Building Relationships in Baltimore: A Superintendent’s Success Story

Discussing big district moves with Dr. S. Dallas Dance

Dr. S. Dallas Dance is a highly respected and influential superintendent making a difference inside today’s educational space. As Superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), Dance has leveraged the power of his large district to push ahead on technological and communication improvements that can be used as examples for other districts. The State of The Schools is a yearly program that highlights the advances of BCPS while forming growing partnerships. Dance is always enthusiastic to share his district’s Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow (S.T.A.T.) initiative which is the biggest initiative in Baltimore County - offering an instructional approach that personalizes learning for kids.

Dance has seen the power of working with charitable groups as a plus in creating relationships with institutions and businesses. One example is The Education Foundation of Baltimore County Public Schools (BSPS) run by Debbie Phelps, mother of famed swimmer Michael Phelps. Dance works in conjunction with the Education Foundation to bring donated dollars to the school district that federal funds are unable to provide. Dance understands that relationships are perhaps the most important aspect of being superintendent.

Dallas Dance is a proud member of the executive committee of The School Superintendents Association (AASA) and unabashedly supports the efforts of their Academy program. Dance applauds the efforts of AASA in pinpointing superintendent talent and training them to become future leaders in education. Mentorship is important to Dance who was recruited to choose superintendency as a profession and hopes to return the favor.

It’s easy to see why Dallas Dance represents a success story worth emulating.


Rod Berger: Dallas, it's nice to spend some time with you. We've been talking about some very big-picture issues with superintendents recently, and I want to talk with you about the enormity of Baltimore. How does the size and scope of a district like Baltimore incorporate the private sector and corporate America to offset budget shortfalls, challenges, or goals to be progressive and not reactive?

How would you look at it from another district perspective that might not be the size of Baltimore but are looking for guidance on how to successfully navigate relationships? It's really the community communication because there's a lot that has to be relayed to the general public. How do you approach it?

Dallas Dance: I think you answered the question a bit with just the word "relationships." I think anyone going into superintendence or anyone who is leading an organization has to understand that relationships are going to be key to getting anything done.

In Baltimore County Public Schools, I leveraged the work of the Education Foundation of Baltimore County. When I first got to Team BCPS in 2012, there was no full-time director of the foundation. I hired a full-time director. People might know her by her last name and famous son - Debbie Phelps.

She's a proud mom but, for the most part, she has a great heart for kids; and she was one of the principals in our system.

I hired Debbie as our director. Debbie and I tag teamed to get the word out to any private entity, any corporation, and any community foundation who wanted to support us.

They go through the foundation.

Quarterly, she's having meetings with the board. I'm there, in many cases. As a matter of fact, our big event is our State of the Schools. We're going to have it this year on April 4th, and we have about a thousand people who come together to hear the direction of the school system.

tell story blocks

But that’s only about twenty minutes. For the most part, they’re seeing student performances; we’re telling our story, and they figure out ways they can interact with us there.

For any school system that wants to start work, I always tell them, “Start education foundations ─ 501(c)(3) people in organizations like to give. They’ll get the tax deduction benefit by doing that as well.

The foundation can do many other things through the private world that you cannot do as a public entity.

RB: How have you grown as a superintendent? I would imagine that there are a lot of aspiring superintendents who would maybe not tackle a large district like Baltimore. You are a leading voice for so many superintendents.

I’m just curious as to how you have become comfortable with that recognition?

DD: You always keep things in perspective. One of the biggest traits that drives me is humility and the fact that this position is bigger than a title. It’s really about service.

I have grown in the position. I’m totally different than I was back in 2012. I always tell people, “You come into the job, and you have a big, grand idea of what you want to happen.”

But, then, you understand it’s through people that it actually gets done and that it becomes sustainable.

I think one of the challenges of the superintendency, when you look at the national trend of being in the job for three or four years, is that you can’t sustain leverage and work if you’re just in the job for that short period of time.

RB: Based on relationships (to your point).

DD: Absolutely! You’re going to get darts thrown at you and have things pop up. You want to have relationships with people so when those things happen; you’re not the only one out there talking about it.

You recognize that you’re going to grow and develop more into the position. You’re never fully ready for the job, but you know what you don’t know, and then you grow from that point.

RB: Let’s talk about technology a little bit. A large district like Baltimore has resources, in general, that maybe other districts might not have just by sheer size.

Your ability to impact technologies and direction for other districts around the US seem to be quite significant whether it’s intentional or not.

How do you look at trends in technology that can better inform the EdTech sector in what they actually should be developing? Large districts have the purchasing power and infrastructure to integrate new technologies and new approaches that others don’t because it’s not a part of their budget or they don’t have those same resources or opportunities.

DD: Very good point! What I always like to tell people is I never went into the job thinking about technology. I went into the job thinking about what the classroom should feel like for kids. What should the experience look and be for students?

I am a dad, so I always envision my child in the class and what I like that experience to be and how we can bring that to every other kid.

