In With the Bold

The new Baltimore County Public Schools superintendent isn’t satisfied with the status quo.

By Anne Haddad - February 2013

In With the Bold

The new Baltimore County Public Schools superintendent isn’t satisfied with the status quo.

By Anne Haddad - February 2013

-Photo by David Colwell

When S. Dallas Dance was hired as the Baltimore County schools chief, the conversation among parents, educators, and staff revolved around his age and his experience—or more accurately, his lack thereof. In fact, he was one year shy of the three years of teaching experience that Maryland requires of its superintendents and the Baltimore County Public Schools’ school board needed a waiver from the state to bring him on board. Now, in the middle of his first year, the initial reaction—“He’s just so young”—has morphed into “When does this guy ever sleep?” The truth is, the energetic and ambitious Dance, just 30 when hired as superintendent, doesn’t sleep much at all. About four hours a night is all he says he needs. He’s up by 4:30 a.m. to go running or work out at his home in Pikesville, and by 7 or 7:30 a.m., he’s usually in a meeting or at a school. He’s also among the first crop of superintendents to have grown up in the digital age, so e-mail, social media, smartphones, and the constant flow of communication are as natural to him as the old multi-line push-button desk phone was to his predecessors.

He tweets. He uses the FaceTime app on his iPad to talk with his own preschool-aged son. He’s also comfortable on camera where anyone can see him in action on the BCPS YouTube channel. At a recent student town hall—the school system’s first-ever and streamed live online—he was at ease fielding student’s questions and did so quickly, too, aware many more were on the way.

“First of all, age is on his side,” says Nancy Grasmick, the former state superintendent of schools for Maryland, dismissing early criticism of the Baltimore County school board in hiring Dance to replace Joe Hairston, who retired after a successful 12-year run. Like everyone else, she notes that Dance appears to be tireless, regularly e-mailing those around him from very early in the morning until very late at night. He goes to schools constantly, she adds, and he’s engaged with students to the point that he knows what’s going on in the classrooms, not just the meeting rooms.

“It’s the way I feel I wanted to do the job, so I’m glad he’s doing it that way,” Grasmick says. “This is the county where I live, so I’m thrilled.”

Dance will even teach a series of English classes in several high schools in the county. “Honestly, in every position I’ve been in, I’ve taken the opportunity to go back in the classroom to see what’s going on,” he says.

Arriving from Texas, where he served as chief middle-schools officer of the Houston Independent School District, the rookie superintendent did not have the luxury of an adjustment period in his new gig. Instead, he faced two big tests just as his career here began. On July 1, literally his first official day as superintendent, he had to deal with a hot potato that would soon be playing out in the media: Two top cabinet-level administrators had been given what seemed like water-tight, multi-year contracts by the outgoing superintendent right before he retired. In response, Dance helped negotiate a deal—after reassigning the employees—and later, the school board approved buyout agreements. “We’ve made some tough decisions, but there’s a way in which you make decisions that’s respectful of people, that’s appropriate, so people understand where you’re coming from,” Dance says. “What I’ve learned is it’s never the ‘what.’ It’s always the ‘how.’”

Then, on the morning of the first day of school, a Woodlawn High School student was hit by an automobile and a Perry Hall High School student shot a fellow student. Dance rose to the occasion, by all accounts, earning praise for his communication strategies—and for having already met prior to the crises with Baltimore County Chief of Police Jim Johnson to discuss emergency plans. “He was calm and reassuring after the shooting,” says County Councilman David Marks, who graduated from Perry Hall and represents the district. “One of the signs of good leadership is knowing when to step to the forefront and when to defer to those around you, which is precisely what he did. He deferred to the police department and let them do their jobs, and he deferred to the principal, who has been there for years, allowing her to be the link to the community. I’ve been impressed with him.”

