Urban Education

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James A. Williams

Ribbon Cuttings: James A. Williams had to spend 30 years in education before he got to attend the dedication of a new or renovated school.

That might not be unusual if he'd stayed in the classroom, but Mr. Williams served for eight years as the superintendent of the Dayton, Ohio, schools.

The balloons, bands, and speeches that traditionally accompany such events were foreign to Mr. Williams until he was appointed the deputy superintendent of the Montgomery County, Md., schools last year. That's when he discovered one of the differences between an urban and a suburban system.

In his first weeks on the job in the well-to-do district just outside Washington, Mr. Williams attended the rededication of John F. Kennedy High School, which had undergone an extensive renovation.

During the 1999-2000 school year alone, the 135,000- student district opened four new schools and completely renovated five more. Since 1985, the district has built or reopened 42 schools; another 53 have been renovated.

The difference those new and improved facilities make is evident in the district's test scores, Mr. Williams argued, which are among Maryland's highest. Students, parents, and teacher have pride in their schools as well, he said.

Montgomery County's residents fight to improve their facilities, he said, and he calls it a "joy" to attend capital-improvement meetings.

"It's awesome here," Mr. Williams, 56, said during a recent interview. "You don't see boarded-up windows and doors. My question is why the argument is not the same in school districts across the country about facilities."

Mr. Williams spent most of his career in urban districts as an elementary teacher, high school principal, and superintendent. City systems, he said, can learn lessons from Montgomery County, which, though largely suburban, has an increasingly diverse racial and ethnic profile.

Urban districts should switch their focus from how few financial resources they have to working to rally the community around the need for new and modern facilities, he said. In Dayton, where enrollment was declining, the average age of the schools was 50, he noted.

Creating a positive school environment can help make up for some of the challenges children may face at home, he said. "In some cases, schools are the best places [students] can go," he said.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Vol. 20, Issue 21, Page 5

Published in Print: February 7, 2001, as Urban Education
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