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Maxwell calls for shuffle

The Baltimore Sun

A year into his job, superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell is engineering a broad restructuring designed to make the Anne Arundel County school system "more personal" by creating six regional directors to supervise clusters of neighborhood schools.

The reorganization was accompanied by a measure to do away with step increases, in favor of merit pay, for some of the school system's top administrators.

School board members lauded both measures as increasing accountability at the higher echelons of the district's bureaucracy - and unanimously voted for the switch to pay-for-performance.

The organizational shakeup is meant to make central office administrators more aware of community needs by moving them away from the district's Riva Road headquarters and placing them in offices in three schools.

It dismantles the existing structure that had directors for grade levels - elementary, middle and high school - while the new model shifts the focus to individual schools. Maxwell denounced the current model as "unbalanced" and less responsive to student, teacher and parent needs.

Maxwell's reorganization joins a national trend in school districts to break up monolithic headquarters in favor of community or regional supervisors who work more closely with parents, teachers and principals to plot improvements in school performance.

"We've got to be able to focus on moving individual children up from grade to grade," Maxwell said during the announcement of his plan at Wednesday's school board meeting. "The director's office will be a one-stop shop for PTA or CAC (Citizens Advisory Council) or the principal. They should believe that behind that director's voice is mine."

The new structure grows out of a recognition that schools' fates are linked; a high school's performance is tied to the work being done at the elementary and middle schools that feed into it, and the efforts of community groups around the school.

Maxwell's new structure has six "cluster directors." A pair of directors will oversee roughly 30 elementary and middle schools and the four high schools into which they feed. The directors will have monthly meetings with principals, Maxwell told board members this week, and will work with teachers to provide training to improve student performance. The move, Maxwell said, also helped the district save $227,000 by eliminating seven positions.

The Anne Arundel schools chief appears to be taking a page from the book of Montgomery County schools, where Maxwell was a community superintendent with similar responsibilities as the cluster directors he recently named.

When he joined Montgomery schools, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast created six "community superintendents" in 1999 to improve focus on closing the academic achievement gap. At the time, Weast told community leaders he based the reorganization on tractor-maker Caterpillar Inc.'s structure.

The decentralized structure has caught on in other districts, most recently in Charlotte, N.C., where a new superintendent says he hopes to accelerate progress. In the nation's largest district, New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the system of local superintendents helped stabilize schools in turmoil by providing more direct intervention and gave principals more power.

Teachers union president Tim Menutti said under Maxwell's new approach, "You're able to watch children from kindergarten to high school. It's a more hands on approach in dealing with individual children."

The older system, Mennuti said, divided students into "lumps, with no one really watching them."

Under the new structure, directors can help principals identify a student who needs help in pre-kindergarten and follow their progress all the way until high school, increasing or dropping resources as necessary.

"It's our best chance to have a well-structured approach to reaching each child," said Mennuti, the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County president.

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