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Local schools kick off year with new chiefs
D.C., Montgomery systems face contrasting tests
Mr. Starr arrives in Montgomery County after six years as schools superintendent in Stamford, Conn., to a school system consistently among the best in Maryland — a state whose schools often rank among the best in the country.
Still, narrowing the achievement gaps between students — or just keeping them at existing levels — will be a challenge in a county that has experienced heavy growth in minority populations, particularly among Hispanics who speak English as a second language.
Montgomery’s school system is the state’s largest, with 200 schools and more than 144,000 students who speak an estimated 184 languages. About one-quarter of its students are Hispanic; another quarter are black.
“We’ve been able to narrow the gap more than many, many other districts,” Mr. Starr said. “This is a district that doesn’t require radical reform like some others. However, it doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for us to get better.”
Prince George’s County Public Schools also open Monday. Montgomery County Schools open Aug. 29. Northern Virginia public schools open after Labor Day.
Although drastic changes are unlikely in Montgomery County in the near future, Mr. Starr and others have tinkered with the successful formula by approving the county’s first charter school.
Montgomery officials have long avoided charter schools — often thought to be last-ditch hopes for failing districts — but voted last month to approve a Montessori-based elementary school, scheduled to open next year in Kensington.
“The one we approved was one that met a very high standard for curriculum and teaching operations,” he said. “If other schools can add to our current choice portfolio, … then we’ll take a look at it.”
Perhaps his biggest challenge will be one affecting most other school districts throughout the country — funding cuts brought on by a shaky economy.
The County Council cut $45 million in education funding even though roughly 3,400 more students are expected this year. The ongoing lack of funds has forced teachers to go without cost-of-living increases in each of the past three years.
Mr. Starr said he would like to see better teacher pay and more economic stability, but he seemed unfazed by the budget cuts and predicted that county schools will succeed.
“We will continue to fight for funding, but there are some things I can control and some things I cannot,” he said, adding that staff members haven’t compromised quality despite the cuts.
“We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
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