Healthy meals press conference on Aug. 31, 2017 at Bellows Spring Elementary School.

Feeding Young Minds

Fueling students with proper nutrition is one way the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) is empowering every child to achieve through equitable access to healthy foods. This school year HCPSS will better serve our youngest learners by expanding our Let’s Rethink Lunch Healthy Meals Program and offering fresh salad bar options at every elementary school.

Let’s Rethink Lunch gives students access to a wider range of high quality, healthy and delicious options for school meals. Last year, Bollman Bridge, Laurel Woods and Talbott Springs elementary schools had great success as pilot schools.

Studies show that healthy eating boosts students’ focus and cognitive function. We can increase school connectedness by reinforcing the high value we place on our students’ health and well-being. We also believe nutritious school meals will encourage students to develop healthy habits that last a lifetime.

Let’s Rethink Lunch demonstrates our Office of Food and Nutrition Services’ commitment to providing well-balanced, nutritional meals for all students. Recent recognitions include HCPSS’ “A+” on the 2016 School Food Environment Grades report from Healthy School Food Maryland, and HCPSS schools’ HealthierUS School Challenge: Smarter Lunchrooms awards from the United States Department of Agriculture.

I’m thankful for the Horizon Foundation’s partnership in launching the Let’s Rethink Lunch pilot, and for our county and community leaders’ support of the program’s expansion this year.

I invite you to watch this video to see the positive impact of this innovative program, which links together nutrition, education, physical activity and living a healthy lifestyle.

Providing a Safe and Nurturing Learning Environment for Every Student

Many students, staff and families across our county are deeply concerned about the President’s plan to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Action Arrivals (DACA) program. As educators, I strongly believe that we share a responsibility to nurture and protect each and every one of our students. I want to assure you that HCPSS remains firmly committed to educating every child in a safe and welcoming environment. 

I certainly don’t wish to insert myself into any political debate and I hope – as we all should – that the President and Congress will find a common sense solution quickly. However, my charge is to educate each and every child that enters one of our 76 schools. We don’t track immigration status nor do we ask questions or request documentation. We teach – but children can only learn when their basic needs are met.

Security is one of a child’s most basic needs. I know that we have students in our schools whose families live day-to-day in fear of having their family separated. When children come to a Howard County public school, I want them to know that they are safe. Then, and only then, can I expect the great educators across this county to be able to effectively teach and their students thrive. 

Our Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is collaborating with school and system leaders on a plan for assisting any students who may be affected by the decision. We will leverage available resources for teachers to support students including counselors, school psychologists and county resources.

I want to reiterate the fact that HCPSS does not request, investigate, document or share information about the immigration or citizenship status of any student or family member. It’s simply not our business. We teach without discriminating against any person or group for any reason.

The Board of Education and I stand together in our commitment to maintain a culture that preserves the dignity of all individuals, and to advocate for tolerance and respect for every community member. As I have said in the past, I will stand up for any child or adult in our school system or community who is subjected to derogatory words and actions, and I call on others to stand with me. Kindness, acceptance, and the genuine desire to understand others’ perspectives are powerful forces against prejudice and injustice. 

Dunloggin Middle School DMS on Oct. 19, 2016.

The First 100 Days

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

King’s words continually inspire me as we move the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) to a transformational place. It is a new day in Howard County, and our schools are on a new path to serving every student in a manner where equity guides our decision making.

I have been leading this wonderful school system for just over 100 days, and have already begun the mission-critical steps toward healing our school system community, creating an organization that places young people at the heart of all decisions and building an instructional program that enables all students to reach their greatest potential. Here are a few highlights of the great strides we’ve made so far, outlined by my overarching commitments to you in the four areas of achievement, connections, value and empowerment.

We pledge that we will support every person in reaching milestones for success through an individualized focus.

