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OPINION: Baltimore County Schools Need a Transformational Leader

In spite of Superintendent Joe Hairston's commendable record, many in the county are ready for his departure.

People are abuzz regarding the legacy that will be left by . At a recent news conference, Hairston reflected on his 12 years of service, and clearly had no regrets about his record here in Baltimore County. 

Obviously, Hairston will never be accused of settling for the status quo. Many statistics of his legacy are certainly noteworthy: more than half of BCPS high schools are now ranked in the top seven percent nationally, graduation rates for African-American males are the highest among school systems of our size and more students successfully complete Advanced Placement courses than ever before.

In spite of this commendable record, many in the county are ready for Hairston's departure. Sadly, I believe that his leadership style unnecessarily alienated key stakeholders. that he had the "insight and vision to understand what was needed here for our children." Perhaps this was true, but the confrontational manner in which he promoted this vision was certainly problematic.   

Share your advice for Baltimore County's next superintendent. Tell us in the comments.

One need only look south to see another dynamic, hard-charging schools chief, also in possession of a bold vision for his students. Dr. Andres Alonso has been the CEO of Baltimore City Schools since 2007. The New York Times referred to him as someone with "strong views on how to change things." Alonso himself once said that "it takes extreme leaps to get a system like this to take small steps." 

This description sounds a lot like Hairston. Yet, Alonso has maintained strong support from a variety of key decision makers and school stakeholders. I would argue that this is because, rather than being confrontational, Alonso has chosen to be transformational.

In his 1978 book entitled Leadership, James MacGregor Burns defined transformational leadership as a process through which a leader takes a visionary position and inspires others to follow.  I believe that Dr. Alonso exhibits this concept in his work in Baltimore. 

Like Hairston, Alonso arrived with a clear vision for improving his school system, yet he also recognized that possession of vision alone was not enough. Alonso slashed the staff of central administration by one third, in order to provide greater funding for individual schools. He empowered individual principals by giving them control of about 80 percent of their own budgets, as compared to just three percent previously. Alonso closed 26 underperforming schools and opened many new schools with distinctive programs (even allowing families to choose their own high schools).

These steps, while revolutionary, did create buy-in among stakeholders.  Teachers and parents became partners in the fight to teach students in city schools. Being open and engaging others in dialogue did not require to Alonso to compromise his principles. Rather, by choosing to listen and to persuade, his vision became a common vision. 

BCPS needs a transformational leader to build on past successes, but also one to learn from past mistakes.

Share your advice for Baltimore County's next superintendent. Tell us in the comments.

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Jimmy October 24, 2011 at 01:26 PM
Commendable record? All you have to do is step into the Greenwood complex to see the mismanaged priorities of Dr. H.
Jeffrey Smith October 24, 2011 at 01:55 PM
By no means do I consider myself a supporter of the outgoing superintendant. However, if I did not note certain successes of his tenure, it would not be a balanced column. Had he been much more collaborative, open to the public, and utilized some of the strategies used by Dr. Alonso (which included a streamlining of central admin), he would certainly have received more support. My point is, that his leadership failings overshadowed any good approaches he might have taken.
LiLi Taylor October 24, 2011 at 06:39 PM
Jeffrey, this was an OUTSTANDING piece - KUDOS!!! My own kids were in the Baltimore County school system during Hairston's tenure. He invariably struck me as a leader who was inaccessible - if not openly disinterested in my role as a parent. And while you evenly note "successes" in his record, like increased completion of AP courses, I have to wonder how closely those statistics track with his tenure, versus other initiatives being implemented at the state level that might have influenced/produced improved outcomes.
Harvey Blessing October 25, 2011 at 12:21 AM
So, you would like to see Baltimore county become the swamp of failure that the city schools have become? All these SUPERintendents think that central administration is THE answer, when it is actually THE problem. Limited budgets should be spent hiring and developing classroom teachers. Administrative overhead is but dead weight. Harvey Blessing
Kim Ruark October 26, 2011 at 06:54 PM
As a BCPS teacher, I can tell you that there has been quite a bit of admin-level shakeup. He reorganized how the former 5-section by region approach for assistant superintendents works, now into three-regions for elementary, one middle and one high school assistant superintendents. Three principals at schools who did not meet AYP were reassigned into county-level admin assignments. At one particular principals meeting, he sat them by standardized test data, "motivating" at least two principals to resign. I taught TechEd for the county for a year before he arrived and promised schools new technology labs. I was stunned that by the end of September, we had a fully-functional Dell and HP lab, replacing a rag-tag band of brothers the department had collected over the years from cast-offs and donations. I certainly can't attest to what is because of Joe Hairston, as he refers to himself, and what was from some other impetus, but the county seems much better off!

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