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Q&A: Starr Reflects on 1st Year with MCPS

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr answered questions for Patch, evaluating his first year.

As Montgomery County Public Schools' 2011-12 school year drew to a close last week, Dr. Joshua Starr was closing the book on his first year as superintendent. Starr replaced Jerry Weast, who spent the previous 12 years in the role. 

Patch: You just wrapped up your first school year, and July 1, 2012, marks your first full year as MCPS superintendent. What did you hope to accomplish in year one, and do you think you were able to do so?

Dr. Joshua Starr: For year one it’s really been about transition. And I took a pretty deliberate approach to transition planning, to entry and to help the community get to know me and by community I mean teachers and administrators and parents and kids and elected officials. I wanted them to get to know me and what I’m about and what I think. And I wanted to get to know the people in the community, what their values are and that’s one piece of it. I think I've done it reasonably well.

Another piece is to start conversation about what the next level of work is for Montgomery County Public Schools and how we can take our great strengths and start working towards a newer vision of the future. I think another piece has been working with the Board. I’m a big believer that we have a very strong Board of Education and we’ve been doing some great work. I think that I’ve been doing pretty well. It’s been a pretty good first year I’d have to say.

Patch: You spent a lot of time over the course of the year getting to know students, faculty members and communities through various events such as "" and "". What did students and parents express through these events as some of their greatest concerns with MCPS and how do you plan to address them? What issues were identified and how do you hope to resolve them next year or sooner?

Dr. Joshua Starr: We identified a range of issues. We’ve narrowed certain data, really a lot of it goes back to the transition work. We have a "Listen and Learn" report and we’re about to put out a report on the community forums as well. 

First off, people are really proud of their schools. They see a lot of great value in their schools. Education, the school system is a signature element of the Montgomery County brand. It’s directly linked to the quality of life in Montgomery County and people care very deeply about their schools. There is a concern that the perception, I should say, is that some schools in the county get certain things while other schools don’t. I’m trying to understand whether that perception matches up with reality.

There is a recognition that while we do extremely well in the academic piece, there’s other kinds of skills that you need to know and be able to do in the 21st century and I think people are excited about the prospect of building towards that. I think there’s been a lot of focus around the budget and what’s it going to mean if class sizes go up or we have to reduce certain things that people associated with the grade school experience that might not be directly linked to what’s been expressed. 

We’re wary [when it comes to] understanding the demographic shift that’s happening in the county and want to know that we have a clear strategy for dealing with it, so to speak.

Those are some of the things that have come up and folks are also a little initiative wary. They want a clear, focused strategy, and that’s really how we’re going to go about doing the work going forward. We’re going to be focused on core values, we're going to take a hard look at our core values and be focused on our culture. A real, “Who do we want to be? How do we want to act with each other?” and really focus our energies on a few key strategies and that’s the work of next year, the strategic planning, the community engagement work, [etc.]

Patch: Now that you've had a school year to get to know MCPS better, how can the school system better address the needs of students at opposite ends of the learning spectrum—both students labeled "gifted and talented" and those in special education?

Dr. Joshua Starr:  One piece of our work next year is intervention, and part of the intervention work is we are determining whether we have a comprehensive, efficient, and effective approach and architecture for intervening with kids who need help. And part of our work, we already have some really high quality gifted and talented programs and acceleration opportunities. Our new Curriculum 2.0 we think feeds into that in many, many ways and is very promising. We’re rolling that up to 3rd grade.

We have a number of opportunities for kids to accelerate if need be and to achieve a very high standard, and they do. So we’re going to continue the path we're on in many respects. The other piece around that is the professional development for our teachers. Are they able to do the very hard work of differentiating and meeting the needs of our kids in different ways? We’re going to get a new assessment from the state in a couple of years. How do they use those to differentiate instructions? Those are some questions on the table and we’re going to be focused on it next year. 

Patch: What were the biggest successes from the year and how do you hope to build on them next year?

Dr. Joshua Starr: Montgomery County continues to excel when it comes to graduation rate and when it comes to AP scores, SAT, etc, etc. We don’t have our state scores out yet but our kids continue to do very well academically.

I think one of the greatest successes of the school year from my vantage point has been the kind of collective deep breath we’ve been taking to sort of slow down a little bit. Not to slow down on the urgency that we feel for the achievement of our kids, but to stop and talk with each other and listen to each other. How do we collaborate? How do we learn together? Let’s introduce some new ideas. It’s been so interesting to me how a simple thing like the , which we thought, you know, 25 people would be interested in. Turns out many, many more people are really excited about the idea of learning together. So I think that’s been successful and I think one of the great things that you get when you have a new leader is they have the opportunity to stop and reflect.

I think that people, I hope that people have been able to appreciate the incredible results of our hard work and I’ve been trying to bring attention to some of the great work that folks have done for our system for so many years, because I certainly see it. I’m hoping people get a chance to reflect on that this year.

Patch: What will be the greatest challenges next year?

Dr. Joshua Starr: I think part of it is focusing and making choices around what is urgent, what’s important and lining up our values with our outcomes and the strategic planning and our budget. That’s a matter of choices. You can't do everything, you can’t be everything to everyone.

I think that there is a need to draw a straight line between the investment in the public education in Montgomery County and the sustainability of quality of life people expect in Montgomery County. I cannot get a return if I don’t invest. No business, no organization gets better results without investing and my hope is that our county leaders will continue to understand the need to invest in public education because it’s directly linked to the sustainability of our quality of life in this county.

Patch: Any ideas for programs (for parents, students, or teachers) and events you would like to pursue in the future?

Dr. Joshua Starr: Yeah we’re going to continue with the Book Club idea and we’re going to continue with the Student Town Halls in some way, shape or form. We might just be doing the Student Town Halls. We're also talking about going micro next year, and by that I mean we’re talking about it. We haven’t decided anything quite yet. So we still might do some community forums.

I’d really enjoy doing neighborhood chats where I can get out and talk with small groups of people at a community center, in a church basement or living room. I’ve done a little bit of that this year, but it’s a lot of interest in doing some of those smaller conversations with groups of people. That’s one idea we have. Also do some community forums and things like that.

We also want to use electronic or social media more and continue to do it, we’re talking about doing TV shows, doing a podcast. It’s just different ideas we have for engaging people in multiple ways.

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