New MCPS Superintendent Tells County Council He’s ‘Fairly Confident’ School System Can Improve

New MCPS Superintendent Tells County Council He’s ‘Fairly Confident’ School System Can Improve

Jack Smith met with members for first time Monday since taking over July 1

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New MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith listens to a question during a meeting Monday with County Council members

Aaron Kraut

The new superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) on Monday held his first public discussion with the County Council—the group that recently has taken a deeper interest in the details of the school system even as the Board of Education remains its governing body.

“Consider us your second board,” council President Nancy Floreen told Jack Smith, the former interim state superintendent who started July 1.

Most members of the Board of Education sitting around the table laughed. Council members asked the questions during the roughly hour-long lunch meeting at the Council Office Building in Rockville.

Council members—who in May approved $2.45 billion in spending for the 2016-2017 MCPS operating budget—questioned Smith on topics including the achievement gap, overcrowding, programs for disabled students, the sponsorship of robotics teams and the efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

“We don’t just write the check,” Floreen said. “We care very deeply about education.”

That was evident during the council’s budget process in the spring, when the council, Interim MCPS Superintendent Larry Bowers and the school board  reached a rare agreement to cut already agreed-upon teacher salary increases so that more county funding would be devoted to reducing class sizes and programs targeting the longstanding achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and white and Asian students.

“One of the things that has distinguished this particular council and this board is that progressively we have engaged in I think very robust policy conversations,” council member and former Board of Education member Nancy Navarro said, “whereas I think in the past, our Education Committee was really about: Let’s approve the budget and the Board of Education does policy.”

Smith told the council he will outline his strategy for measuring the school system’s progress on the achievement gap at next week’s school board meeting, with the idea he’ll be able to relay the strategy to school system supervisors and administrators in August before the 2016-2017 school year begins. He said he began reviewing state data about MCPS in December and the system’s own data a month ago.

“So in June and early July, I started getting access to lots more numbers. I’ve been doing a lot of work around that,” he said. “We’ll have a plan in place for this school year because I’m not going to study for a year.”

Smith told council members he is dismayed by the unevenness of the academic performance of black students at different schools across the county. When asked about the belief among some that the quality of the school system—growing at a pace of about 2,500 students a year with many more English as second language speakers—is beginning to erode, Smith said “the data is sobering when you look at it.”

He also spoke bluntly when assessing whether MCPS can make real progress toward significant improvements in students’ educational performance, saying he was “fairly confident, like 75 percent confident.”

Smith said the key will be an increased commitment to making sure all students master required skills at every grade level.

“It’s going to take that kind of will and commitment and then the expertise behind the instruction and the learning theory to get us there, but we can get there,” Smith said. “I have no doubt, as long as we have the support of the community and our teachers support that effort going forward.”

When asked about school overcrowding, Smith said he’s willing to examine designing new school buildings to the specifications of special academic programs, as opposed to a one-sized-fits-all approach that requires space for a blanket set of program requirements, athletic fields and parking.

When asked about the possibility of making robotics teams a school system-sponsored activity akin to athletic teams, Smith said he was open to the idea and would like to establish robotics teams at the elementary school level. The teams now operate as clubs that collect fees from students who participate and solicit donations.

He said he doesn’t believe a new curriculum is the way to narrow the achievement gap, when pressed about the long history of new approaches the school system has tried throughout the years.

Smith also agreed with council members who talked about improving the school system’s programs dedicated to trade and technology to increase career readiness as well as college readiness.

“We don’t need every person to be a chemistry major or a British Lit major. We need people who are well prepared by the end of middle school and then kids who can actually look at the world around them with the guidance of their families and the educators and the community at what’s available,” Smith said. “If you want to pursue working for the Toyota dealer, we want to make sure you’re well-prepared. We want to make sure you have that choice.”

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