Closing the achievement gap for Black, Latino and other students of color and responding to the needs of a diverse student body are cited as among the top challenges the next superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland will face, according to focus groups and online surveys of parents, teachers and community members.
“There is a belief that the most pervasive issue, especially for Black, Latino and other students of color, is the achievement gap,” said Constance Collins, with the firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates (HYA), which is conducting the national search for the board of education. “In spite of efforts to try to address this issue, it still exists, and there’s a fear that it will widen with a growing diverse population.”
Collins and her colleague Brad Draeger presented HYA’s report on the superintendent search during a special board of education meeting Thursday. The firm expects to present a slate of candidates in January for the board to begin interviews.
A total of 1,845 people — including 1,600 parents — attended focus groups, forums or were interviewed for their feedback, according to the HYA presentation to the board Thursday. A separate online survey received 3,171 responses.
The firm said diversity in the school system is widely seen as both one of the school system’s strengths and a challenge. In addition, recovering from the pandemic is seen as another top priority as well as building and supporting the workforce.
“Nationwide, school districts are struggling with a teacher shortage and even findings subs,” Collins said.
Montgomery County made the decision earlier this month to cancel classes on the day before Thanksgiving, citing historically low attendance and shortage of substitute teachers. The teacher’s union, meanwhile has warned school leaders of a “great resignation” if staffing shortages aren’t addressed.
“Staff are stressed out, morale and care of staff needs attention,” Collins said. “One person said there’s hemorrhaging of talent, through reorganization.”
There are currently over 300 full-time teacher vacancies across the school system.
When asked for the characteristics they would like to see in the next superintendent, respondents said they wanted a leader who involves people in decision-making, has experience handling a large budget, values diversity and is culturally sensitive and has deep experience in the field of education.
“I heard a number of individuals say that it was important that they’d been in the classroom as a teacher, and really understood what the work is like in the classroom so that even though you may be a superintendent, you can still relate to what goes on at the building level,” Collins said.
Other desired characteristics include someone with a communication style to build relationships and trust and has the political skills to navigate a “diverse, activist” community.
Also cited as a desired quality: Someone who can guide the development of “more rigorous and relevant instruction” and someone who understands the need for career pathways that include career and technical education.
Regarding leadership qualities, respondents said they preferred a candidate who already is or has the ability to be certified as a Maryland superintendent, preferably has a doctorate and has “experience and success improving educational outcomes for students of color.”
Many of the current strengths of the school system, as cited in the survey, relate to management, Draeger said.
“This is a well-run operation. It’s not like a superintendent candidate has to come here and say, ‘I gotta turn this thing on its ear because I’ve got to make this thing work much better.’ You’re working fine,” Draeger said.
The MCPS superintendent oversees the administration of a school district with 166,000 students, more than 24,000 employees and a budget of $12.6 billion.
Jack Smith, who had led the school system since 2016, announced his sudden retirement in January for family reasons. Monifa McKnight, the deputy superintendent, is currently the acting superintendent and has said she plans to apply for the permanent position, according to Bethesda Beat.
McKnight’s interim assignment lasts through June 30, 2022.