  • A Vision of Equity: I’ve come in with an extreme level of enthusiasm to lead with my Strategic Call to Action, called Learning and Leading with Equity: The Fierce Urgency of Now. HCPSS’ new educational equity model is grounded in the 10-point plan, “Leading for Equity,” by The Aspen Education & Society Program and The Council of Chief State School Officers. Our leadership team is primed to guide our organization to a transformational place following concepts from John P. Kotter’s “A Sense of Urgency.”
  • A Mission-Driven Reorganization: Our new organizational structure promotes equity, improves efficiencies and ensures academic excellence for all HCPSS students. The new model embraces responsiveness and transparency, so we can place schools and communities at the center of all we do. With a focus on instruction as a birth-through-graduation continuum, the new structure better positions the school system to address and overcome factors that contribute to the achievement gap.
  • Meaningful Assessments: Here on out, we are utilizing only assessments that provide meaningful, actionable data for instructional planning. We have decreased the time spent on standardized testing by eliminating the spring Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment in grades 3-8.
  • Meeting Nutritional Needs: We understand that every child must have their basic needs met before they are prepared to learn. In response to continuing community need, we extended our summer food service program at the Stevens Forest Elementary School, our most in-demand location. I’m thrilled we are also expanding our Healthy Meals program this year, so every elementary school will offer fresh salad bar options.

Students and staff will thrive in a safe, nurturing and inclusive culture that embraces diversity.

  • Celebrating Diversity: Today, more than ever, it is imperative that our students learn to respect and appreciate the perspectives and heritage of others. That is why I hired a Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to oversee the integration of these principles throughout our educational program and school system culture.
  • Hiring for Equity and Excellence: Research shows that educators can have an even greater impact on learning when they share a similar cultural, social or economic background as their students. I’m thrilled that our hiring initiatives are bringing in a pool of new teachers that is more reflective of our student population. For example, thus far, 19 percent of our new teacher hires identify as African American, which is on par with our student body.
  • IEQ Management: To ensure our classrooms can continue providing healthy and safe learning environments, I have created the Industrial Hygienist/Indoor Environmental Quality Manager position. With this leader soon in place, I’m confident our protocols effectively prevent or respond to all environmental concerns in our schools. We received a vote of confidence in this area when the state restored $9.6 million in school construction funding to HCPSS.
  • Restorative Practices: We currently have 28 Howard County teams implementing a variety of restorative practices at their schools. My expectation is for this to be a part of every school culture, so all students can benefit from stronger community relationships that nurture learning.
  • Anti-Bullying Efforts: Our children must understand that the decisions they make online could result in a lifetime of consequences and have a devastating impact on the victim. I have pledged my support to work alongside Christine McComas and fight for children like her daughter who suffer from the wounds that bullying inflicts.

We will make every effort to ensure HCPSS stakeholders feel rewarded in cultivating a more connected and cooperative learning community.

  • Relationship Re-building: I came to Howard County schools with the intention of repairing bridges with our community and developing relationships with all stakeholders. I have proactively met with individuals, groups and organizations to hear your concerns and receive feedback. I also have rebuilt a collaborative relationship with our Board of Education to establish HCPSS norms and lay the foundation for our goals, while resolving legal fees from past disputes.
  • Special Education Parent Relations: I have addressed an urgent need for a non-adversarial partnership with parents by releasing the special education report by the District Management Council and establishing the new Special Education Parent Liaison position. This role will serve as the connection between the district and parents of students with disabilities in implementing policies and coordinating programs.
  • Mission-Driven Operations: I’m grateful that our Board of Education, local officials and the community partnered with me to acquire the necessary funding for this upcoming school year, which honors negotiated agreements and avoids staff furloughs. Our budget, staff resources and operations align with focusing on the classroom, and increasing equity and responsiveness. We restored 87 support staff to the media centers and classrooms, ensuring media centers would stay open. We added full-time General Counsel and Policy Manager positions to manage legal matters and policies, respectively. We also appointed a Chief Academic Officer to oversee academics, special education, student services and accountability.
  • Government-School Community Collaborations: Our government officials and school community are working hand-in-hand to do what is best for HCPSS. Together, with the Howard County Education Association and Howard County Council, we have begun to determine the causes of our health and dental fund deficiency and explore solutions that can be implemented over the next three to five years. And thanks to our productive relationship with the county government, we secured enough funds for a replacement school for Talbott Springs Elementary, overriding our original renovation plans.
  • Early Learning Initiatives: I’m working with the greater community to ensure all students entering kindergarten are ready to learn through a variety of initiatives. Examples include an early literacy program with Bright Minds Foundation, Launch into Learning with Howard County Early Childhood Advisory Council, and collaborations with local hospitals, pediatricians and community groups to promote early brain development.
  • Expanding Career Prep Opportunities: Partnerships help prepare our students with the knowledge necessary to acquire meaningful employment in a dynamic workplace. Therefore staff has been tasked with developing new relationships with local organizations to improve and expand upon our Career and Technology Education offerings.

