While Superintendent Joshua P. Starr has made a point of visiting schools in his first year and a half, he said his visits to more upcounty schools Thursday gave him an even greater insight into the schools’ needs.
Starr attended eight schools in the Damascus, Gaithersburg, Magruder and Watkins Mill areas — seven of them for his first time — as part of his first Community Day. Starr will hold five of the events to cover all parts of the county by April.
Starr leaned over to chat with a group of third-grade boys at Lois P. Rockwell Elementary School in Damascus on Thursday, talking to them about their lesson about Thanksgiving.
“What was it like to be a pilgrim?” Starr asked.
The boys opened up after a while, telling Starr they are thankful for what they have today, and that they don’t have a hard life of a pilgrim.
Starr spent only a few minutes in the handful of classrooms he visited at Rockwell, but Principal Cheryl Clark said it was time well spent.
“I wanted him to come and experience what Rockwell is all about,” Clark said. “I think he got a good taste of that.”
After visiting with administrators, teachers and staff at schools during the day, Starr said he was concerned, but also pleased to hear that teachers are eager for more professional development — concerned, he said, because he has limited resources to meet their needs.
“The question is where to find the money,” Starr said.
At the end of the night, Starr took questions from an audience of about 200 people, mostly parents, at Shady Grove Middle School in Redland.
Parents told him they were concerned about Curriculum 2.0, the school district’s budget and cuts to extracurricular programs.
He told parents that the county’s education community needs to “re-energize” itself to deal with existing gaps in student performance and the county’s “minimalist approach to school funding.”
The county provides the majority of the school system’s roughly $2.1 billion budget. Starr said recently that the County Council, which decides the amount the school system receives each year, has said that, next fiscal year, it will not provide more than the minimum amount of funding required under state law.
At the meeting, Alaina Dahlin, a Damascus resident and president of the Damascus Elementary School PTA, echoed concerns from parents across the county that opportunities for advanced students to learn more challenging material would disappear in the new curriculum.
“We are not eliminating acceleration,” Starr responded. In terms of math education, the new curriculum would help the school system catch up with standards that are rapidly changing across the country.
Several parents with children in county schools expressed concern that they couldn’t keep up with the skill level of their children’s homework. New learning techniques and advanced math classes were leaving parents in the dark, they said, and unable to help.
Starr told them the school district had identified that issue and is trying to find solutions.
“There is an enormous amount we need to do.” But, he admitted, “I was not aware that the lack of understanding is so great.”