Catalyst for Action

Catalyst for Action

This superintendent took over a high-performing districts and - by turning their plans into action -

His resume is 19 pages. He has written numerous books and won many awards. And he's leading one of the nation's most diverse school districts.

His name is Jerry Weast, hired in the summer of 1999 to lead Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, and as you might have guessed, he has a plan for improvement.

"My secrets to success are being prepared, thinking through a problem, challenging others to stretch themselves intellectually and finding solutions to what may have appeared originally as an insurmountable problem," says Weast. "The school district already produces some of the highest academic achievement among students nationally. Our goal is to provide that opportunity for all children, regardless of where they live, what language they speak, or what opportunities they have. The greatest change thus far, is that the larger community ... really understands and supports this."

Having grown up in Iola, Kan., Weast stayed close to home for his education and the first few stops in his career. He earned a master's degree in administration from Pittsburg State University, and his first job was as an accounting and psychology teacher at Belleville and Colony in 1969. Seven years later, he became superintendent in Uniontown. He served as superintendent in six districts in Montana, North Carolina and South Dakota before settling in Montgomery County.

While Maryland law requires superintendents to serve four-year terms, the Board of Education extended Weast's contract through 2007, according to Brian Porter, the district's communications director.

While the district and school board started working on some new initiatives to improve student achievement, Weast came in and actually put them into place.

Montgomery County is the 19th largest school district and 12th fastest growing district in the U.S. Eighth graders outperformed all but seven countries in math and 14 countries in science on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

Rigorous, ready and capable

Weast recently recommended, and the board adopted, a host of new standards. To graduate, students must achieve one of four levels of course work: college rigorous, college-ready, career-capable or minimally-prepared courses. Weast raised the percentage range for each level, Porter says. For example, at least 40 percent should be in college-rigorous courses.

To meet those goals, students need rigorous courses starting in elementary and middle schools.

To help support that, Weast's four main components of reform include: early childhood education, staff development, curriculum reform and community partnerships.

After kindergarteners started full-day classes two years ago with a highly structured curriculum emphasizing reading and literacy, the students show "quantum leaps in literacy skills," Porter says. In that time, the number of kindergarten students at the highest skill level increased from 41 percent to 76 percent.

As for staff development, Weast created a teacher evaluation system. It includes a peer review panel comprised of teachers and principals to offer assistance and support to teachers as well as to ensure teachers are performing, Porter says. During the past two years, 71 teachers resigned, were dismissed or did not have their contracts renewed due to incompetence, Porter says. "We can't tolerate sub-performance." Weast also has staff development substitute teachers fill in when teachers are undergoing professional development, so as not to disrupt continuity in the classroom.

Under curriculum reform, Weast initiated a "back-mapping" of the curriculum based on national, international and local standards. Back-mapping involves looking at the state's core learning goals and requirements for SAT and AP tests, and understanding what instruction is needed to achieve basic and superior scores, Porter says.

Weast understands the district's diversity and is helping to close the achievement gap, says Reginald Felton, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education. "I think he understands the relationship" with the school board, Felton says, "that is needed to be effective."

Angela Pascopella, apascopella@edmediagroup.com, is associate features editor.


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