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Starr: 'It Doesn't Have To Be Either Or'

With tough choices looming, Montgomery County's school superintendent wants to 'Listen and Learn' about parents' priorities.

Making the fourth in his 10-stop “Listen and Learn” tour across Montgomery County, Superintendent Joshua Starr was pressed Monday night on everything from special education to student demographics to teacher diversity to shortfalls in academic performance.

Starr, who replaced Jerry Weast in July, is using the forums to inform the build-up to his efforts to hammer out a plan for steering the county’s 147,000-student school system through the gloomy fiscal realities ahead.

"I am not dealing with specific issues until after the New Year," he told the 100-person assembly at Watkins Mill High School. "… My budget will certainly lay out what’s going to happen in the future, and then, starting in the New Year, we’ll start going through that list of various issues to try to figure out what can we do."

Monday's discussion ran the gamut as parents, teachers and advocates urged Starr to put their issue at the top of his priorities. Nearly all of his responses were framed by the school system’s looming budgetary challenges—none posing a more complex dilemma than deeply entrenched frustration with special education programs, which became Monday night’s most-discussed topic.

Staci Daddona—of the student advocacy group Partnership for Extraordinary Minds—called on Starr to scrutinize MCPS services for children on the autism spectrum and its efforts to prepare those students for life after graduation.

"I would love to see some objective and rigorous evaluation of special education services and programs that have never been evaluated in this county in 20-plus years," said Daddona, who lives in Gaithersburg. "I would love to see some real evaluations there."

Tracey Dyer, parent of a special needs student and a "typical" student, told Starr that a "huge discrepancy" in the quality of her children's education compelled her to pull her daughter out of Clear Spring Elementary School.

"They treat us as adversaries, as opposed to parents," Dyer said. "… We are the experts on our children, but we don’t feel that the county really hears us."

Special education has resisted remedy in school systems across the country for two reasons, Starr said: First, parents and teachers too often find themselves in a confrontational, not cooperative, relationship as they create the child’s curriculum, called an Individualized Education Program. Those tensions then turn systemic as school administrators and elected officials grapple with the mushrooming expense of that specialized, resource-intensive education.

"I am so puzzled and intrigued by what has happened to special education in this country," Starr said. "On one hand, more kids of special needs are being served better than ever before. Kids are coming out with the opportunity to do things that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, just [was] not even on their radar screen. ... It gets politicized in a lot of ways, because costs go up and up and up, people get upset, and the decision-making processes get sort of obfuscated. … There is just no clarity on who’s making the decision, who’s paying for the decision and who’s accountable for the decision. It can be really messy.

"But most importantly, I am just distressed by Special Ed educators that I know and the ones that I’ve met here—who are so dedicated to wanting to help kids—and the parents, who are looking for the best for their kids. Yet we get into these IEP processes and everybody feels like they’re not being listened to. I’m making generalizations, of course, but I’ve heard this before, where people feel that it can be confrontational on all sides—on all sides. I don’t get that. I don’t get why people have to feel that way.

"It is by no ill intent that the results you describe manifest themselves. It is, however, I think a function of the process somehow that creates it. I know we need to do something about it, so we’re going to have to sit down and figure it out. That’s all I can really promise."

The two-hour forum led Starr through more than a dozen other topics, including:

Montgomery County’s changing demographic

"We have an opportunity here that does not exist anywhere else in this country. We have proven ... that if you work really hard and you set your sights on something on a high level and organize, you can have more kids achieve at a high level than any other district that exists in the country. … So as we’re embracing more people who are coming in, as we’re seeing the demographics changing, the languages changing, who better than Montgomery County to say, ‘Alright, we know how to actually do something about it.’ There’s a time issue, there’s a resource issue, but absolutely it is something we are starting to work on and will continue to work on, because it’s important. Not only did it come up in our transition report, but it’s something that’s important to me and will only make our community stronger."

