Student Indifference to Weast’s Departure

In 1999 Dr. Jerry Weast, then 52, was appointed Superintendent of Schools at MCPS. While in office, Weast led efforts to narrow Montgomery County’s achievement gap and to enroll more students in honors and AP classes. MSA scores rose 6.7 percent during Weast’s tenure. The rate of “highly qualified teachers” in MCPS rose 22.2 percent since 2004 and suspension rates were nearly cut in half. Many inside and outside of educational circles believe Weast took what was in 1999 a good school system and made it into one of America’s best.

After 11 years on the job, Weast is calling it quits. Weast will retire this June and leave MCPS, a school system recently overtaken by Howard County Public Schools as the best in the state according to the Maryland State Department of Education, without a leader.

The Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) has put out cattle calls for a new chief and has begun a nation-wide search. The BOE has visited schools to conduct public forums for what qualities the next superintendent should have. BOE members have consulted the Montgomery County Delegation in Annapolis, Governor Martin O’Malley and even federal Department of Education officials on their next hire. In early January MCPS sent a letter home to parents to ask for input on who the new sheriff in town will be. Since Weast announced his retirement in August, the BOE has spent the last seven months to get the opinion of even people who will not be affected by a new superintendent. Guess who they left out? Students.

Students never directly received notification their superintendent was leaving. In fact, a Warrior survey found most students do not know who Weast is or what a superintendent does. Student responses to the survey called for legitimate, county-sanctioned teacher evaluations and welcomed revisions of standardized curricula. Students responding to the survey expressed a desire to personally connect to the man that controlled their lives from 7:25 to 2:10, but never got a chance to and expressed disappointment because of it. “Inform the students more about what the system is doing,” implored one senior. “Students should get more of a voice,” wrote a sophomore. Perhaps both of these could have been accomplished if Weast and other MCPS decision makers made more of an effort to reach out to the system’s 144,000 students.

Weast had overwhelming successes during his tenure that students should take note of. Kindergarteners under Weast’s administration are reading before those in most school districts in the country. The HSA scoring gap between white and black students went from 32 to 13 points in a span of 10 years. Since 2001, the number of students enrolled in at least one honors, AP or IB course has increased by 20.8 percent.

However, Weast was never able to curtail an ever growing budget that contributed to the county being on the verge of bankruptcy in the spring of 2010. The rate of black and Hispanic students that score at a “college ready” level on SATs decreased since the beginning of the 2000s. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Weast’s tenure was that, although students may have had the chance to receive a world class education, they never knew the man behind it all.

With a bill to give the BOE’s Student Member full voting rights mere months away from passage, perhaps students’ voices will be heard a bit louder than before. Weast’s successor should create a climate of student inclusion, which former Student Member Tim Hwang did with the creation of SMOB 2.0. Even an online forum for students to submit suggestions would be a vast improvement to the past decade of near neglect of student opinion. Had Weast and his executive team consulted student opinion before making large changes, MCPS could have laid off the misinformed and misguided idea of pushing advanced math on middle schoolers, to give one example of an initiative that has backfired. On June 30, MCPS will bid adieu to Weast with the hope that his successor might make students more aware of decisions at the county level.