Related story: Directing performances
Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said he’s never seen a good school without a good principal.
To ensure all principals have the backing they need to boost student achievement, Starr has made some changes.
Starr reorganized top offices so that the office that communicates directly with principals and focuses on school performance reports directly to him. He also brought in new staff, who will be responsible for professional development and strengthening the bond between principals and central office.
“Part of the message principals have told us is that, in order to serve me well, you need to know me well,” Starr said. “What I tell staff is, you need to get to know what a principal’s strategy is. You need to be able to understand and communicate what the vision of the school is, and see the day-to-day interactions, and build up the level of trust.”
By building the relationship between schools and central office, Starr said the school system can better ensure teachers, as well as students, continue to learn.
Principals are the ones who inspire positive change to school staffs and improve teachers’ skills, said Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, who will lead the new Office of School Support and Improvement, previously the Office of School Performance, which was led by Frank Stetson.
Although Stetson had reported to a deputy superintendent, Narvaez, who started April 1, reports directly to Starr.
The closer principals are to central support, the better, said Stetson, who retired in December after leading school performance since 2009.
“You want to be accessible to schools, and you don’t want bureaucracy to get in your way,” he said. “It is a way to make things more efficient, in terms of monitoring supports to those schools.”
Starr also moved the department that trains leaders — the Department of Instruction Leadership Support — from Office of Curriculum and Instruction Programs to the Office of School Support and Improvement, so staff leading professional development would be in the same department as staff closest to principals.
He created a new position to lead professional development, bringing in Rebecca A. Thessin. Thessin and Narvaez worked with Starr while he was school superintendent in Stamford, Conn.
Narvaez was a special assistant to Starr from 2008 to 2010 through the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard University. Since then, she’s worked in officer positions and as assistant superintendent in Springfield, Mass., Public Schools and a community superintendent for Montgomery County Public Schools.
Thessin also was a special assistant to Starr in Stamford before becoming director of school improvement and professional development there. She was on Starr’s transition team last year.
“They are smarter than I am, and they can push my thinking,” Starr said.
Improving schoolsStetson, also a member of Starr’s transition team, emphasized while he was on the team the importance of professional development to continue progress on school achievement goals.
He said the gains that have been made can be attributed in part to professional development, but cuts made during the past few years made him worry that progress would be reversed.
In the decade since state tests were enacted, the percentage of middle school students who passed the exam jumped 22 points, and the percentage of high school students taking and passing the tests increased by about 20 percentage points for some test subjects.
Maryland schools received a waiver under No Child Left Behind, extending the deadline to 2017 to boost achievement on state test scores and removing harsh punishments, such as restructuring, on underperforming schools.
Starr, who thinks students should be measured by more than just test scores, said this will allow for “a little bit of loosening up,” although he still expects performance to continue to increase.
Stetson and Narvaez agree the school system must continue to address achievement gaps that exist among those groups.
“We didn’t close the books on that,” Stetson said.
Over the past year, the achievement gap between black and Hispanic middle school students and their white and Asian peers widened in reading by about 1 percentage point. The percentage of white students proficient or higher in reading this year was 96.4 percent; it was 95.2 percent for Asians; 81.3 percent for blacks; and 80.3 percent for Hispanics.
Narvaez said she will focus her attention to continuing progress that has been made, and addressing achievement gaps and underperforming schools.
Her department will work closely with principals to build the capacity of teachers, to create a network among schools to spread best practices, and to coordinate efforts across central office to improve teaching and learning.
“This is an opportunity to signal the importance of adult learning,” she said. “It’s a chance for us to show that while we are a high performing organization, how you take it to the next level. And how you do that is to improve learning so we can get better outcomes for kids.”