Our work encourages schools, families and the community to be mutually invested in student achievement and well-being.

  • Amplified Transparency: I have made transparency and timeliness of responses to Maryland Public Information Act requests a top priority. This summer we launched a new online system for Maryland Public Information Act requests that makes public documents more readily accessible to the community.
  • Staff Suggestion Program: We’re on a path marked by continuous improvement, and we’re excited to welcome ideas from our employees through a new online staff suggestion program, called Brainstorm. Staff are invited to log onto the Staff Hub and share ways we can improve processes, decrease waste, save money or increase productivity.
  • Decreasing Inventory: In efforts to lower inventory and increase security at our warehouse, we have decreased the number of technology devices stored at the HCPSS Logistic Center from more than 6,100 to approximately 250, or by 96 percent, from last September to the start of this year. We have securely disposed of broken or outdated devices, and prioritized getting the vast majority of working devices into the hands of students and educators.
  • The Latest Email Platform: The school system will continue to take advantage of the latest technology. Beginning this summer, Information Technology started upgrading the HCPSS email system to the most recent version of the Exchange email system in Office 365.
  • Future-proofing the Technology Infrastructure: By December we will have replaced the school system’s antiquated network switches, an essential technology used each time students, staff and community members access the Internet. The new infrastructure will be more efficient by consuming 45 percent less power and enable technology upgrade initiatives, such as offering our classrooms high available broadband and continuing the expansion of digital course offerings.

I invite you to watch my recent HCPSS Insight interview below to hear some more of my thoughts behind leading Howard County schools. I very much look forward to getting to know our Howard County families and community members as we launch into the next school year.

Lisbon Elementary School on August 31, 2015.

Welcome Back!

I am thrilled to welcome you back for a wonderful new school year. We’ve worked hard over the summer to make this school year even better for our staff and the students we serve.

I am committed to leading this great school system with a call to action grounded in equity. Every child has individual needs that require different supports, which is why we must place equity and responsiveness for every person at the foundation of all decisions and actions. We must take care of our most vulnerable young people by believing that every child can and will learn.

Here in Howard County, we understand that to teach a child well, you must know a child well. This week, the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) is supporting schools in building meaningful relationships through community-building classroom engagements. Teachers throughout HCPSS will offer lessons and activities that:

  • establish classrooms as communities
  • emphasize each individual’s contribution to the classroom community
  • set up norms for respectful, trusting and safe engagement in the community
  • and define equity and what it looks, sounds and feels like in our community.

In my first few months, we’ve already been on an amazing journey to set the course in preparing every Howard County public student for the best possible start in life. I invite you to watch the video below to hear how we can create a more nurturing and inclusive environment that empowers every student to achieve.

Thank you for everything you do to prepare each student for a happy, healthy and prosperous future.

Please join in the first week of school celebrations by sharing photos on social media with the hashtag: #NewDayHCPSS.

WFES West Friendship Elementary School on Nov. 14, 2016.

Learning and Leading with Equity: A Bold New Strategic Call to Action

As Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) staff returns to kick off a new school year, I am excited for the journey ahead of us. Our work as educators will be driven by our mission to ensure academic success and social-emotional well-being for each student in an equitable and nurturing environment that closes opportunity gaps.

Last week, I issued a bold new Strategic Call to Action to guide our work: Learning and Leading with Equity: The Fierce Urgency of Now. This vision, built on equity, is fueled by the belief that every student possesses the skills, knowledge and confidence to lead a successful life and positively influence the larger community.

In collaboration with schools, families and community partners, together we can deliver on these four overarching commitments.

Students and staff will thrive in a safe, nurturing and inclusive culture that embraces diversity. We will support students’ social-emotional development and build healthy school relationships through restorative practices. We will also better reflect diversity and inclusion through our curriculum and staff hiring.

