Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Darryl L. Williams continued what might best be described as his get-to-know-everyone listening tour by sitting down for a chat with The Baltimore Sun’s editorial board on Tuesday. The longtime Montgomery County schools administrator was understandably cautious in his appraisal of his new post as befitting someone on Day 11. But he was more than willing to share his opinions of the job so far — including a few surprises. One area where he was completely non-committal? Whether the school year should start before or after Labor Day. (Oddly, this seems not to be a burning concern.) Here are the top five takeaways from the one-hour conversation:
1. Equity is the topic is the forefront of his agenda. Mr. Williams says he wants to make sure all students have an opportunity to get a quality education whether they are a minority, from a low-income family or whatever their circumstance. That should sound familiar to Baltimore County residents because it’s been the same philosophy espoused by his recent predecessors, Dallas Dance and Verletta White. As it should be. The education gap is a major challenge for most jurisdictions, and rapidly diversifying Baltimore County is no different. And he says he is confident he has the support of the county Board of Education on this, too.
2. He’s a committed numbers cruncher. Talk about how schools are doing and the first place the new superintendent goes is the data. He and his staff are currently looking over reams of it from kindergarten readiness to state assessments to the PSAT, SAT, AP and IB test scores. He says it’s the best way to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both the system and individual schools. “Where are we as a system?” Mr. Williams wants to know. The data doesn’t tell the whole story, he acknowledges — and he’s also talking to students, teachers and staff — but he thinks student achievement is a critical measure.
3. Teacher retention is a top priority. On the subject of the Kirwan Commission (more properly known as the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education), Mr. Williams’ first thought isn’t funneling more money into the system, it’s addressing a criticism that was high on the commission’s to-do list — the problem of losing quality teachers after only a few years on the job. The answer? Finding ways to improve hiring and then better supporting teachers so they won’t be overwhelmed. “Our emphasis has to be on our staff," he says.
4. Laptops for every student? Maybe, maybe not. This might have been the biggest surprise of the conversation. Providing personal computers to every student in the system (a controversial policy already abandoned in the early grade school years) has been one of the most heated recent debates in the county schools. Many parents, and certain school board members, are quite antagonistic toward the practice, but if anyone thought the board was hiring an anti-laptop superintendent, think again. Chalk him up as undecided. Mr. Williams says he sees the value in providing laptops to students who don’t otherwise have access to one. But in the end, it’s just a tool. Is it better to spend money on such devices or on teacher training and support? That’s a question he says he’ll be pondering.
5. Zero-tolerance student discipline isn’t coming back. Here’s another area where some may have expected the school system to be turning in a completely different direction, but it probably won’t be. As much as Mr. Williams is aware that some parents think BCPS goes too soft on misbehaving students, the superintendent is more interested in “restorative” justice than in more punitive tactics. For those unfamiliar with the practice, it’s about bringing perpetrators, victims and members of the community together to reconcile their differences. What he’s against is “zero tolerance” and punishments that tend to land harder on minorities. It’s more about rehabilitation of the offender than kicking him out of school, although “people can still be suspended,” he notes.
As for the immediate future, Mr. Williams says he has more learning to do. His most often asked questions of school employees: Name a success and name a challenge or “what’s getting in the way.” One thing that won’t get in the way? Geography. Mr. Williams, a married father of three (ages 25, 22 and 17), plans to move to Baltimore County as soon as his wife and eldest child find the right home.