Dance's career impresses some, worries others

When S. Dallas Dance was searching for his first teaching job out of college, he was hired by a Virginia high school principal nearly twice his age.

Just a decade later, after a meteoric career rise that impresses some and worries others, Dance has ended up in a similar job as his former boss, William R. Hite, now superintendent of Prince George's County schools.

Dance was named Baltimore County's schools superintendent Tuesday, and he will be the youngest to hold the job in at least 50 years. He will have turned 31 by the time he takes the helm July 1, when the current superintendent, Joe A. Hairston, leaves after 12 years in the post.

In a long phone interview Wednesday, Dance said age hasn't mattered in his previous jobs, as he's been promoted in Virginia and Texas public schools.

When he was made a principal four years after college, he said, some said, "'He is too young.' After the first three to four weeks, that argument was null and void. ... I would ask the Baltimore County community to judge me based on my actions and the work that the BCPS team does under my leadership, not my age. Someone's integrity, character and work ethic defines him or her more so than anything, especially age."

Dance said that in his first month in Baltimore County, he will "listen and listen and do some more listening." After that, he said, he will ask a lot of questions.

He has never worked in Maryland, a state with education policies and politics that differ from those in Texas. That makes some parents nervous.

"I want experience and a proven track record, not someone jumping from state to state in order to acquire the swiftest path to move up the ladder. If you have to go to great lengths to defend a hire, then we as parents and taxpayers have the right to have pause and concern regarding the quality of leadership our children's school system will have moving forward," said Alan Southworth, whose daughter is a student at Middleborough Elementary.

In the past decade, Dance has changed jobs about every two years as he moved from English teacher to assistant principal, principal and administrator in Virginia public schools to chief of middle schools in the Houston Independent School District. But he said he plans to keep the Baltimore County job for a decade.

"I have a very strong feeling that this is home for me and it will be home for me," he said. The Richmond native is divorced with a 21/2-year-old son who lives in Virginia, and he said he wants to be closer to the state where he was raised and his extended family lives.

With a $1.4 billion budget, 17,000 employees and 105,000 students, Baltimore County's is the 26th-largest school system in the country.

"It is a very complicated system — the number of schools, the size of the teaching staff, the expectations of the parents," said former state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

Because Dance has not had years of experience in high-level administrative positions, she said, he needs "to have a cadre of support in the system" or people who will act as "critical friends."

He is likely to get help from Hite, who says that from the beginning Dance was "a great English teacher" who was more mature than his years. "I think what will be convincing is ... his work ethic, his posture of learning, his zeal for instructional improvement, his use of data," his former boss said.

As people see how talented Dance is, they will be put at ease, Hite said.

"That being said, it is really important that he understand what he doesn't know," Hite said. "That is where me and other superintendents will be able to help him." Hite said he has talked to Dance since he got the job.

Dance said he will choose top managers for Baltimore County who are smart and "understand the work," adding that his new deputy will have experience in Maryland. The current deputy, Renee Foose, is leaving to become superintendent in Howard County.

Dance also applied for the Howard post but said he was sure he wanted to be superintendent in Baltimore County after interviewing with its school board. About eight hours after the last interview, he received an offer and immediately said yes, Dance said.

Dance has only two years of teaching experience, which required the Baltimore County school board to seek a waiver from interim state Superintendent Bernard Sadusky before hiring him; Maryland requires three.

Members of the public told the search firm they wanted a superintendent who was more open to divergent points of view than the previous administration, and Dance said he likes full collaboration.

"I do not surround myself with people who tell me what I want to hear, but people who tell me what they believe," he said.

Teachers should be involved in trying to find solutions to problems, he said, and principals will be given a lot of autonomy, particularly those at schools that excel.

While there will be times when he must make hard decisions, he describes himself as someone who will challenge the staff to come up with solutions.

"I will tell you I am very open. I am very transparent. I want to make sure that people are part of the solutions," he said.

He said he values people's opinions whether they are custodians, bus drivers, teachers, community activists, parents or students.

Baltimore County has recently struggled with overcrowded schools, particularly in the York Road corridor, lack of air conditioning in schools and aging buildings.

"Hiring a young man with so little experience in either teaching or administrative work does not bode well for solving the problems of our large system with its huge infrastructure problems, including overcrowding and climate control," said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, an outspoken advocate and a parent of a recent graduate of Baltimore County schools.

To parents who are concerned about finding solutions, Dance promises to come up with short- and long-range priorities.

"What people will like is that there will be a plan to get it done," he said, adding that he will be upfront about what can and cannot be accomplished. "We can't continue to have the oldest facilities in Maryland."

Dance talked at length about equity for schools in the system and ensuring that every student is taught a curriculum that goes beyond the basics. He wants more Advanced Placement scholars, he said, and more National Merit scholars.

Whether Dance will be able to execute plans with parents and teachers who are upset that they were left out of the final process of selecting a new superintendent, have never met him and are concerned about his youth is still a question.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, pointed to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who was named superintendent in Chicago, another large system, in his late 30s. "It is more the qualifications and the skill set," he said.

Hite said there are advantages to the energy of youth that as a man of 50 he can appreciate. The job "is around the clock. It is 24/7, and it will wear people down," he said.