Dale reflects on legacy
May 27, 2004
Diana Mota Morgan
Staff Writer

J. Adam Fenster/The Gazette

Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale discusses a range of issues during a recent "Conversation with the Superintendent" at Windsor Knolls Middle School. Dale is expected to leave the county school system in favor of the superintendent post in Fairfax County, Va.

When Jack D. Dale looks back at his eight years as superintendent of Frederick County Public Schools, he sees a school district that has grown not only in student population and achievement, but also in technology.

But what he considers his finest accomplishment is the way he empowered his staff to make the decisions they need to, to improve the education of Frederick County students.

"[Frederick County Public Schools] is an excellent school system, and it'll keep being an excellent school system," Dale said in an interview Wednesday.

Dale, who a week ago would likely have said publicly that he expected to stay in Frederick County for the next four years, expects to be named the next Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent today at a 1:30 p.m. press conference in Fairfax, Va.

The news leaked out over the weekend, and Fairfax officials named Dale the "preferred candidate" Tuesday. The board is expected to take a final vote this evening. He was one of three finalists for the position.

While he is excited about the prospect, Dale, 55, has mixed emotions about leaving Frederick County.

"My intention was to go one more term," he said.

Dale and the Frederick County Board of Education agreed in February to a third, four-year contract. During that time, Dale said he had hoped to reach an agreement with Board of County Commissioners on how best to fund the school system's operating budget.

"It's a piece of unfinished business," Dale said.

But Dale has plenty to feel good about as he reflects on his last eight years in Frederick County.

Getting technical

Technology use increased during his two terms, he said.

"When I came here we had a 40-to-1 [student-to-computer] ratio," Dale said. Today that ratio has shrunk to about 5-to-1, he said.

School system staff now commonly uses e-mail and voicemail to communicate with each other and with families they serve. Parents can even access grades through the Internet at some schools, Dale said.

The computer information system was "ancient and archaic" when he started in 1996, he said.

The new systems allow for more accurate budgeting and profiling of students to learn more about what they need to achieve, Dale said.

Dale received the Maryland Outstanding Technology Leader in Education Award on April 28 at the Maryland Instructional Computer Coordinators Association conference in Baltimore.

"He has worked tirelessly to develop implementation strategies and provide funding to provide state-of-the-art infrastructure, hardware and software tools to staff at all levels in [Frederick County Public Schools]," wrote Patrick Kelly, technology services executive director, in his nomination letter.

"It is important to recognize that all of these systems, by providing real-time data and communications between central office staff, school-based personnel, parents and our local community, contribute significantly toward improving our 'bottom line' -- student achievement."


Skillful manager, effective communicator

Surrounding himself with qualified staff is also one of Dale's proudest achievements, he said, adding, "I created a system to let them do their work."

When Dale took office, the system was more hierarchical, he said. The thinking was, "Tell me what to do and I'll do it," Dale said, adding his tactic was, "Here's our focus and you have to figure out how to best do it."

Communications Specialist Marita Stup Loose agreed.

"His greatest strength has been his amazing ability to empower his staff," Loose said. "He has a gift for surrounding himself with people who are highly qualified and capable. The staff has freedom coupled with accountability to do their jobs. He's not a micro-manager. For independent, self-starters that's a pleasure."

Dale said he has worked collaboratively with groups in and out of the school system, such as the PTAs, Eliminating Achievement Gaps, and the county commissioners.

His personality draws you in, said Earl H. Robbins, one of seven board members who appointed Dale in 1996. Robbins served on the board from 1987 to 1996.

"He has always been willing to work with all segments of the population," Robbins said.

Former board member Gordon Cooley agreed. Cooley served from July 1995 to June 2000.

"He opened a dialogue in a very positive way between the school system and the government and the community as a whole, including parents and staff," he said. "His collaborative style paid dividends for the community."

One payoff occurred when commissioners and school officials agreed to lower the capacity of schools to no more than 90 percent, Dale said.

Joint meetings with the commissioners were just starting when Dale arrived, he said. "I tried to have them have more depth."


Focus on curriculum

The school system's high school program also took new shape with Dale's leadership.

Graduation requirements now exceed those of the state, and smaller learning academies are being developed in each of the high schools, such as Linganore's ROTC and Urbana's International Baccalaureate program.

"More and more Advanced Placement classes are being offered," Dale said, adding that more students also take the exams.

"The number of tests given has increased without a loss in performance," he said. "And we have the lowest dropout rate [about 1.5 percent in 2003] in the state.

"Now we need to focus on all students graduating with higher-level courses," he said. "My goal was to have every student take at least one [Advanced Placement] class."

Dale said he believes "all children can achieve at high levels and the key is to unlock how that can occur."


Looking to the future

Dale said he began thinking several years ago about what he wanted to do after his career at Frederick County Public Schools ended, adding he thought he had four more years to figure that out.

"The [Fairfax] search team contacted me," just under a month ago, Dale said. "And I decided to take a look at it."

Dale's initial meeting with Fairfax's 12-member school board went well, he said.

"I felt a lot of synergy," Dale said. "Leading a large school system isn't as much of an issue as the high visibility that comes with the job."

The challenge will be providing leadership, meshing the needs of a larger community, and meeting with many more groups, he said.

Former board member Ron W. Peppe II said he thinks Dale can meet that challenge.

"When we'd go to a conference anywhere in the country, he knew people," Peppe said. "He may not have the celebrity status, but he is very well networked within education. Jack was very good on the business side and the education side

He developed data-driven strategies for making decisions. Jack focused on facts, not opinions."

Robbins shared Peppe's opinion.

"It's going to make his work interesting and challenging," Robbins said. "Fairfax has four times the student population and it's very diverse."

Fairfax has 166,000 students, compared to Frederick County's 40,000. According to the Fairfax County Public Schools Web site, its student population is 53 percent white, 17 percent Asian, 15 percent Hispanic and 11 percent black. Frederick's student enrollment is 83 percent white, 9.8 percent black, 4.1 percent Hispanic and 2.9 Asian.

"I hate to see him leave," Robbins said. "But when people have a chance to move on, you shouldn't hold them back."

Through a spokesman, State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick said, "Jack's been a highly successful superintendent, and it's certainly been a pleasure working with him. If the board of Fairfax County selects him, he will be an excellent superintendent."

Dale said he is ready.

"I am excited," Dale said. "I know it will be a challenge, but I'm looking forward to it."


A glimpse of the past

Before joining Frederick County, Dale served as assistant superintendent of the Edmonds (Washington) School District and director of personnel and staff relations of the Everett (Washington) School District. He also served as assistant to the director of the Center for the Assessment of Administrative Performance at the University of Washington. He was director of school instructional services for grades 6-12 in the Bellevue (Washington) School District. He began his career as a mathematics teacher at Bellevue High School in 1971, where he also served as basketball coach.

In 2000, Dale was named Maryland Superintendent of the Year. And in 2004, he received the National Civic Star Award for the district's Community Agency School Services program in 2004.

Dale has served as a conference speaker on employee compensation systems for the future at various state and national professional personnel associations. He has also served as an adjunct professor at Mount Saint Mary's College in Frederick and at the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University, and has spoken on educational reform and performance assessment at national conferences. He is an active member of several community organizations.

A graduate of the University of Washington, Dale earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics and education and his master's degree in educational administration there. Dale earned his Ed.D. in policy, governance, and administration with an emphasis on effective school leadership and organizational change from the University of Washington in 1988.