Every HCPSS stakeholder will feel happy and rewarded in their roles and take pride in cultivating the learning community. Equity and relationships will be at the foundation of all decisions and actions. We are establishing a school culture where every child feels heard, starting with community-building classroom activities the first week of school. We look forward to further building trust with parents, guardians and community members as our active partners in education.

Schools, families and the community will be mutually invested in student achievement and well-being. We will ensure graduation rates and college credit or industry certification opportunities are exemplary and equitable. All students entering kindergarten will be ready to learn, and special education services will be consistent across the county. As educators and community members, we will work to combat bullying and keep all children safe from such wounds.

An individualized focus will support every person in reaching milestones for success. For students, this means providing high-quality education that meets individual needs, using assessments that can direct instructional planning and graduating students prepared for meaningful employment. We will ensure staff are most effective in their roles with access to professional learning opportunities.

The connections we establish by valuing our students, families and colleagues will empower our children to achieve success. All our operations will be responsive, accountable, efficient and student-centered.

We are pushing forward with greater urgency to ensure that every student reaches their full potential in the classroom and beyond. I am honored to have a tremendous team across this great county that possesses the passion and skill to lead us in this effort. I look forward to working with you over the coming months on the specific actions and measures that will lead us toward each desired outcome for HCPSS.

Clemens Crossing Elementary School

School Safety First

As I begin my first full school year leading the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS), I have made it a top priority to ensure every child receives the support they need to reach their potential. In order to thrive academically and with their social-emotional skills, every student must feel safe in their school environment. All schools use the LobbyGuard visitor management system to verify every school visitor is authorized to enter the building. I have directed staff to implement consistent and more comprehensive check-in procedures, so our community can collectively do everything in our power to protect our children.

LobbyGuard As we follow best practices to safeguard students and staff members in every building, our parents and community members might notice some changes in their school visitor experience. Visitors will need their driver’s license to sign in with the LobbyGuard self-service kiosk for accurate background checks. Without an ID, visitors must check in with front office staff, which can cause delays especially during peak times. We’re providing additional support and training for our school-based staff, so they’re equipped to address any concerns and ensure the check-in changes are seamless.

We need the support and participation of the entire community to make sure our buildings are safe. I’m truly appreciative of your patience and understanding as we ramp up safety requirements that are in place for the purpose of protecting our children, which I know is a top priority we all share. Thank you for partnering with Howard County schools to provide a safe learning environment where all our students can thrive.

An Exchange of Learning

June KauffmanJune Kauffman, an ESOL teacher at Ducketts Lane Elementary School, has taught in the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) since 2011. Prior to moving to Laurel with her husband and two children in 2008, she lived in Hong Kong, China for 15 years where she taught English and fell in love with Asian food and hospitality.


Pam Freedman
Pam Freedman teaches English Learners (ELs) at Ducketts Lane Elementary School. This is her ninth year teaching in Howard County and her 12th year teaching ELs from Pre-K through 12th grade.

Here Kauffman and Freedman write about their experiences with the Korean Summer Cultural Exchange Program, where they enjoy learning from their students as much as they do teaching them.

Ten years, seven teachers, more than 200 Korean students and an abundance of learning have taken place in the Korean Summer Cultural Exchange Program hosted by the International Student Registration Center of HCPSS. Started in 2005 by HCPSS International Student and Family Services Specialist Min Kim and taught for many years by retired teacher Pat Previdi, the three-week learning excursion challenges students to learn to navigate culture and language through daily formal English classes, visits to places with historical or cultural significance, and building relationships with host families.

Middle school students from Iksan, South Korea go through a rigorous selection process to be accepted into the program. They attend classes taught in English every morning, and focus on all skills necessary for English language development: reading, writing, listening and speaking. This multi-faceted approach helps to build confidence and camaraderie among students as well as challenges them to try new things.

South Korean English language teachers accompany students on their trip and join in the learning environment. This exchange provides a prime opportunity for the teachers to participate in hands-on professional development and gain teaching skills they can use in their language classrooms. We encourage the teachers to teach a mini-lesson to the students, so we can learn from them as well.

