By Ruth Young Tyler
An open opportunity became available with Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) top position after Dr. S. Dallas Dance, the previous school superintendent, left the role to pursue other endeavors. To continue its mission, BCPS named Verletta White as the interim superintendent. BCPS is the 25th largest school district in the United States and the third largest in Maryland. Consisting of 173 schools, programs and centers, BCPS has 18,572 employees including 9,072 teachers and educates 113,000 students.
Education journalist, Ruth Young Tyler arranged a Q&A session with Ms. White to ask about how BCPS can train students to become globally competitive, how the U.S. can adopt ideals from leading global public school systems and internships for high school students.
1. Since you are a product of Baltimore County Public Schools, what are some key elements that have prepared you for this defining moment as interim superintendent?
My tenure with Baltimore County Public Schools, starting when I was a student and continuing through to my role today, has granted me a solid academic background, a deep understanding of our communities, and the opportunity to develop strong relationships inside and outside of the schoolhouse. You know how proud we are of our neighborhoods. I understand that pride as an alumna, as a school-based educator, as a systemwide leader, and as a parent. I never forget that everything we do should support high-quality teaching and learning in every classroom. That philosophy determines how I use my schooling and my leadership experience to support the best outcomes for our kids.
2. You have a strong background in personal and professional development, what resources and recommendations can you provide for BCPS students and their parents?
I’m glad you asked that because parents are every child’s first teacher. I have not been shy about my priorities for this school year, and I’ll talk about one of them here: literacy across the content areas. Literacy is truly a community experience. I have given educators a charge to have students read and write every day during school for authentic purposes and audiences. That means making reading and writing relevant to what students are learning all across the curriculum to strengthen their critical thinking skills. Just like mastering any skill, students need practice analyzing and interpreting what they are reading, and producing their own writing and presentations. Parents can help by giving their children access to plenty of books that tap into their individual interests. We have wonderful school libraries as well as partnerships with the Baltimore County Public Library so there is no shortage of options. In general, my number one advice for parents is to get to know their child’s teachers, and develop a relationship focused on supporting their child’s learning. To support parents as learners, we also offer rich workshops and online resources through Parent University on the BCPS website.
3. Last school year, the Woodlawn Villager newspaper implemented a website internship for students at Woodlawn High School. As a graduate of Woodlawn High School, is this a learning experience opportunity you would have embraced? If so, why?
The web had a very different meaning when I was in high school! But on a serious note, this is exactly the kind of real-life experience that every student needs while they’re still in high school. How transforming is it to learn either that yes, you do love working in that arena? Or, that no, this isn’t for you? It’s through our partnerships with businesses like the Woodlawn Villager that students gain this knowledge about themselves and learn how to apply for a job, how to get to work on time, and how to complete assignments on time. Those are skills they will use for the rest of their lives.4. Findings published in Psychological
4. Findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association of Psychological Science, found that “students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes long-hand.” The study further indicated that although taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ had a tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing the information and reframing it in their own words … is detrimental to learning.” As a member of the Digital Education Advisory Committee, is moving away from traditional textbooks advantageous for students’ academic career growth?
I believe you are referring to the Center for Digital Education K12 Chief Academic Officers Group Program. I think about what our students need to be successful in the future. To be employable in an uncertain and evolving economy. Our students have access to the world of information through technology. It’s our responsibility as educators to teach them how to access information—whether through books or digital resources, how to analyze information based on point of view, source, and bias, and how to use and apply information. We focus on creating learner-centered environments in every school because each of our students is different. Their success depends on their ability to take ownership for their learning and to understand how they learn best and what they need, including how to take notes and access information. Our job is to provide those supports and resources that help them develop as self directed learners.
5. With the shifting of ethnic demographics, how will BCPS recruit and maintain educators that look like the student population?
We want every student to see educators and school leaders who look like them. School systems all across the country are facing this issue. In BCPS, nearly half of our students are students of color. Most of our educators are white and female. We are responding on all fronts—by actively recruiting underrepresented educators, whether they are educators of color or men. By making our schools supportive environments for underrepresented educators to work and to grow. By also encouraging our own students to teach for us after college so that we’re growing our own pipeline of excellent, diverse educators. 6. Woodlawn High School has a reputation
6. Woodlawn High School has a reputation of being a challenging environment for a veteran educator, what is your opinion on first year teachers being assigned to start their teaching career there?
