Just a few steps from the office of Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox is a conference room with two walls covered with different colored sticky notes and ideas.
“We’ve had a whole year to look at all these different things that we’re doing, and so now what we’re trying to do is kind of develop the gossamer thread, if you will, of what’s really important. What’s the work of the system gotta be going forward so that we meet all of our objectives relative to Common Core and, quite honestly, so we open school,” said Wilcox, referring to a more in-depth curriculum.
The mosaic of notes is organized in a timeline of what to do each month. Several blue notes feature critical questions, including whether the school system will abandon magnet, academy and specialized programs.
“People are asking really tough questions. And the answer to that, I think, is no. I just absolutely don’t think that our board members are going to allow us to go in that direction,” Wilcox said.
School system officials aren’t going after the magnet programs, Wilcox said. The system’s administrators and educators are just asking tough questions as they review the entire system. Magnet programs are just as important as regular instruction and other specialized educational programs, such as the International Baccalaureate program and career technology, he said.
Wilcox, who lives in Hagerstown’s North End, has been superintendent of Washington County Public Schools for a year. He replaced Elizabeth Morgan, who oversaw the school system for 10 years before retiring in February 2011.
Last week, the school board gave Wilcox a new four-year contract, basically extending his gig by a year, as a sign they approve of the direction he’s taken the school system of more than 22,200 students.
Board President Wayne Ridenour said Wilcox has “lit a spark, a little fire under everybody that we ... couldn’t rest on our laurels.”
“We did very well for a long period of time,” Ridenour said. But, the last year or so, things had gotten “a bit stagnant,” he said.
Wilcox tried to motivate people, to get people back on track “so we’re not just satisfied with what we’ve done in the past,” Ridenour said.
“He’s everything we had hoped he would be,” Ridenour said. “May not agree with everything, but that’s part of the job.”
“We’ve had a good first year,” Wilcox, 56, said recently as he sat at a small table in his office off Commonwealth Avenue.
Wilcox said he spent time getting to know the community and developing relationships so he can “perhaps ask people to go above and beyond what they did before, look at things differently.”
Wilcox spent a lot of time last summer getting to know people and promoting a collaborative effort, Washington County Teachers Association President Denise Fry said.
“He has an open door. It took me a while to truly realize it was an open door ... He truly attempts to be as accessible as possible,” Fry said.
So what has he learned about the school system?
“The school system does a really good job with children who come to school ready to learn and a great job with kids who come from families with resources,” Wilcox said.
“I think we tend to struggle sometimes with kids that don’t fit that picture. It’s not for lack of care or lack of passion. It’s that we really just need to think differently about our practice, I think.”
In the past year, Wilcox has restructured administrative positions at the Central Office, said class schedule changes are going into effect at the high schools within the next two years, and continues to evaluate staffing patterns such as teacher-pupil ratios and how they relate to performance, he said.
Wilcox has instituted a new summer school program, which will start in July, that is aimed at helping last year’s first-graders who are behind in reading so they can make up some ground before moving to second grade in August.
The transition from second to third grade is an important one as children go from “learning to read to reading to learn,” Wilcox said.
“The summer school piece was fairly clear to me early on. We were spending an awful lot of money on summer school, but we didn’t seem to be getting tremendous results for it,” he said. “While I understand that people like the activities provided, the fact is we have to have learning outcomes.”
Even with enrollments in the new summer program accepted through the end of the school year, past the April deadline, only about 160 students were enrolled, according to an email from Steve Wernick, supervisor for elementary reading, social studies and early learning. The school system issued about 400 invitations.
“That’s disappointing to me,” Wilcox said during a follow-up interview.
School system officials will need to ramp up recruiting efforts or scale back the program, said Wilcox, adding he knows there are more than 400 students who finished first grade reading below grade level.
Fry said other efforts by Wilcox to improve primary students’ reading abilities actually got started during the school year.
During this past semester, he gave teachers a lot of latitude in changing schedules and changing instruction, Fry said.
As an example, Fry said, a school might have merged small music classes into fewer classes with more students. That would free up the music teacher to help the classroom teacher, assisting students who need extra help, she said.
Another change Wilcox is making, which starts at Smithsburg High School this coming school year, is to provide yearlong courses for foreign languages and core subjects such as math and science. Similar schedule changes are planned for the following school year at other high schools.
Wilcox said he was a little surprised by the resistance to the high school schedule change.
“I absolutely am a believer in the power, the transformational power, of the arts. What struck me is that people thought that we wouldn’t care about jazz band, we wouldn’t care about chorus, we wouldn’t care about foreign languages, because we did and we thought about it,” Wilcox said.
School system officials probably erred in not bringing more parents into the discussion earlier, he said.
Most students will benefit from the schedule change, which will provide more time for core classes as the school system moves to a more in-depth curriculum, Wilcox said.
“I do recognize that some kids will be disadvantaged by the schedule change, but that’s a small, small fraction of our kids,” he said.
Wilcox also has been dealing with major budget issues — the most recent being the need to find more room in the $250 million operating budget for a school health services program the county will stop funding July 1.
“It’s been a challenge in the sense that you know lots of people are depending on you,” Wilcox said.