This summer, we co-taught 20 students and hosted two teachers at Patapsco Middle School. Students loved debating, learning idioms, typing journal responses in the computer lab, and giving and receiving feedback from their peers. Throughout the three weeks, the students’ strong English language skills “knocked our socks off” and challenged us to challenge them even more.

One of the most enjoyable and rewarding activities involved the Korean students’ interaction with American students. Students from both countries learned about each other through various games and activities. It was gratifying for their teachers–both Korean and American–to watch them interact and witness first-hand how the students’ English skills had developed. This activity left both the students and teachers feeling accomplished.

At the end of the program, the students showcased musical performances and read essays that highlighted their talents and time spent in the United States. Host families were invited to attend the ceremony. In addition, a memo of understanding was signed by HCPSS Interim Superintendent Dr. Michael J. Martirano and Superintendent Jideug Yu from Iksan, South Korea, expressing an intent to continue in this amazing partnership.

To see video and photos of the closing ceremony, visit here.

MPIA Press Conference BOE Board of Education Dr. Martirano July 14, 2017

Moving Forward in Ensuring Transparency

Every day I am humbled by the incredible privilege and responsibility of educating the children of Howard County. I take to heart that families must have faith in the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) for us to effectively partner together in preparing the next generation for the future. Our recent launch of the online tracking system for Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) requests represents an important step forward in ensuring transparency and ultimately building trust with the community.

As of this month, the new MPIA tracking system is fully online at Once a member of the public submits a request online, they can follow the request status in real-time as HCPSS prepares its response. Via the tracking system, requests and responsive documents for completed MPIA submissions will be available for public inspection.

We understand that the MPIA is one of the most valuable tools available to our community for obtaining public records and documents. HCPSS is committed to providing the fullest possible access allowable by law to all records, documents and information relating to school system decisions and operations through its MPIA responses.

The new online system is a win-win for our community and our system. This site gives our stakeholders much easier access to the information they seek, while adding efficiency to school system operations.

We believe HCPSS is the first school system in the region to introduce an online MPIA presence. I am confident we are setting a new standard that other school systems throughout the region and nation will seek to emulate.

We welcome members of the public to use this tool to gain a better understanding of our operations and move forward with us as a cohesive community dedicated to our children’s education.

Saketh Sundar

Spelling Your Way to the Top

Saketh Sundar is entering 7th grade at Mayfield Woods Middle School. Sundar is active at his school, participating in the orchestra, student government association, and news, film, coding and debate clubs. Sundar participated in the 2016 and 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee, placing 12th this year.

Melissa ShindelMelissa Shindel has been an educator for more than 20 years and a principal for eight. She is currently the principal at Mayfield Woods Middle School. Shindel is the past president of the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP) and currently serves as a member of the MASSP board.  

Shindel partnered with Sundar to blog about his spelling bee journey. By making the top 15 nationally, Sundar went farther than any other Howard County student in the history of the competition.

Each year, millions of students from around the world participate in their school or community spelling bee. Whether large or small, every bee is full of suspense and excitement.

In Howard County, every school or organization sends its top speller and runner-up to the Howard County Library System (HCLS) Spelling Bee. Each year, after hours of competition that usually end close to midnight, the winner of the HCLS bee is announced and that student advances to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. l know this pattern well. As principal in two different schools, I have had students advance to the Scripps bee four times, and each time it was equally as nerve-wracking and exciting. For the past two years, the HCLS winner has been Saketh Sundar.

Saketh’s spelling bee journey began at Bellows Spring Elementary School, where he remembers: “I always enjoyed spelling and was enthusiastic to compete in spelling bees. I started out in 4th grade. My mom and I spent 30 minutes every day going over the words. I won my class spelling bee and advanced to the school bee. There, I got words I had studied and won. For the county bee though, I bowed out on the word ‘blight’ which befittingly means ‘something that frustrates one’s plans or withers one’s hopes.’ That first blight of my spelling bee career is what ignited the spark that took me to the national bee.”

As a 5th grader, Saketh worked even harder. He studied and practiced more often, won the competition in his school, and moved on to the HCLS bee. He recalls being on stage in the late hours, and he was ecstatic to hear the pronouncer say, “We have a winner.” This had been his goal since he was younger, and he was thrilled to be moving on to the national competition.

