- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

As Prince Georgians welcome William R. Hite Jr. as the new superintendent of schools, many county residents are not only talking about how long he will stay, but also watching to see how quickly and effectively he responds to the huge challenges and extraordinary opportunities that await him, based on several interviews with parents and school advocates.

Many residents of Prince George’s County, who spoke at the last school board hearing on April 3, appeared to be pleased with the recent decision by the Board of Education (BOE) to promote Mr. Hite, who is currently the deputy superintendent.

“I wish him every success as superintendent. I think he’s going to be great for this district, and I’m looking for great things from him,” said David L. Cahn, co-chairman of Citizens for an Elected Board, a county advocacy group, in a telephone interview.

Mr. Cahn also praised the board for not going through a national search because Mr. Hite was a qualified candidate.

Like a lot of county parents, Beverly Crockett Taylor, mother of two school-aged children from Bowie, is disturbed by the rapid changes in school system leadership. “Hite should avoid the ‘curriculum of the moment’ approach. It drains the system,” she said. “Instead, he should build on and commit to implement good approaches already proven.”

The Prince George’s BOE announced Mr. Hite’s appointment during a special meeting on April 3 at the Sasscer Administration Building in Upper Marlboro. He begins his tenure as superintendent on July 1, becoming education leader-in-chief of the nation’s 18th largest school system, with 134,000 students and 16,000 employees, 10,000 of them teachers.

His elevation caps a career that includes employment as deputy superintendent of Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) since June 2006, assistant superintendent in Georgia’s Cobb County school district, director of middle school instruction and the principal of middle and high school in Henrico County, Va., according to a biographical sketch on the PGCPS Web site. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Virginia Tech and a Master of Education degree in educational leadership from the University of Virginia. He earned an education doctorate degree in educational leadership from Virginia Tech.

On the same site, it states that “During his tenure [at PGCPS], he focused on student access and educational equity to ensure that all students graduate college- and work-ready.”

Based on Maryland State Board of Education standards, Mr. Hite faces the task of retooling and re-energizing the PGCPS to address on-going concerns about student achievement, school improvement, graduation rates and teacher turnover.

Mr. Hite will also have to respond to calls from the county BOE and education advocates to increase parent and community involvement, address budget shortfalls and collaborate with staff as well as unions. Parents and community leaders, such as Mr. Cahn and Ms. Taylor, say they want the school system to ensure that all students are prepared to successfully compete in a high-tech global economy.

Added to these enormous challenges on the new superintendent’s plate, Mr. Hite will have to quickly determine how to distribute the $41 million additional education dollars that, based on federal estimates, are slated to flow into the school system for next year’s budget from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The federal stimulus money will present an unprecedented opportunity and management challenge.

With budget cuts looming and staff stretched thin, Ms. Taylor is not sure of the school system’s ability to meet the education needs of unique student populations. “Now is the time for creative, innovative thinking to make things better for special education students beyond the general curriculum,” she said.

With uncertainty about the details of the federal stimulus dollars, stakeholders and interested parties are attempting to sort out a number of issues. Some of the questions that have emerged include:

c How will he assure the school system and the community that the new Title I dollars will be spent for quality programs at elementary, as well as middle and high, schools?

c Will Mr. Hite and the board set aside 1 percent of those Title I dollars (as required by law) to support and sustain meaningful parent, family and community engagement in the education of their youth?

c Will he use the federal stimulus dollars to prevent teacher layoffs, assure that quality early childhood education programs are expanded and necessary repairs to schools are not deferred?

c What commitment will he make in implementing effective professional development programs that are linked to improving student learning?

c How will Mr. Hite organize programs to address the education needs of homeless children and youth in foster care?

c Will he assure that the school system has the capacity to successfully compete for some of the $5 billion in discretionary grants (e.g., “Race to the Top” and “Invest in What Works and Innovation”) that will be awarded to school systems and nonprofit organizations that partner to promote school improvement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan?

In his vision and belief statement, posted online, Mr. Hite writes, “I strongly believe our students need access to rigorous course work, highly effective and qualified teachers, competent leadership, safe, clean and orderly schools, and quality program options. More importantly, this access cannot be negatively impacted by a presumed factor of poverty, race, ZIP code or religion.”

PGCPS has had five school superintendents in six years. Mr. Hite has pledged to stay and to hold more community meetings. “Moving forward, continuity and sustainability are important foundation traits on which the future success of our students and our system depends,” he states.

But will that stated commitment temporarily help to relieve the ennui that pervades the county, the result of many new stalled beginnings and promises left unfulfilled by previous superintendents who came and went during the last decade?

c Janis Hagey, a longtime education advocate, lives in Bowie, Md. She is also an employee of the National Education Association.

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