Hairston talks about Baltimore County schools' successes

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston formally announced Friday that he will leave his post this June, saying he has a record of success.

Speaking at a news conference, Hairston pointed to improved academic achievement of African-American students, a rise in test scores and the graduation rate, greater participation in Advanced Placement classes and more students going on to two- and four-year colleges.

Hairston also talked about feeling embattled by critics. "There will be no superintendent that has been exposed to a greater level of scrutiny," he said.

Hairston has been criticized over the past two years by parents, teachers and lawmakers over a perceived lack of transparency. Among the issues were a grading system written by an employee who was then given the copyright, and the elimination of about 200 teaching positions.

Hairston, who will leave after 12 years in the job, made references to the difficulty of being an African-American superintendent. The first black superintendent in Clayton County, Ga., Hairston said people had "spent more energy trying to discredit my presence and the purpose for me being there."

When he came to Baltimore County as its first black superintendent, he said, people told him he would "be dealing with the same … because we are dealing with change. We are dealing with cultural attitudes." He said the difference in Baltimore County is that it has a more sophisticated, diverse population that includes progressives, moderates and conservatives.

Asked if he had confronted racism in the county, he lifted up a copy of the book "Not In My Neighborhood" by Antero Pietila, about how bigotry shaped the Baltimore area.

"Chapters 14, 15, 16. Read it," he said. The chapters refer to the county's history of political corruption and attempts to marginalize African-Americans by limiting access to schools and housing.

But, he said, he told his employees: "If all they can do is personally attack me and not attack you and the work you do, I can deal with that."

He said he and his wife, who is a county teacher, decided to retire in June after 43 years in education, but that he will continue working in education. As he leaves at age 65, he said, he will have been a superintendent for 23 years.

Although he hasn't decided what he will do, he said he hoped that he could be involved in training the next generation of superintendents.

"I have had people call me to caution me not to make any commitments," he said, adding that he has already received offers. "I have to take time to assess what would be the best fit."

Hairston also was asked if any of the public criticisms made him rethink any of his decisions. "No," he said.

The school board decided in a private vote more than a month ago not to extend his contract, and Hairston told the school board chair on Monday that he will be leaving at the end of the school year.

Hairston said he never asked the board for another term and always expected to leave this coming year. He said he planned to make the announcement but for different reasons didn't until this week.

He said county principals thought he would announce it at a leadership conference this summer at Rocky Gap, but the mood was so positive, he decided to hold off. While he thought about it again at the beginning of the school year, Hurricane Irene made him change his mind because he had to focus on the logistics of opening schools.

In the one-hour news conference, Hairston touched on a variety of aspects to his tenure. When asked if he would have done anything differently, he said he should have decided to have knee surgery a decade earlier. After the audience, which was full of staff, parents and teacher representatives, laughed, he said in all seriousness that he felt some of his energy was diminished by his health.

He had double knee replacement surgery about two years ago.

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