The achievement gap

"It’s probably not one answer. There’s not a silver bullet that’s going to say it’s exactly this. It’s probably a range of things. In schools where all of the adults have high expectations for all the kids, when they are learning together, when they trust each other, when they trust the administration, when they’re supported, when they’re held accountable and they feel accountable to each other, and when they attend to kids’ social and emotional needs—when they see kids as people, and they have an attitude of, ‘You know what, we can take on any challenge, we can do it’—good things happen to kids. I believe that attitude exists across the district; I’m certainly amazed at it. I know that there are still pockets in our community where there may be some opportunities for growth in that regard, so that’s what we’re going to look at, that’s the challenge. It’s not going to get fixed overnight. I wish I could tell you I’ll give you all a magic elixir and have 22,000 employees drink it. ... But I know that by continuing the conversation about what’s working where, why that’s happening, what’s not working where, why that’s not happening, we’re going to be able to commit to the kind of practices that’ll enable us to get that much better over time.

"… Remember that Montgomery County schools get better results than the nation and the state. Doesn’t mean they’re high enough, doesn’t mean there aren’t big differences between groups of kids. But we’re also doing better than just about anybody else out there."

Funding for the Arts

In light of the inevitable budgetary pressures, Betsy Kemmerer Morogiello, who has two sons steeped in Watkins Mill’s music and drama programs, asked Starr to characterize his commitment to the Arts. "As a parent, I think that you cannot put a true value on how much the arts support their education—in other subjects as well, and in the general quality of their life," she said. "For my boys, it’s the passion of their lives."

Starr began by pointing out that he, too, was in concert band, jazz band and marching band:

"Yeah, I get it. It’s important. It’s purely a dollars issue. … It’s really, quite frankly, a matter of how much money there is to invest in the schools, given all the competing demands, given the different accountability requirements. I will never want to sacrifice arts or athletics or language or design—you don’t want to sacrifice any of that. We are sometimes forced to make to make really, really difficult choices because we’re not funded in the way we’re supposed to be. But I’m a true believer in the Arts."

Teacher-student demographics

"I want to be really clear on this: I want people of all different backgrounds to come in and teach in Montgomery County. I want them to feel welcome and good. I want us to have a place that embraces all different kinds of folks. And I want the best teachers in front of our kids. I don’t care what they look like; I want the best teachers in front of our kids, no matter how tall, short, black, white, brown, woman, man, young, old—I don’t care. I want us to think as broadly as we possibly can, get as many different kinds of people in front of our kids. … But I will never, ever compromise on quality and excellence in terms of the adults we put in front of our kids."

Magnet schools and student transfers

Jim Marsh, president of Watkins Mill’s booster club, asked Starr to push MCPS to make it a goal to keep students in their neighborhood school. "We’re not just losing these kids to the other schools," Marsh said. "We’re losing families."

Starr’s response:

"Philosophically, I believe in magnet programs. I believe in choice, particularly when you have such a big system like ours and you can do so many different things. It doesn’t mean that having good choice programs should be at the detriment of a neighborhood school. You can have great neighborhood schools, you can have great choice programs and meet the needs of kids who want to do them. It shouldn’t be either or."

More emphasis on writing

"It is one of our most important skills, in life and in college. I am amazed at how many poor writers there are in the world, adults as well as kids. If you talk to colleges and you talk to businesses, it’s something they look at significantly. … It’s something we will definitely be looking at."

The path to school uniforms

"If the overwhelming majority of a school community—the parents, the teachers and administrators—want to have school uniforms, have kind of figured out how to get the overwhelming majority of parents to weigh in on the question, [have] figured out how to provide for kids who may not be able to purchase them, and have done all the things they need to do to make it successful—Great. But it’s not something that can be imposed on a school or on kids by a superintendent or Board of Ed. You can only do it when it’s something that comes from the ground up."

Teachers’ professional development

"We simply cannot afford to bring in a whole bunch of people to do a whole bunch of training. We can’t afford it, and also, it doesn’t necessarily work. … The best way that adults learn is with each other. … If we focus on that—if we focus on learning from each other—then we will not have to spend as much money on bringing people in all the time or sending people out. So we just have to carve the time in the schedule. And let me also say that without resources, we simply can’t do the kind of training we know needs to happen."

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr's "Listen and Learn" series resumes Oct. 10 at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. The rest of the schedule:

  • Oct. 18 Long Branch Community Center in Silver Spring
  • Oct. 19 Thomas S. Wootton High School in Bethesda
  • Nov. 1 Damascus High School
  • Nov. 7 Wheaton High School
  • Nov. 21 Sherwood High School

Editor's note: This story has been changed from its original version to correct the 20th paragraph, Starr's statement on teacher-student demographics.

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