

When he arrived in May, the state was on the verge of putting the entire county school system into corrective action, a status under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for systems with a high percentage of schools that have failed to meet standards for many years in a row.

The state had taken the same action against Baltimore, and it resulted in a series of forced administrative and curriculum changes. But Deasy put together a master plan to try to keep the state at bay. When he went before the State Board of Education last summer, with dozens of Prince George's politicians and administrators filling the halls to support him, board members were so impressed that they backed off, saying they would give him the opportunity to try his reforms.

"We were so convinced that he had taken all the right steps to turn around the system that we didn't have to substitute our plan instead of his," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

He has assigned teams of specialists to 83 schools where the test scores are particularly low. They concentrate on improving the leadership and analyzing test data to improve teaching.

He has added more Algebra I classes in middle schools, increasing the percentage of middle school students who take the course from 13 percent last year to more than 18 percent this year. He says he intends to increase that number until about 30 percent of students are taking the course before high school, as is common in suburban districts.

Deasy also is working with the College Board to get 200 teachers trained to teach Advanced Placement classes next fall. Few high schools in the county offer AP courses. But next year, he says, every high school will have at least five core AP classes.

Those improvements are not the only reason that he has made an impression. He works long hours, has visited dozens of schools and has met hundreds of students, teachers, principals and politicians in the process. He holds quarterly meetings where parents can ask questions. The teachers union president has regular meetings, e-mail exchanges and telephone conversations with him.

"He believes in teachers and strengthening them," said Carol Kilby, the union president. "The communication is much more open than it has ever been for any other superintendent." Deasy included teacher raises of 5 percent in his first budget, which the union and others applauded. He also wants to give more money to teachers who agree to work in the most challenging schools.

Brown says parents are satisfied with Deasy's determination to make changes. In January, Deasy decided to replace the principal of Largo High School the day after the school called police to stop a fight and bring under control a large number of students milling around in the halls.

Parents were angry about the lack of discipline at Largo - and impressed with the speed with which the superintendent responded, Brown says. Deasy argues that his response wasn't quick but deliberative. He simply ran out of patience after months of trying to improve the school.

"He has come in and given this county hope," Brown said.

Few of Deasy's initiatives are revolutionary. They have been tried in many other districts across the nation but are new to Prince George's, which Kilby said has suffered "benign neglect" for years.

Deasy has a frenzied style that includes working at all hours, making calls to his staff as early as 5 a.m. and as late as midnight and having little deference for bureaucratic channels.

Grasmick said it is not the energy but the focus that gives her optimism. Deasy has decided to concentrate first on what happens in the classroom and who the principals are. He has gotten Teach for America and several other well-regarded programs to send teachers to the county this year. And he got New Leaders for New Schools, a national program that trains principals, to open an office in Prince George's.

Impatient leader

Deasy's weakness, people say, is his impatience to get results quickly. "We say, 'Whoa, take a deep breath. ... We have to communicate with 9,000 members,'" Kilby said.

Deasy agrees. "I am clearly impatient, and that is a problem," he said. But he argues that his urgency is warranted.

"If we can't do it all at once, then I want you to round up the kids who are going to lose and let them know it," he said. "Or if we don't get you to graduate, then to which ones are we going to say, 'You are going to be the statistic that winds up dead or in jail.' It is really serious business around here."

Deasy came up through the education ranks of northeastern school systems, starting as a teacher and then principal before becoming a superintendent of a small district in Rhode Island. From there, he moved to the tiny Santa Monica-Malibu district in California, where he was superintendent for several years before moving to Maryland. During his time in California, he was one of 18 educators chosen to become a Broad Fellow. The prestigious program trains superintendents across the country.

Deasy's contract with the county gives him a $250,000 salary and a bonus if he raises achievement - but has no clause that provides a severance package if he gets kicked out. His view is that if the board doesn't want him, they have a right to fire him.

"When you are John Deasy, you don't have to worry about getting another job," said Timothy G. Quinn, managing director of the Broad Superintendents Academy, who was effusive in his praise for Deasy's intellect, motivation and interpersonal skills.

"The guy could do anything he wanted to in his life. I don't hand out these kind of compliments. He is a rock star in this field."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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