Kevin M. Maxwell chats with Prince George's County Executive Rushern… (Marvin Joseph/The Washington…)
Poised to sign a new four-year contract with Anne Arundel County schools, Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell saw a “magic moment” developing in neighboring Prince George’s County this spring.
As County Executive Rushern L. Baker III jockeyed to take over the struggling Prince George’s school system, a contentious debate emerged about its future. Elected officials, educators, parents and lawmakers were, for the first time in years, having candid discussions about how to improve education in the county and, in turn, improve the county’s economic standing in the Washington region.
“It looked like a magic moment when everybody said we want to make things dramatically better for our county,” said Maxwell, a longtime Prince George’s resident. Maxwell wanted to be a part of it, opting to leave what he called an “easier career path” in Anne Arundel for what he knows is a far more challenging one in his home county.
Maxwell ‘has lived it’
Hired this month with the expectation of turning around the second-largest school system in Maryland — now chronically one of the state’s worst-performing districts — Maxwell also is at the heart of Baker’s ambitious plan. The county executive has pinned much of the school system’s future, and perhaps his own immediate political future, on Maxwell’s selection as superintendent.
Baker (D) said he came up with a composite of the type of person that he wanted to lead the school system: A team player who would raise employee morale. A strong administrator willing to make the tough decisions. A proven leader who would commit to the county.
“He brings something unique that you can’t find unless you came through the system,” Baker said. “He brings judgment about the school system that he has worked in and has sent his children through. He has lived it — the good, the bad, the ugly.”
Maxwell is a veteran educator who grew up in Prince George’s, attending public schools and spending much of his career there. The Bowie resident will assume the top schools job Thursday as part of a major administrative shake-up that limits the role of a reconfigured Board of Education and places more power in the hands of the superintendent, now known as the chief executive officer.
In an interview at his Annapolis office, Maxwell said people have asked him why he would leave Anne Arundel for a county that has struggled and has seen rapid leadership turnover. He will be the eighth schools chief in Prince George’s in 14 years. Maxwell said he welcomes the challenge.
“I think I can make a huge difference in Prince George’s,” said Maxwell, who is highly regarded for his leadership in Prince George’s, Montgomery County and Anne Arundel schools, where he was superintendent for the past seven years. “I’ve already made a huge difference here, and while I can continue to make a difference in Anne Arundel County, I think the opportunity is even greater in Prince George’s County.”
No one thinks the road to repair will be easy.
“I wouldn’t say he’s got an uphill battle, but he’s got a tough one ahead, and he’s going to have to make some tough decisions,” said Juanita Miller, the education chairwoman of the NAACP’s Prince George’s branch. The NAACP, which backed Baker’s plan after initially objecting to it, has pushed for an audit of the school system. The organization hopes resources can be redirected from the central office to the classroom.
Maxwell said he plans to first take a hard look at the county schools’ allocation of resources, classroom sizes, and what instruction and facilities look like. He wants to focus on accelerating academic achievement and luring middle-class parents — many of whom have removed their children from the county’s schools in favor of private schools or other jurisdictions — back to the public school system.
He would like to see pre-kindergarten expanded in certain high-need areas and hopes to increase the number of specialty programs that are available to students, something he accomplished in Anne Arundel. He also believes that more students could participate in gifted and talented programs than are currently allowed.
“Early education is a significant key, and I think one of the other ones is the expectations that you lay out for kids,” Maxwell said. “Opening the doors to more rigorous programs for children, even in elementary school, I think, would be a very, very positive thing.”
He said he is optimistic that he, the school board and Baker will be able to work through the new structural issues, because “everyone wants what’s best for the students and what’s best for Prince George’s County.”
Maxwell returns to a school system that is different from the one he left 13 years ago. Overall enrollment has dropped by more than 8,000 students. The percentage of students from low-income families has grown by one-third. Parents’ trust in the school system has not improved.