Meet Verletta White, the new interim Baltimore County Schools superintendent. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)
If the Baltimore County school board was looking for a change of pace after Superintendent Dallas Dance's surprise announcement this spring that he would leave the system, they got it in Verletta White — at least superficially. He came to the superintendent position as a 30-year-old geyser of ideas, short on classroom experience and new to Maryland, much less Baltimore County. She became interim superintendent after spending virtually her entire life in the system, starting when she was a student at Woodmoor Elementary School and carrying through every level as a student, teacher and administrator. She is calm, poised and extremely diplomatic.
But what became clear during an interview this week with The Sun's editorial board is that she sees the system and its needs in much the same way Mr. Dance does. She stands by his efforts to introduce technology in the classroom as an essential tool for teachers to provide individualized learning for students. She agrees with him on the folly of installing window air conditioning in schools rather than pursuing comprehensive HVAC rehabs. She stands firmly behind the district's emphasis on equity in a rapidly diversifying system where increasing numbers of students have special needs. Parents who chafed at Mr. Dance's leadership shouldn't expect a different style to translate into big differences of substance.
Teachers and administrators have greeted Ms. White's temporary appointment warmly, hoping she will slow down the pace of change under Mr. Dance. To some extent, that could be a good thing. A re-write of the curriculum, a new grading system and the effort to put a laptop or tablet in each student's hands starting in elementary school have rolled out unevenly. Ms. White has a strong background in professional development, and she says carving out more time for teachers to learn from each other and experts will be a top priority. We urged the school board to give Mr. Dance a new contract in part so that he could have time to bring his initiatives to maturity, and Ms. White's appointment represents an opportunity for that to happen.
But she will have to do more than that to demonstrate that she's the right choice to be the district's next permanent leader.
Ms. White says her vision for the system is to make it the best in the nation in developing students' literacy — meaning their ability to gather, understand, analyze and synthesize information across disciplines in ways they'll be required to do in the 21st century economy. That's a fine goal. She needs to articulate what that means in concrete, measurable terms and develop a plan for achieving it.
But she also needs to show that she's capable of navigating the central challenges facing the system today. The conflict between Mr. Dance and some members of the school board that contributed to his decision to resign was partly a function of personalities but also a reflection of the tension over the changing nature of BCPS. As Ms. White well knows, the county schools are growing rapidly more diverse racially and economically, and that has translated into anxiety among some parents that the emphasis on equity is code for a system that shortchanges their children in favor of others.
The Sun's Liz Bowie and Erica Green documented what that looks like this spring in the first part of their series on segregation in Baltimore-area schools. They chronicled the failed effort by some parents and educators to use the re-drawing of elementary school district lines in southwestern Baltimore County to foster racial integration — a well documented means to improve performance among minorities without diminishing the prospects of white students. Mr. Dance later expressed regret that he didn't intervene to try to place diversity at the center of that discussion but said he believed he would have been fired if he had done so.
A similar redistricting is now underway in eastern Baltimore County, with many of the same implications. The school board is scheduled to vote on new maps next week. Will Ms. White advocate for a plan that emphasizes integration? Will she seek reforms to a redistricting process that has repeatedly failed to do so in the past? And does she have the political skills to lead a conversation about race and the county schools that's long overdue? Those are the questions she needs to answer.