It’s also been frustrating for him, said Wilcox, because health services are not his primary business and he’s having to rely on others.
Changes for teachers, too
Last summer, Wilcox said the school system’s employees, particularly its teachers, were feeling pressure to demonstrate their accountability, especially after the Maryland School Assessment results were released and 17 elementary and middle schools failed to meet at least one state reading or math proficiency standard the previous school year.
“I still believe that educators are kind of being attacked across the country by a number of forces and so I don’t have any illusions that morale is great,” Wilcox said.
Administrators are trying not to increase that pressure, while conveying the message the school system needs to continue to get better, Wilcox said.
In May, Maryland received a waiver from meeting the federal No Child Left Behind’s requirements to have every child meet reading and math proficiency levels by 2013-14.
Principals will still be concerned about students’ progress, but will be happy the labels are gone, Wilcox said.
“The measure for us is no longer the MSAs. We want to pay attention to them, we do, but we’re moving forward with Common Core curriculum,” Wilcox said.
The Common Core is a more in-depth curriculum that will eventually have new assessment tests tied to it.
School system officials know there’s going to be a dip in MSA results after this coming school year, but Wilcox said he is less concerned with MSA results and more concerned with whether “every day, every student in every class is making progress.”
Wilcox said “we’re not ... going to go back and say to people based on this set of MSA scores, how are you going to change instruction. Not going to create that kind of tyranny of urgency,” he said.
The new curriculum is already a major change for teachers, Wilcox said. Teachers will need to think about primary source documents as they teach their students to use them, and literature teachers will be using more nonfiction works so they will have to know new resources, he said.
In addition to moving toward a new curriculum, the school system has been running a pilot program at several schools for a new evaluation system for teachers and principals.
“I think the results are a bit mixed right now,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox said he thinks participating teachers like the evaluation system, which focuses more on the method and practice of teaching, and they like the conversations the system has generated with their principals.
“The piece that I’m not sure we can do is move to some kind of differentiated compensation system in this financial environment,” Wilcox said.
A federal grant is paying for the differentiated pay for the pilot program.
The school system doesn’t have the extra money and few teachers are going to go along with having their salaries cut so money can be moved into a fund to pay financial incentives for teachers with good evaluations, he said.
One of Wilcox’s interests is the use of technology in the classroom and introducing students to a variety of technology with which they will need to be familiar in the real world, including at work.
It’s one thing to read about the wild, wild West, he said, but if you’ve never seen the Rocky Mountains, you can’t appreciate the hardship pioneering families experienced in traversing them, he said.
Access to the Internet lets students visit such places as well as help with other subjects, such as anatomy, since few high schools students do actual animal dissections today, he said.
Where Wilcox uses an iPad during school board meetings and an iPhone and a laptop to stay connected, many students use iPads, iPod touches and laptops in classrooms.
Wilcox, whose prior job was with Scholastic Inc., expects more discussions about whether the school system will continue to buy traditional textbooks or ebooks.
He has asked Martin Nikirk, the computer game development and animation teacher at Washington County Technical High School, to help create a virtual academy in which students would have avatars and move through courses accumulating credit.
The school system tried virtual classes at Antietam Academy in the past school year.
“We didn’t get it right, but we’re rethinking, going back,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox said he hopes the new virtual academy can be launched this fall so a year from now the school system has a “SimCity-like world” and students have an environment similar to “Call of Duty,” but for education.
SimCity is a video game in which a person can create a simulated city, while “Call of Duty” is a first-person warfare-themed video game in which the player travels through a virtual world to accomplish his or her mission.
In this case, Wilcox said, the mission is education.
After high school
Whether students want to pursue college, military or a career after graduating from high school, Wilcox said he hopes the school system has a “default curriculum” that makes them ready for whatever choices students make.
“I don’t believe that the future of economic growth in Hagerstown is work that is not high skilled. I think it’s going to be high-skilled pay,” he said.
Wilcox is working on business partnerships, including a partnership he’s hoping will happen between Tech High and First Solar, which is going to install a solar farm at the state prison complex south of Hagerstown.
He said he’s hoping to get two solar panels at Tech High so students can learn how such technology works and explore related industries.
He’s also talked to Hagerstown Community College President Guy Altieri about expanding the dual enrollment program at the community college to allow science, technology, engineering and math students to not only earn high school and college credit, but to earn an industry-based certificate by spending their senior year taking classes on the college campus. The idea is in its infancy, but such a certificate would give college freshman an opportunity to get a job in their field of interest, helping them earn money to pay for college, Wilcox said.
Wilcox said for many students who live in the Hagerstown area, trades might be their first choice when it comes to educational programs.
As far as trade internships with contractors, Wilcox said contractors want to provide internship opportunities, but the economy is so rough they don’t have the jobs or resources to do so.
The school system has been having a tough time helping students realize the economic value in participating in the Barr Academy, which provides training in trades such as plumbing and heating and air conditioning, Wilcox said.
“Sometimes, it’s tough to make introductory plumbing look real sexy. That’s a challenge for us,” Wilcox said.
Editor's note: A sentence in this story was changed from its original version to correct a comment by Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who said the transition between second and third grades is an important time for youngsters, when students shift from learning to read to reading to learn.