Yet, just 10 years ago, leading a school system was the last thing Dance, who grew up in and around Richmond, VA, expected to do. His mother, an occupational therapist, and his grandmother, a radiology technician who also helped raise Dance and his older sister, both wanted him to become a doctor. As he watched his mother work two jobs during the week and clean houses on the weekend, he got the message that the expectation in the household was that he would also work hard. “No one took excuses from me and everyone pushed me,” he says, smiling.

In college, he majored in English—his own goal was law school, not medical school—with minors in education and political science. His plan was to teach English for two years, which he did, and then pursue a law degree. However, when he handed in his resignation, his principal refused to accept it, instead offering him a job as an assistant principal, telling him he could make a greater impact as a leader.

“[Once] they made me an assistant principal, I never looked back,” Dance says. “As a teacher, I worked with 150 kids. As an assistant principal, I worked with about 600 kids. As a principal, I worked with 1,200 kids. It was always about making a bigger impact on young people.” As each opportunity led to another, he accelerated on a fast track, and to his mother and grandmother’s wishes, he did become a “doctor” along the way, earning a Ph.D. in education from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Even with his relative youth, Grasmick believes Dance has the gravitas and the vision to lead the 26th largest school district in the country, with 107,000 students, a $1.5 billion budget, 17,000 employees, and 174 schools and programs. She says his drive and commitment are unquestioned. “Of course, I did not know him prior to his selection, so I did a little investigation and talked to people in Houston and Virginia,” she says. “Everyone was impressed with his work and his dedication.”

As far as his agenda, Dance maintains he has a short list of priorities. His top objective is the adoption of Common Core Standards, a set of national guidelines for what students should know and be able to do at each level of K-12 education. He wants Baltimore County schools to implement the standards and define how to teach them, so that the system can base student assessment and teacher evaluation on something solid.

Until that can be done, Dance advocates a three-year moratorium on standardized testing of students, joining his counterpart in Montgomery County, also calling for such a moratorium. “This is a dramatic shift in education,” he says. “Folks don’t understand how much of a shift this is. What we were learning in sixth-grade math, kids are now learning in third-grade math. This means a shift in how teachers are going to teach. So until the standards are defined, nothing can happen.”

He also wants a technology audit and appropriate action to ensure every county school building has at least an adequate level of computer infrastructure. “I’ve been taken to some schools that have the gamut of technology [throughout the building], and I’ve been taken to some schools that have a mobile cart,” he says.

And then there is his bold foreign-language proposition—something parents and students traditionally want but where American schools trail other developed countries. “What if we were the first school system in the country to say that when our kids graduate, they’ll be bilingual? What would it take to do that?” he asks. “One, are we that bold? And two, [how do we] really make that happen? It has to start early. I’m putting that out at leadership meetings.”

Beyond standards and testing reforms, Dance says the important things are crystal clear to him: “We need to get good teachers who believe in the power of relationships with kids, principals who understand the power of leadership and who support the teachers, and a quality curriculum that clearly defines [what] kids should know and be able to do.”

Baltimore County School Board member Mike Bowler says he’s been impressed with Dance’s openness, highlighting his Friday electronic newsletters to the system leadership and board, his attendance at countless forums, and his Twitter feed. Plus, he’s already called in board members in small groups to involve them in the budget process for the 2014 school year. “I don’t want to denigrate his predecessor, but we needed to have better communication [from a superintendent],” Bowler says, noting he felt left out of the budget process in the past.

When Grasmick, serving as a Towson University Presidential Scholar for Innovation in Teacher and Leader Education, invited Dance to speak to College of Education faculty and other selected deans at the school, he got down to brass tacks and told them that they needed to be up for a challenge and change. If they weren’t prepared to take education in new directions, he wouldn’t be hiring them.

“It was sobering,” Grasmick says. It wasn’t what the faculty expected, but it was what they needed to hear, and they received it well.

“He has the complement of skills that are not usually found together,” Grasmick says. “People can be good administrators, and it doesn’t mean they’re going to be good at engaging with students. He is constantly in schools. His commitment is amazing. He is determined to know everything about this school system.”

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