Baltimore County's new schools chief won over skeptics in Houston

In the crowded glass and steel lobby of the Houston school headquarters, Principal Susan Monaghan paused briefly to touch the shoulder of her boss, a man with far less experience in the education field and young enough to have been her student.

"I am OK, right?" she asked, searching his face for reassurance.

S. Dallas Dance told her everything would be fine. Dance had initiated an audit after she discovered money missing from her budget in a case that has been referred to authorities, ending her ordeal. "He has our backs all the time," she would say later.

Hours after that exchange, Dance checked in on a girls school he helped launch this year and hugged the school's principal, who has known him just two years. Her eyes welled with tears as she talked about his impending departure for Baltimore County.

The selection of Dance, 30, as the youngest person to head the Baltimore County public schools in at least 50 years has set off worry here among parents, teachers and administrators that he has too little experience to lead. The county school board had to obtain a waiver from the state to hire him as superintendent because he did not have the requisite teaching experience.

Houston school leaders say they, too, were skeptical when he came at 28 to be middle schools chief. But they say he has fostered confidence among principals, who say he shields them from administration politics, and among parents and education advocates, one of whom likened his skill level to that of Michael Jordan.

Dance has won supporters despite being part of an administration that critics say has sowed discontent with a rapid-fire succession of unpopular changes, from high turnover to unnecessary testing and classroom funding cuts. In contrast to Houston Superintendent Terry Grier, a controversial figure, Dance is considered a calming influence and an impressive communicator with a direct, I-do-what-I-say approach.

Several principals, teachers and parents interviewed by The Baltimore Sun in Houston sought to reassure their counterparts in Baltimore County.

"He is wise beyond his years. Trust me, give him a chance," Monaghan said. "We are losing a great leader."

"We have a real morale issue. I think he was a very significant cushion for his administrators" and was able to "get a lot of people through some rough stuff," said Peggy Sue Gay, parent of a high school student.

Dance, who has quickly risen through school ranks, took the high-profile job in Houston in 2010. Even supporters there acknowledge that he is untested as a superintendent, and that it is difficult to judge his two-year track record in a complex urban system of 203,000 students.

Based on Texas state test data from Dance's first year, at least 18 of the 48 middle schools under his watch dropped to a lower level of achievement in the school rating system while few improved. But the rating system was changed significantly when he arrived, making it difficult for schools to stay at their previous level.

He helped launch a program called Apollo that revamped four failing middle schools, among others. Results for those middle schools in the first year of turnaround are mixed, but few schools get radically better in the first year.

Michael Holthouse, a Houston businessman whose foundation has been involved in the Apollo project, said Dance is "good at listening to other perspectives and incorporating them in his actions."

He acknowledged that Dance is inexperienced, but said, "If we are dealing with a Michael Jordan here, which I think we are, then yes, he has things to learn, but he can achieve."

One of the criticisms in Houston has been over principal turnover; about 50 of 288 principals were replaced over several years. Ray Reiner, executive director of the Houston Association of School Administrators, has questioned the rapid turnover, saying principals cannot be expected to change a school in six months.

Dance is unapologetic, saying: "We were not looking for incremental changes."

He also acknowledges missteps. "I made two bad hires. When you make a bad hire, you correct it," Dance said, even if that means replacing a principal in the middle of the school year.

Dance has been criticized for spending too much time away from Houston.

A blog called posted a document showing that Dance has been away from the district 41 days since he began the job in 2010. Seven days were vacation, one was jury duty. The rest, Dance said, were days when he was working out of town at education conferences around the country.

As Dance settles into his job in the Baltimore County district of 105,000 students, Houston observers say the question is whether Dance will emulate Grier — he has not been critical of him — or whether he will find his own way.

"Either you follow what has been modeled or you correct what is being modeled," said Andrew Chan, parent of an elementary and a middle school student.

A diverse, decentralized, urban system, Houston has adopted many of the changes that Baltimore City has embraced. Parents have a choice of what schools their children attend beyond their neighborhood school. Fifty percent of teacher evaluations are based on student achievement. Charter schools are common.

Baltimore County, which has largely ignored education reforms instituted in cities across the country, could be shocked by such changes if adopted by Dance. What he will bring won't be known for months. Dance hasn't said what he would do. He said he wants to talk to many people from all parts of the county before making any moves.

Only his first day in the new job is planned. He said he wants to gather a group of dropouts for breakfast and ask them what would have kept them in school.

Because the Baltimore County school board kept the search for a new superintendent a secret, Dance did not have the freedom to visit schools. So he hit 7-Elevens instead. He drove around the Beltway, stopped in the stores and struck up conversations with strangers in Dundalk, Randallstown and Catonsville. He told them he was thinking about moving to town and asked what they thought of their schools.