All new teachers deserve and need to be surrounded with supports for the most important job on earth, educating our students. I remember my first year teaching with little support, not even a curriculum! We offer a new teacher induction program that starts before the first day of school and spans the entire year, with comprehensive orientation, a fall seminar, after school workshops, and access to college and university courses. Through Peer Assistance and Review, we pair new teachers up with a veteran whose job is to support the new teacher in the classroom and provide job-embedded support. This preparation begins before the first day of school for teachers trained at local partnering colleges and universities. Teacher candidates intern in our classrooms for true on-the-job training on pedagogy, classroom management, and building effective relationships with parents.
7. What top 3 personal development book(s) would you recommend for elementary and middle school students that will help prepare them for high school?
This is a great question, because I’ve been thinking about my own literary lineage. Your literary lineage is made up of the books that shaped you during childhood. I was very influenced by one of my elementary teachers, who also taught dance after school. In fifth grade, she asked us to create a diorama, and we got to choose which book to read. I chose a book about Dorothy Dandridge, and to this day, that is one of few books in my literary lineage. What I’m saying is that it’s the books I chose to read, not those assigned to me that contributed the most to my growth and development. I want every student to have access to a large volume of books that feed their individual interests that help them understand themselves like a mirror, that teach them about the world like a window, and that open up new possibilities like a door. This is how students become strong, confident readers who will excel on everything from the SAT to the changing workplace.
8. In spite of any possible opposition, what initiatives will you move forward that were under the previous superintendent’s administration?
Our schools are doing well, so we are moving forward on our current path with some shifts to deeply impact teaching and learning and improve equity. I’ve already mentioned literacy as one of my priorities. The other is safe and positive school climates. Every student deserves a warm learning environment, and we know that students who feel welcome and valued achieve more, grow more, and behave better. The best way to prevent negative behavior is high-quality instruction every day. Our schools also work on an ongoing basis on restoration, which means giving students the tools to hold each other accountable for appropriate behavior. That’s where the bulk of our focus lies— on prevention and restoration—to create the positive learning environments where every child thrives. And finally, when students cross the line, we provide logical consequences. What’s important is that we get to know every child’s story and provide supports that wrap around our young people. We’re doing well as a school system, and we have a lot to be proud of. But we can do even better. Focusing on literacy and climate will get us there.
9. Some math and science classes average 25-30 students. What are some ways to improve the student’s learning process while minimizing the class size and distractions?
Creating learner-centered environments means engaging students deeply in their learning. Our teachers have the power of data to help them understand individual student needs and use small group instruction to challenge learners. One group of students might be working independently or in pairs, while another group is working directly with the teacher. Technology provides timely data and gives students and educators access to dynamic resources.
10. The state approved and opened a $35 million youth detention center which is a two-story, 60,537 square foot facility. Describe some ways BCPS could utilize that type of space in an educational setting.
We know that failing to understand our students and prepare them with rigorous instruction and supports for the whole child puts them at risk for a host of negative outcomes. Our focus on school climate is about making sure that students are connected to school, are valued, welcomed, and understood, to support their growth and achievement. We have to invest in our young people with positive, comprehensive supports for everything from basic needs, to trauma, to English fluency. We have to build the relationships that help students learn conflict resolution along with the knowledge and skills they need for success.
11. How will BCPS’s new grading policy help students be competitive if they are performing at an average or below average status?
Our grading and reporting policy is focused on providing equitable, accurate, specific, and timely information about student progress toward course expectations as well as feedback for next steps and growth areas. Grades should give students information that helps them grow to support deep learning. This is part of our overall philosophy of growing every learner.
12. According to noted publications, the United States public school system does not rank high with other countries. Finland is noted to be ranked #1. What are some key elements from the Finland school system that can be adopted and implemented into BCPS?
We know that the most important factor in student achievement is a highly effective teacher. Another influential support is having a principal who is a strong instructional leader. We talked earlier about our supports for new teachers, but every educator and school leader has ongoing professional learning to support their growth and their crucial roles in the schoolhouse.
13. How is BCPS training its students to be globally competitive?
It has been 12 years since Thomas Friedman warned us about the need to prepare American students to compete for jobs against their peers in India and China. We certainly want our students ready for college and career challenges as well as lifelong learning. That’s why we’re focusing on helping every student grow. I also want our students to be globally contributing. This generation is conscious of their place in the world and their impact on it. Our responsibility as a modern school system is to prepare students to contribute to their neighborhoods, their communities, and to global issues.
14. Ms. White, if you were not the interim superintendent of BCPS, what career would you pursue?
This is truly my dream job. I have the opportunity to serve 113,000 students and their families at a time when public education could not be more important. I can’t think of another way to spend my career