Montgomery County School System Announces Jack Smith As Choice for New Superintendent

Smith is set to start July 1 as schools chief


Published:

Jack Smith, appointed as the next MCPS superintendent, speaks during a press conference Thursday in Rockville

Aaron Kraut

Jack Smith, the likely next superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), was introduced publicly for the first time Thursday night, expressing his desire to tackle head-on the school system’s longstanding achievement gaps upon taking over this summer.

“We have to make sure that 100 percent of the adults who children encounter have high expectations for them, have a sensitivity to whoever that child is and what he needs or what she needs,” Smith, who is currently serving as interim state superintendent, said in a press conference at the school system’s headquarters in Rockville.  The press session was held immediately after the Board of Education unanimously approved Smith for the job on a conditional basis.

“That means that no person in this system should ever say, ‘Well, she’s in seventh grade, she should know how to add fractions. Well, he’s in fourth grade, he should know how to read,’” Smith said. “Those are not uncommon statements in schools. They are unacceptable statements. They are unacceptable because if a fourth grader doesn’t know how to read, Montgomery County Public Schools’ job is to teach that fourth grader how to read. So I think we need to build a sense of urgency.”

The board’s decision comes almost exactly a year after former Superintendent Joshua Starr resigned.

At the time, Starr said he resigned once it became clear he didn’t have support from enough board members for a contract extension when his contract ran out later in 2015. Larry Bowers, a longtime administrator in the school system, was named interim superintendent.

Board President Michael Durso said the board and its search consultants reviewed applications from more than 70 candidates and interviewed 11 candidates. Smith’s contract, which will last four years, must still be negotiated.

Typically, the state’s superintendent provides final approval to all superintendent selections by local school systems. Because Smith is serving as the interim state superintendent until June 30, it was unclear Tuesday how the board’s selection would be approved.

Durso said the school system will figure that out soon and create a schedule of public forums to provide opportunities for residents to meet with Smith. In the next few months, Smith said he’ll attend night and weekend meetings, including a budget hearing next week, to get a feel for the system’s issues and staff.

Smith, 58, became interim state superintendent in September 2015 after serving as the Maryland State Department of Education’s chief academic officer since August 2013.

He came to the State Department of Education in Baltimore from Calvert County, where he served as that school system’s superintendent from 2006 to 2014. He moved up to that position after serving as the school system’s deputy superintendent and a middle school principal.

He was born in Missouri and grew up in what he called “a dusty little town in eastern Washington.”

He said he grew up in a lower-class household, an experience that informed his views on public education.

“I can tell you I had a couple of teachers who thought I could achieve,” Smith said. “I also had a few that I remember distinctly who didn’t think that I could achieve at all based on the way I presented myself to the classroom—my language, the way I dressed, everything.”

He met his wife of almost 36 years while attending Eastern Washington University, from which he graduated in 1980. The couple have five children, two of whom were adopted and who originally hail from Bulgaria. Smith said his wife, Gayle, was born at the former Navy Medical hospital in Bethesda, which gave him some familiarity with the county.

Smith started as a teacher in Richland, Washington, right after college before becoming an assistant principal and principal there from 1988 to 1992. He has a master’s degree in school administration from Notre Dame of Maryland University.

From 1992 to 1998, he was the middle and high school principal of the Christian Academy in Japan, an English-speaking school in Tokyo. In 1998, he became a middle school principal in Calvert County.

Smith admitted he was a little bit nervous about taking over MCPS, the largest public school district in Maryland and one of the largest in the U.S. with a record enrollment of more than 156,000 students this school year and 9,000 more students projected to enroll by the 2020-2021 school year.

The Calvert County school system had about 15,000 students when Smith was its superintendent.

“I think what is unique to this community is you have almost 1.1 million citizens that come together. They live in a very close place next to the nation’s capital,” Smith said. “It’s very diverse, which I think is wonderful. The children and the adults that walk into our schools have to be invited in in different ways.”

But Smith also said that his experience in public education, especially as a top administrator with the state, has provided him a solid knowledge of how public school systems work well and how they don’t.

"That I think will be immensely helpful in statewide issues, in dealing with Annapolis as well as coming to Montgomery County," Durso said. "I think that's a pretty big plus."

Smith pointed to disparities in graduation rates that range from 78 percent to 98 percent at Montgomery County’s 25 high schools as one of the first issues that jumped out to him when he was considering the job.

Smith met Tuesday with a group of community stakeholders, including PTA representatives, teachers’ union representatives and others.

“I think he’s got a real focus on equity. During our conversation it became evident that was a big part of his work both at the state level and in Calvert County,” said Chris Lloyd, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, the county’s main teacher’s union. “It was good because we had an extended period of time with him. I think he brings obviously a wealth of experience from his work at the state level, but he is someone who also has that local superintendent level and I think that’s important as well.”

On Thursday, Smith met with County Executive Ike Leggett, County Council President Nancy Floreen and council member Craig Rice, who is chairman of the council’s Education Committee.

"I was very pleased with his approach," Rice said. "We asked him some very candid questions about some of the things that are challenges to us. Like the achievement gap, balancing that with budget constraints that we have and really what his expectations and thoughts were as to how we can really tackle some of the challenges that will keep us from getting to that level where everyone expects us to be."

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