Superintendent change brings reflection, new hope

Josh StarrJosh Starr

For every parent or teacher with a complaint to lodge against Jerry Weast, there’s likely another attesting he spent the last 12 years as superintendent pushing Montgomery County Public Schools, and its 140,000 students, toward excellence.

And though he retired in June, and many of the programs and reforms he helped put in place face possible cutbacks, it is that distinctive attitude toward achievement that will help the district transition to new leadership, and thrive for years to come under new Superintendent Joshua Starr.

When Weast, 63, joined MCPS, he vowed not to let the system become complacent by holding teachers accountable and improving minority student performance. He was replaced on July 1 by 41-year-old Starr, a Harvard graduate who oversaw a district one tenth the enrollment of this county in Stamford, Conn.

“He’s a serious visionary, he’s fantastic at coming up with great ideas, gathering a team to execute on them and then looking at the next problem he can solve,” said Heather Schwager, executive director of the Montgomery County Business Roundtable for Education.

Jerry Weast

Outgoing MCPS Super, Jerry Weast

Weast focused on improving the quality of the district’s educators, pioneering a peer review system for administrators, teachers and support staff which involves hundreds of senior teachers mentoring those new to the system or struggling.

According to a June 6 New York Times article, that Peer Review and Assistance panel of 16 teachers and principals has fired 200 teachers, while another 300 have left.

“He promoted a high degree of accountability for schools and school staff, to make sure we’re doing what were supposed to be doing and have the data to show it,” said Bertram Generlette, principal of Piney Branch Elementary in Takoma Park.

That attitude helped the county secure a 2010 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the highest presidential honor a U.S. organization can receive for innovation and visionary leadership.

However, while Weast worked to set a threshold every student could pass, to lower achievement gaps and ready all students for higher education, some have disparaged the former superintendent for neglecting students in special education and gifted and talented programs.

“[Weast] had disdain for these programs, and he thought he was up to something much bigger in getting everybody across the bar,” said Fred Stichnoth, president of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County. “So we’re very disappointed with his 10 to 11 years here.”

The GTAMC advocates for grouping gifted and talented students in their own classes and having a separate higher level curriculum for every subject at every grade.

Weast’s downgrades in special education, which saw a .6 percent decrease in funding in the FY 2012 budget, also drew criticism from parents  after the district closed special education learning centers in 2007.

“He may have annoyed some people,” said Patricia O’Neill, state Board of Education member (Bethesda-Chase.) “But … you’re never going to please all the people all the time because when it comes to children, and your own children, you’ll do whatever it takes to fight for them and do what you believe is in their best interest, even if it doesn’t work in the system.”

Leading the district often required a strong hand; last year, he prevented the county council from furloughing school employees – something that affected all other unionized county workers – by threatening a lawsuit until the council backed down.

“I believe Josh Starr will come in and attempt to be a better listen, but listening or receiving input does not always mean an agreement,” O’Neill said.

Starr, who began his career as a special education teacher in New York, was praised in Stamford for rising test scores and creating unity between the district’s 20 schools. However, many who grew used to Weast’s distinctive attitude during his longer-than-average tenure said they still don’t know what to expect from a new leader.

She added that change takes time; people won’t wake up to a new school system overnight and Starr has asserted he doesn’t think major reforms are needed in the county. However, some have said they’re worried about the tightening belt of state funding.

“With the economic crisis, there’s pressure to cut back, but we’d like to see continued providing of staffing and even focus positions, academic intervention positions to allow us to continue to make this kind of progress,” said Generlette.

And while Starr will look to maintain the school district’s level of distinction and rigor, many say the man who built that district left him with a large office to fill.

“[Jerry Weast] dedicated the past 12 years to the children of MCPS. He worked tirelessly,” said O’Neill..

About the Author

Rebecca Lurye
Rebecca Lurye was a summer 2011 intern at the Voice, covering local news and happenings. She is a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she is studying print journalism and Spanish.