2021 | Opinion

Opinion: For next superintendent, MCPS needs a leader who embraces change, equity

Smith set a good course for growth, navigating crisis

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For the five years he served as Montgomery County’s superintendent, Jack Smith never stopped believing in the possibility of every child.

On June 1, Smith’s time as the head of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) came to an end. The Jack Smith era in our county will be long remembered as a time of new growth and focus for MCPS.

Our county’s next superintendent must be prepared to continue forging ahead down the newly illuminated path to equity.

When he was first appointed in 2016, Smith inherited a system under heavy scrutiny. The superintendent search was tumultuous. Racial and socioeconomic disparities in achievement were stagnant. The very promise of our county’s schools as equalizers seemed to be in doubt.

An existential question loomed over our county. Were we a great school system only because many of our students had the resources and wealth to do well? Or were we capable of extending those same exceptional outcomes to a new, more diverse MCPS student body?

Many were cynical about the future of our schools and the potential of the children attending them. Smith was not.

Immediately upon taking office, Smith set about building the infrastructure of equity. A new data accountability framework was established to elucidate exactly who was being left behind at the system and classroom level.

New initiatives, like equal opportunity schools and an overhaul of the magnet admission process, gave more students the chance to fulfill their potential.

Over the past five years, a new vision of what an MCPS education can be has taken shape.

More students in our county have access to career education and dual-enrollment opportunities than ever before. The massive new Seneca Valley High School, with its 14 Career and Technology programs, will serve as a living testament to Smith’s commitment to preparing students for the real world.

As he built new systems and processes, Smith also held the system steady through a countless barrage of crises.

Smith steps away having steered the system through the most profound emergency in MCPS’s history — the COVID-19 pandemic — a logistical and health challenge of mind-boggling scale.

In the wake of this once-in-a-century disaster for our school system, a new chief will take the reins. In turn, they will inherit a once-in-a-century opportunity: rebuilding MCPS for a fundamentally changed world.

The pandemic has violently exposed and exacerbated deep racial and socioeconomic inequalities in every avenue of our education system. Students have lost almost a year of real learning and social development. The reopening debate has embittered the relationship between our county’s teachers and its administration.

In stemming this turmoil left behind by the pandemic, there is a chance to reimagine fundamental aspects of our school system: to shed old ways of thinking and old caution about the future. MCPS must spend less time looking around or backwards, and again lead the country in new models of equitable education.

Addressing the profound challenges ahead will require a superintendent unafraid of change. It’ll take a superintendent who understands the experience of students of color.

Montgomery County needs a superintendent who stubbornly believes in the potential of every child and is willing to do everything it takes to create a system that sparks it.

The urgent work of furthering equity in MCPS will also demand that our next superintendent already have deep familiarity with our system, our students, our teachers, and all of our community’s stakeholders on day one. The consequences of inaction are simply too great to accept a lengthy transition period.

And after 100 years, it’s about time we have our first female superintendent who is appointed to a full term.

Whoever they may be, the next leader of our county’s schools must be ready to continue down the path our system has followed under Jack Smith — reaching ever closer to that promise of MCPS as the great equalizer for all children.

Rising Voices is an occasional column by Nate Tinbite, a John F. Kennedy High School graduate; Ananya Tadikonda, a Richard Montgomery High School graduate; and Matt Post, a Sherwood High School graduate. All three are recent student members of the Montgomery County Board of Education.

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