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School system CEO deals with budget shortfall, falling graduation rates

maxwellLast week we began a conversation with Prince George’s County Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Kevin Maxwell.

Maxwell is on the verge of completing his first year as the head of the county’s school system, which has seen its test scores and graduation rate go down.
We continue our interview this week touching on some of the major issues he faced in his first year.

Sentinel: It sounds like everything went pretty smoothly in this first year, but were there any bumps in the road? I know with the budget you guys did pass the budget and the process sounds like it went pretty well, but there was the $5-6 million dollar shortfall, its not a huge gap but still.

Maxwell: $6 million dollars is a lot of money but at the same time, sort of in the $1.8 billion dollar operating budget, $6 million dollars is not insurmountable. It’s a matter of making adjustments as opposed to not being able to, if that makes any sense. So I mean in your personal budget, sometimes unexpected things come up. You need a new roof on your house, its not going to throw you into bankruptcy but it's certainly going to make you make some adjustments I mean that’s how it works. But I think the process was still pretty smooth. The county executive has a lot on his plate too and I understand completely that as he tries to figure out what the right balance is that, he's got some things to do too. Look, we had a conversation about it; it wasn't like it was a big surprise when his budget was released. We had a meeting and talked about his situation, my situation and we worked through it like you should in a very professional adult way.
Sentinel: What specific metrics are most important when measuring the success of the county? Is it test scores, graduation rate, what do you look most at?

Maxwell: I don't look most at one or the other, I think evaluating at multiple measures, I think you have to look at all kinds of measures to get a true picture. You can put something in the oven to bake and if you only check the temperature where its thinnest and not multiple places in the thing you could be serving dinner and not have a cooked piece of meat. I think you have to look at all kinds of things and some of them are very hard metrics like reading proficiency, graduation rates, promotion and retention rates, AP enrollment, AP testing rates, AP 3s, 4s, and 5s, IB test administration, SAT scores, did I say graduation rates, all of those student metrics are important and so is the organizational culture, a little hard to measure but the positive or negative feelings that organizations can have. The support or lack of support of an agenda is something you should pay attention to. You should listen to your employees and their successes and their frustrations, and there are ways that you can do that. I think on metrics, getting things done. I'll tell you I’ve been very frustrated at times that I hear and I talk with our facilities and maintenance people, partly I think its been a financial thing. Partly I think its been a culture thing, but on my school visits you go in and the AC isn't right and they say well 'Oh they fixed it last season but it's broken again.' Well my perspective of that is sort of like 'Well if this is my house and I hired somebody to fix my AC last year and it didn't work again when I turned it on again in the spring, I'd be calling that guy back and saying you didn't really fix it.' I think that we actually waste money doing the jobs over and over again, we need to get it right the first time. Otherwise you're going to have that labor cost and more parts and different parts or whatever. So I think that's an important metric. When you go out and people are saying 'Well I’ve been trying to get this thing fixed for 5 years or ten years or whatever the case may be.' And I think that's a metric.
Sentinel: Are we making that phone call now? Saying hey you guys came out and fixed this, what's going on?
Maxwell: Yeah I make those phone calls. I take pictures of things and e-mail them or text my chief operating officer and saying I want somebody to come get this fixed. Yeah absolutely I'm doing that when I'm out there.

Sentinel: The school system has struggled for a long time. What are the biggest steps to turning that around?

Maxwell: First of all, helping people understand. Even embedded in the question you've asked, we've struggled for a long time, is a lack of recognition for the many successes we've had. So I think that when we have these kinds of conversations we have to be honest. Yes there are struggles, but there are a lot of great things going on. We have Gates Millennium scholars that are graduating. We have for the first time in the history we have a valedictorian at Surrattsville High School that's autistic. We have six Posse Scholars. I think at one high school alone, you can double check this, you can call UMBC, I think Bowie High School alone has three Meyer Hoff Scholars, only 55 usually per year, Meyer Hoff Scholars. We have a lot of successes that we need your help and we need to help you know that those successes are out there. But I think that my perception after visiting all of the schools and going to tons of things and going to the valedictorian salutatorian dinner, to talk about those amazing kids and what they've accomplished and the schools that they're going to and the work that they're going to be undertaking as they go into college. To come to the art show that we had over at the presidential building over by Prince George’s Plaza, and to see the magnificent works of art. To come to the honors concert named for Edward Felegy at the Clarice Smith Center and to see the kids sing, to see the kids play musical instruments, because there's a lot of success that happens in this school district and people don't seem to hear that. They seem to only focus on the negative things that are going on. And there are negative things in every district. I’ve been at two other districts, things happen everywhere. Private schools, things happen in private schools, they're all over the news this week. Helping shape that perspective that we shouldn't just be known as a struggling school district because that's not fair to all of the great work that our teachers and principals do, because there are great successes. What we need to do is build on those successes and we need to celebrate those successes and we need to help on that culture of belief in our parents. Do the research, see how many AP courses some of our private high schools are doing in the area and see how many we're doing. See how many Gates millennium scholars they have. See how many Posse scholars they have. I mean, seriously. Because everybody wants to talk about the school district and I'm going to guarantee you that I have high schools that are outperforming some of the private schools in the area but everybody loves that little private label.

Sentinel: Do you think that so much attention is put towards the struggles in school systems that not enough is being put towards some of these positive things you mentioned, and that if some of these positive aspects are kind of shined on, then maybe some of the students who don't believe that they can succeed will be able to look at these other students who are getting these scholarships and maybe it gives them some kind of belief to go forward?

Maxwell: Absolutely, I think I'm not sure that the balance is there right now and partly that’s our fault and partly that's the media’s fault just again in the phrasing of the question. Back to your psychology courses, your social psychology courses and the way you frame the question directs an answer, so I think we have a lot of achievements so one of the biggest struggles is bringing that to scale and making sure that we highlight those successes that we have and that we build on them, we have even more next year.

Sentinel: There was an increase in enrollment this year in this school system, the first one in ten years, what do you attribute this to and what does that mean for the future?

Maxwell: I'd like to think that there's a new optimism around our public schools and the same opportunity that I felt to really make a difference and to really have an opportunity to thrive, I think parents are sensing that as well and I think that having I think it's 1600 more kids enrolled in the school district in one year is very significant and I think it speaks to optimism and opportunity and I think that parents are seeing that we're interested in what they have to say. I’ve met a lot of people at those meet and greets and I’ve been to a lot of other functions since then and I think that it says, and I think a lot of the public reporting has said that we're interested in what our parents want. And I agree with a lot of our parents that are in that sort of bubble question of what's the right decision to me and what's the right decision for my child.

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