As another school year begins across the region, the District of Columbia and Montgomery County open their doors under new leadership and with widely contrasting academic and socioeconomic challenges.
In the District, Chancellor Kaya Henderson begins her first full year Monday trying to bring direction to a school system ranked among the worst in the country and with a revolving door of leaders, most recently her former boss, Michelle A. Rhee, who resigned in October.
Meanwhile, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr will try to build on the successes of the retiring Jerry Weast, who during his 12-year tenure steadily increased graduation rates and test scores while trimming racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.
Despite what appears to be a more difficult challenge and the acknowledgment that city schools are "still struggling," Ms. Henderson enters the year upbeat, declaring "all systems are a go" for Monday.
"I think there's a completely different level of authorship and responsibility," she said. "Things are going really well. Folks are in place, backup folks are in place, textbooks are delivered."
Even the term "struggling" is a positive, she said. "Previously, we were not just struggling, we were labeled failing."
To be sure, test results of the 2011 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System indicate slight improvements compared with the previous year, though essentially fewer than half of students are proficient in math and reading. Perhaps an even larger challenge for Ms. Henderson will be trying to narrow the achievement gap between students in the more affluent neighborhoods and those in the city's impoverished Wards 5, 7 and 8, where scores are significantly lower.
The first day of school also has been a problem in years past, most recently in 2004 when hundreds of Eastern Senior High School students were turned away because they had not completed a schedule of classes or room assignments, which resulted in the firings of three administrators.
Ms. Henderson said she, Mayor Vincent C. Gray and other city officials have made big efforts this year to eliminate such problems and to boost attendance and academic achievement.
School officials have been performing checks on each of the 123 schools to ensure they are ready for the system's roughly 47,000 students. They also are visiting the homes of chronically absent students, even offering them incentives to improve attendance.
The District also is in the midst of a massive school modernization effort, which this year includes major renovations to Janney Elementary School and Anacostia and Woodrow Wilson high schools. In addition, H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast has been rebuilt "from the ground up," officials said.
Ms. Henderson said the facilities will not fall into disrepair, as in the past.
"I think with this kind of investment and this kind of scrutiny, we'll be good stewards of them," said Ms. Henderson, who was a deputy superintendent for Ms. Rhee and an aggressive yet polarizing school reformer under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.
The cycle of parents leaving the District also shows signs of change, with a report of an increase in enrollment for the first time in 41 years.
Still, the school year opens under a cloud of controversy that Ms. Henderson cannot control — an Education Department investigation into suspected cheating on standardized test sheets in recent years. Ms. Henderson called for an investigation after a report by USA Today revealed an unusually high rate of erasures on test sheets at certain schools, allegedly the result of correcting wrong answers.
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.
Mr. Weast endorsed the proposal before retiring, and Mr. Starr also lent his support. He said the county won't rely on charter schools as a "panacea," but the county may open more if it sees fit.
"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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