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Volume 27, Number 5
September/October 2011

Leading a System Where Everyone Gains

An Interview with Jerry Weast

 

Closing racial and ethnic achievement gaps has proven intractable for school leaders across the nation. But Jerry Weast, 63, superintendent of the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools since 1999, developed a culture of success in a district where 67 percent of its enrollment are students of color. Education Week reported in June that its high school graduation rate—86 percent—was the highest among the nation’s 50 largest districts for the third straight year.

Harvard Education Letter contributor David McKay Wilson caught up with Weast over the summer as he packed up in preparation for retirement, capping 42 years in public education, including 35 years as a school superintendent in Kansas, South Dakota, North Carolina, and Maryland.

You were just 28 when you were first hired as a superintendent. Do you miss the classroom?

My mother was a teacher, and teaching came naturally to me. As a superintendent, I’ve viewed myself as a teacher on special assignment. So my classroom has changed. It got bigger, and I had to adopt the same philosophy with teachers as I had in the classroom. If I taught it and they didn’t get it, I probably hadn’t taught it well.

How would you describe your approach to education?
Children need to be both prepared and inspired. And that is done within a school system, with a team that has its own culture, and is organized to reach a goal. Our goal is college- and career-readiness for every student.

You run a countywide district in the Washington, D.C., suburbs that serves one million residents. What’s the advantage of a large regional system?

When you are trying to help children, you have to deal with time, which has mostly remained constant, so you have to increase efficiency. There’s also variability, which has the potential to increase with more subunits. With one district, you can build a systemic approach, which gives you advantages addressing student mobility issues and in how you deploy resources. Our district has one goal: making our students college- and career-ready, and we have multiple choices to achieve that outcome. It saves money on administration, provides better supports for teachers, and provides more options for parents and students.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.

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