In the Scripps national bee, the preliminary round includes not only spelling words on stage, but also taking a spelling and vocabulary test. No more than the top 50 spellers move on to the final round. During his first visit to Scripps, Saketh did not qualify for finals. He recalls: “This experience made me mentally tough, and I set my goal that the next year I would make the finals.” And that’s just what he did.

As a 6th grader at the national spelling bee, Saketh did well on both the written and oral portions of the preliminaries. On the next day of competition, after correctly spelling both onstage words, Saketh heard his name during the announcement of finalists. Instead of celebrating, he went to bed. A huge day awaited him.

On June 1, Saketh participated in four rounds of spelling during the day. I can remember the excitement at Mayfield Woods. The bee was televised on ESPN2, and we made it available in classrooms, so students could watch Saketh spell. Staff and students could be heard cheering in the hallways each time Saketh spelled a word correctly. Community members, parents and local businesses contacted the school or posted their support on social media. It was a truly unique and magical experience. In a matter of days, Saketh Sundar became a hometown hero.

By the end of round seven, Saketh became a primetime finalist, and this hometown hero was now an ESPN star. He was interviewed by and highlighted on ESPN, and tweeted by Amanda Carey, associate producer for the NFL. Carey mentioned Saketh’s favorite athlete, the Ravens’ Justin Tucker, who in turn tweeted, “I know who I’m rooting for this #SpellingBee! Let’s go Saketh!!”

Finally, it was time for the nationally televised primetime finals. I was there with Saketh’s parents, and everyone in the studio audience was buzzing with excitement as ESPN commentators were live in the room. Unfortunately, Saketh spelled his first word incorrectly. Saketh said, “My mind blanked. I knew most of the words following my elimination and was frustrated. But then I realized I still have two more years. This experience taught me a few life lessons like how to handle pressure, be optimistic and accept failure gracefully.”

Saketh does have two more years to compete, and we suspect we will see him again on ESPN primetime.

Saketh said, “This opportunity and experience would not be possible without HCLS and their sponsors. I would like to take this opportunity to thank HCLS, HCPSS, my parents, my school principal, and others for their support and encouragement!”

Photo credit: Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Mecah Washington, Paraeducator, Ducketts Lane Elementary School

The Importance of Paraeducators

The Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) is fortunate to have a team of tremendously talented and dedicated educators in every school. Paraeducators–who provide extra individualized attention and instructional assistance–are critical in ensuring every public school student in Howard County succeeds. The Board of Education and I have a shared commitment to support staff, as we recently added 87 paraeducator and media paraeducator positions to next year’s budget.

Our belief in the paraeducator’s importance for student learning and behavioral outcomes is well founded. As cited in “Supercharging Student Success,” learning increases when an excellent paraeducator is paired with a great teacher. Students, including those at risk and with learning disabilities, can improve academic performance with the support of a paraeducator. The assistance provided by paraeducators greatly benefits teachers, enabling them to provide more individualized instruction with students. Paraeducators also encourage connections among students, parents and schools.

I invite you to get to know our paraeducators. They help our schools shine every day. For example, Muhammad Bilal has inspired Running Brook Elementary School students for a decade, both in the classroom and after school through the Bridges Over Howard County program. Jerard Rucker brings his background in mental health and social services to his special education paraeducator role at Hammond Elementary School. Ducketts Lane Elementary School special education paraeducator Mecah Washington builds strong connections with her students, so they can find their voices and receive a quality education.

Our paraeducators are outstanding, and the school system understands we must do our part to maximize their effectiveness. That is why we provide our paraprofessionals and all educational support professionals (ESP) with ongoing, differentiated professional learning.

The Office of Teacher and Paraprofessional Development and Support offers ESPs year-round opportunities including conferences and an online ESP Canvas Community for discussion groups, self-paced learning, personal growth resources, technology tools and more. Additional professional learning sessions are available throughout the year for special education paraeducators and student assistants.

Every child deserves highly effective educators. I couldn’t be more grateful to our classroom support staff, who ensure that every child has the best possible start in life.