He was pleased to find that many said the schools were good, but he said some told him they felt the school system did not communicate well with the community.

It's the kind of hands-on approach often taken by Dance, who seems to take on work and life with intensity.

During a tour of schools in Houston last week, he emerged from a classroom and picked up a trace of something in the air. He said to the principal, "What is that smell?" Before the principal had finished telling him that sewage ran underneath the floor, he had pulled out his phone and sent a text message to the district's facilities department, which told him they would evaluate it the next day.

Dance chatted up a cafeteria worker and found that the card-swiping device used by students in lieu of cash wasn't working. Out came the phone again. A manic texter, Dance could keep up with the most adept communicator in middle school and his fingers are never far from his phone.

His next conversation was with the school's technology officer, who explained a problem with laptops. Dance also talked to the security guard.

No task appeared too mundane. At the next school he visited, Dance found a picture in a hallway that was crooked. He lifted the picture to study how it was hung and tried to straighten it.

Dance arises at 4:30 four mornings a week to run three miles. He eats five small meals a day, starting at 7:30 a.m. Three come from a trash can-size container in his office filled with protein powder. He goes to bed at 11:30 p.m. but often wakes with a thought that prompts him to get up to write it down.

"We'd get emails from Dallas at 2, 3, 4 in the morning," said Marcus J. Newsome, superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia, who worked with Dance before he left for Houston. "He appears to be one of those people who doesn't need very much sleep because he's at meetings at 7 or 7:30 the next morning, full of energy.

"He's one of the most unique young people that I have ever met. He has a combination of intellect, strong work ethic, interpersonal skills and political savvy. He works tirelessly," Newsome said.

Pictures of his 2-year-old son, Myles Dallas Dance, who lives in Richmond, Va., with his former wife, are scattered around Dance's small, windowless office in Houston. Sitting at his desk, he can look at the opposite wall and see two identical clocks, with signs above them that read "Dallas" and "Myles." One is set for Eastern time and one for Houston time.

Myles, he said, is one of the main reasons he wants to move back east, and he can envision driving from Baltimore to see him on a weeknight. He dreams that one day Myles might be a student in the school system he runs.

Shaun Dallas Dance was born in Richmond to a father who was a truck driver and a mother who was an occupational therapist.

"When he was young he always had a book. And when I used to come home from work, and he was about 7 or 8, he would always say, 'Mom, where's the paper?' I used to take him to the library, and he would always come home with about 30 books," Leatrice C. Dance said in an interview.

Her son skipped a grade in high school and graduated at the top of his class, she said. He earned a bachelor's degree at Virginia Union University in Richmond in 2001, received a master's at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2002 and a doctorate in educational leadership from Virginia Commonwealth in 2007.

After two years of teaching high school English in Richmond, he moved up quickly to assistant principal and to principal in 2005.

"He was always interested in understanding cause and effect and wanting to know the magnitude of decisions — and not just down in the trenches but at 10,000 feet. He saw the big picture," said Al Carochi, director of operations in Henrico County Public Schools, who worked with Dance at a high school there.

Two years later, Dance became assistant superintendent in Louisa County, a Virginia district made up of six schools, where he did everything from handle budget issues to check roads early in the morning for snow. Two years later he moved to executive director of school improvement in Chesterfield County, Va., and about a year later to Houston.

His favorite job in education, he said, was being a principal. "For me, life was really great as a school principal."

He believes it is the hardest job in a school district and that the central office should treat principals and schools as if they were customers, responding quickly to their needs.

In Houston, he said, he sought to insulate principals from the politics and demands of central administration. Principals who live in fear, he said, will "hand it down to their teachers, and you won't get student achievement."

Dance is disarmingly calm and straightforward. His staff says he is so steady that he rarely, if ever, gets angry or explodes.

Houston school board member Paula Harris said Grier, the superintendent, sometimes rubs people the wrong way, and "Dallas is kind of cleanup."

"We have had a lot of tough messages to put out there," Harris said. "He spends a lot of time defusing situations."

In the classroom last week, Dance was barely noticed by students. He leaned over to talk to them in a whispered voice. They whispered back. He wanted to know if they understood the lesson and how what they were learning could be applied in the real world.

Baltimore County schools might see a similar scene in their classrooms soon. Dance has decided little in terms of plans for the district, but he said he will spend a lot of time in schools. He plans to visit every school in the district his first year — roughly one a day when school is in session.

He doesn't appear to find the task daunting.

"The first week of school, you will see me in 15 to 20 schools," he said.

At a glance

Name: S. Dallas Dance

Age: 30

Born: Richmond, Va.

High school: Valedictorian

Work history: Began teaching high school English in 2001; appointed high school principal in Virginia in 2005; middle schools chief in Houston Independent School District from 2010 to June 2012

Next post: Expected to be formally named Baltimore County schools superintendent Tuesday

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