New Montgomery schools' chief pledges no major changes
In Stamford, Conn., Starr known for work ethic, adherence to data
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The new superintendent for Montgomery County Public Schools brings a reputation for sticking closely to data, hard work, and navigating tough political environments.
In return, he'll get about 130,000 more students and 180 more schools than he's used to.
Joshua P. Starr, now in his sixth year as superintendent of Stamford (Conn.) Public Schools, will replace outgoing Superintendent of Schools Jerry D. Weast, whose last day is June 30. The Board of Education announced Starr's selection Monday evening.
"Montgomery County has a rich tradition of doing some remarkable work in education," Starr said during a telephone call with reporters Monday night. "In many ways, Montgomery County has been on the forefront."
Those who have worked with Starr in Stamford, where the school district has 15,500 students and 20 schools, characterize the 41-year-old father of three as a hard worker who adheres vigorously to data and makes tremendous efforts to standardize instruction and evaluations, and improve results for minority students.
Starr also has been described as someone who did not always maintain the best relationship with teachers, and had trouble with school board members who pressed for lots of details about his approach, said the Stamford teachers union president and a former Stamford school board president.
While his district is about one-tenth the size of Montgomery County schools in terms of student enrollment, number of schools and operating budget ($223 million this year), education officials pointed to Starr's leadership position in New York City Public Schools, where he rose to be director of school performance and accountability, as proof he can work effectively in a large school system.
They also say Stamford schools' demographics, where 40 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals about 9 percentage points higher than in Montgomery County have given him good preparation for the county's diverse student body.
Starr also worked in the New York City Department of Education as deputy senior instructional manager.
Baltimore City Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Andrés Alonso said Starr, whom he hired at the New York City Department of Education to work on special and bilingual education issues, proved capable in handling issues related to hundreds of thousands of students. Starr also helped to create a new education accountability system, Alonso said.
"He brought to it exactly what I hoped that he would bring, which was enormous capacity for work, a real sense of accountability and scale, a lot of knowledge about the workings of schools," Alonso said.
On Monday evening, Starr said he saw no need in Montgomery County for charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that have more flexibility in their educational methods than traditional public schools. School board members have opposed charter schools.
Starr also stressed his work to close the racial achievement gap in Stamford, evoking the signature campaign of Weast's 12-year tenure.
"I'm not interested in making any sweeping changes," he said.
In 2010, black students in six Stamford schools met state-mandated academic progress targets compared with three schools in 2009, and Hispanic students in 12 schools met the targets in 2010 compared with six in 2009.
"I think he will come and match the vision and the passion and the commitment of every single student," said board Vice President Shirley Brandman (At large) of Bethesda on Monday. "He's deeply committed to that balance between equity and excellence."
Weast said of his likely successor, whose appointment is conditional pending final contract negotiations, "He's got good ethics, and he knows how to inspire people to the next level."
Weast also told Gazette editors Tuesday he didn't view the fact Starr headed a small district as detrimental.
Starr started his education career as a special education teacher in New York City Public Schools in 1993, working with severely emotionally disturbed adolescents.
"I'm glad to see that he has firsthand experience with special education, which I think is an area that the next superintendent needs to focus on," said County Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, a member of the council's Education Committee.
Under his six-year leadership, Stamford schools have shown progress in some academic areas. From 2006 to 2010, the average SAT score rose by 62 points to 1,500, although it lagged behind the state average in 2010 by 25 points, according to information from the Connecticut State Department of Education. On the Connecticut Academic Performance Test in math, the percentage of students scoring at or above "proficient" was higher in 2009-10 than 2006-07, but has declined the past three years and was lower than the state rate each year.
On April 20, the Stamford Advocate's website reported that in 2010 Starr expensed a $499 dinner for eight at Shula's steakhouse in New Orleans while on Stamford Public Schools business. Starr called the expense a reasonable one, at a time when 12 special-education teacher positions are scheduled to be cut from the school system's budget.
Starr has a doctorate degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin.
As part of the Stamford Board of Education that hired Starr in 2005, former board President Susan Nabel said she was impressed with his drive to use data and standardize curriculum to make students and teachers accountable. He also reformed curriculum that differed from school to school.
"He's really been tested in the crucible here," Nabel said. "We don't seem large to you, but the size of our district really intensifies the management of diversity. He really has learned how to navigate between different constituencies."
Toward the end of his time in Stamford, Starr had contentious relationships with school board members who wanted more details than the superintendent previously provided regarding his approach, Nabel said.
Starr and his staff closely studied Harvard Business School's "Leading for Equity" report on Montgomery County Public Schools that chronicled the system's successes in closing the achievement gap under Weast, recalled Lora Rossomando, president of the Stamford Education Association, the system's teachers union with 1,400 members.
She praised his work ethic, his efforts to win more money for the school system from state coffers and his determination that the school system meet his goals, with which Rossomando said she agreed.
In stark contrast to Montgomery County, the union was not consulted when the school budget was being drawn up, Rossomando said. Teachers often felt rushed and unprepared for the changes Starr pushed for in classrooms, she noted.
"I didn't think he prioritized teachers in the classroom as much as we would have liked them prioritized," Rossomando said.
On Monday, Starr said his work in New York City taught him the value of working within a large system.
"A superintendent cannot do everything alone," he said.
Joshua P. Starr and Stamford Schools
-Family: Married, with three children
-Education: Harvard Graduate School of Education, University of Wisconsin
-Experience: Stamford Public Schools superintendent; New York City Department of Education's director of school performance and accountability; New York City Department of Education's deputy senior instructional manager; administrator in Plainfield, N.J., and Freeport, N.Y.; special education teacher in New York City Public Schools
-Stamford Public Schools fiscal 2011 operating budget: $223 million
-Stamford Public Schools enrollment: 15,490
-Percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals: 40
-Percentage of minority students: 60
-Percentage of English-language learner students: 14
-Average SAT score in 2010: 1500