It just so happened that we started to talk about personalization and to customize an experience; and being a teacher myself, I understand that you can’t do that unless you leverage technology.

head thoughts open

When you look at Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow which is the biggest initiative we have going on in Baltimore County - it's not a technology initiative; it's an instructional approach that personalizes kids.
From there, we've been able to look at curriculum; how we approach our instruction; what assessments look like; what PD looks like for our teachers and our employees; what the budget looks like; what our policy looks like; and what our communications plan look like - plus the infrastructure.
We start looking at the procurement of devices - and this happened 18 months into the conversation ─ leveraged the buying power of Baltimore County being a very, very large entity. We've been able to archive all of this on our website,
You can go to our instructional digital conversion or our S.T.A.T page. You'll see the planning that we did behind it all. You'll see the RFP that went out for our devices.
But what I always like to say is that we were able to inform the EdTech industry around how you make sure that you don't have so many different systems that they don't talk to each other and you frustrate the end user which, in many cases, are your students and your teachers.
So the biggest success I always say from S.T.A.T. is really this idea around BCPS One. It's our employees self-serve; it's our instructional management system; it's our learning management system; it's our student information system; it's our data warehouse ─ everything is in one single sign-on for individuals.
There's a front door that you go into but, after that, there might be several systems operating on the backend. No one needs to know that. It's all one single sign-on.
But we've been able to use the model with other school systems, as they come to visit, as they work with and partner with us, they use that and say, "We can go to that company there because that school system has it. We may not necessarily have to go out to bid for it because we can just use the contract that they had or the RFP that they use."
That's the way that they can collaborate with us, and we're driving the industry that way.
RB: Do you think, Dallas, there's an opportunity to educate educators? Teach folks other than the superintendent or the leadership team about the business of education? Is there a long-term benefit so that if I'm a teacher in a Baltimore school, I can actually understand the way in which the business side of education works? Not just aspiring superintendents but it might inform so there isn't such divisiveness when it comes to, "I'm in my classroom" or "I'm in my building, and I don't understand all these other things that are swirling around?"
Is there a benefit to that?
DD: Absolutely! One of the things that leaders have to balance is not putting too much on teachers' plates. You want to make sure that you remove as much as you can so they can focus on teaching and learning.
But every school is a business. Every school district is a business. We're in the business of teaching and learning.
And it takes real dollars. If you think about even our budget, which is a $1.9 billion-dollar operating capital budget, 85% of that operating budget is on people. Salaries and benefits drive that.
You want to make sure that the right positions are in place. You want to make sure the salaries are competitive in the market, and you have a great benefits package.
Take our transportation, just in general. Our transportation is over $70-million-dollars in operation. We want to look at the efficiencies within that because if I can save two or three million dollars, then I can figure out how to pay drivers more or I can figure out how to share those dollars with schools so they can do more in their classrooms.
I encourage our principals to share their school budgets with their leadership teams and teachers so they understand "These are the dollars that are allocated. How are we going to spend them in a way that matches our school improvement plans?"
RB: Let's close with this. I was having a conversation with an aspiring superintendent, an African-American male who is a compelling gentleman. We were talking about the challenges facing African-American males aspiring to be superintendents.
We were talking about search firms in education and the ways in which districts utilize them to bring in new talent.
You are a success story and a leading voice. How can we get the story out there so that the 2% minority representation rises where we can have conversations that say, "We have representation in our communities at every level"?
DD: I think one of the biggest things to do is to partner with AASA. AASA is a superintendents' organization, and in full disclosure, I am on the executive committee. I totally endorse what AASA is doing. AASA has developed Superintendent academies across the country. There is an East Coast, Midwest and West Coast section.
There is the collaboration with Howard University and USC.
We're pinpointing talent, and we're asking superintendents to pinpoint talent.
compass talent

I never dreamed of being a superintendent. I thought I was going to law school and I was going to be a lawyer.

But Bill Hite, an African-American principal I had in Henrico, is now the superintendent of Philadelphia. He said, “Dallas, you need to do this.”

It was then something I started thinking about. Again, it was never on my radar.

I’ve been able to do that with candidates who have worked for me. I say, “Let me get you in front of some people, so they get a chance to meet you and see your work.”

There are a handful of search firms. Make sure they know the talent that’s out there. Make sure that state boards of education know talent.

In Maryland, we have the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) that does searches, and in Virginia, there is BSBA.

They need to working with school superintendents to pinpoint future talent because a lot of the talent is out there. But, many times, we have to be pushed.

This is a job that takes confidence. It takes confidence not just in yourself but often someone else’s confidence in you and letting you know, “You can do it.”

There are going to be some good days. There are going to be some bad days. If you’re a leader who understands people and you understand how to surround yourself with a great team, you can do this job.

If you have a love for kids and a passion for the work, you’re going to be successful.

RB: Continued success! You’re always a strong voice that we enjoy sharing.

DD: Thank you. I appreciate it.

RB: Thanks, Dallas.

Dr. S. Dallas DanceAbout Dr. S. Dallas Dance:

S. Dallas Dance, PhD, began his tenure as superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools on July 1, 2012, with a focus on creating a culture of deliberate excellence through the acceleration of student achievement and district and school improvement. Four major issues top his priority list: developing Blueprint 2.0, the district’s five-year strategic plan; ensuring a highly rigorous curriculum and academic program in all content areas while transitioning to the Common Core State Standards; focusing strategically on professional growth and development for all employees; and ensuring timely, transparent, and clear internal and external communications.

Distinguished as a vibrant and driven leader, Dance is highly regarded for his problem-solving, consensus-building, communication, and human relations skills. He believes strongly in the potential of every student and that through functioning as Team BCPS and maintaining a constant dialogue with staff, students, and community members all students will achieve at the highest levels.

Prior to his appointment in Baltimore County, Dance served as one of three Chief School Officers responsible for the administration of nearly 300 schools in the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the seventh largest school system in the nation. As part of the HISD senior leadership team, Dance played a significant role in improving student academic performance and launching several innovations, including two single-gender college preparatory academies and the redesign of a school to accelerate at-risk students.

Before his tenure in Houston, Dance served in executive school and district leadership positions in Virginia that leveraged his expertise in curriculum, instruction, assessment, school improvement, and strategic planning.

Dance earned a doctorate degree in educational leadership and master’s degree in administration and supervision from Virginia Commonwealth University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Virginia Union University.

Follow Dr. S. Dallas Dance on Twitter

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post by Dr. Rod Berger

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