While a gentle, silent type, this big-city superintendent has made sweeping system changes
If nicknames connote trust, Joe Hairston's parents set him on the right path the day they just named him "Joe" rather than Joseph. "It pretty much reinforces my personality," he says of his nickname kind of name. "For whatever reason, people seem to feel comfortable with me."
Baltimore County's soft-spoken superintendent is a self-described gentle man, yet he's no pushover. Called both "a visionary" and "a teddy bear" by his peers, Hairston is organized and driven; 16 years of traveling in a disciplined military family will do that.
Hairston balances his softer side with his intrinsic nose-to-the-grindstone traits to help guide 17,000 staff and 108,000 students.
He's also balanced his program efforts by ensuring that his 163 schools are a model for both a technology and the arts. In five years, the student-to-computer ratio has leapt from 11:1 to 3:1. And in 2004, the National Foundation for Advancement of the Arts called BCPS "a national powerhouse for high school talent in the visual arts" for a never-before feat--having nine out of a possible 25 finalists in its national talent search.
Monday night football fantasy?
Yep--it was almost his. When Hairston attended Maryland State College on a football scholarship, he had a few career options. He was recruited by IBM and accepted to Officer Training School in the military. Oh, and the Washington Redskins drafted him. Being young, he took a shot at the latter. Although he didn't make the cut, a coach told him to ring up a friend in Prince George's County (Md.) Public Schools. Hairston put his biology/physical science degree to work for an elementary school there. And the rest is history. Lucky for his students and staff, he quarterbacked for them and not Vince Lombardi.
Technology is a Hairston passion, one for which he's been recognized nationally and internationally. His techie ways can be traced to college days, when "computers were the size of a house." From the time he was first hired as an administrator in the 1970s, Hairston knew intrinsically that computers could one day help his staff's efficiency; problem was, as he implemented technology, most wouldn't be able to tell a motherboard from a Mother Ship.
"I had not even touched a computer," recalls Jan Welsh, a consultant who worked with Hairston in the 1990s. "He talked about our society, culture and world, and doing business online. I didn't know what 'online' was!" Soon, the entire school district at Clayton County in Georgia did. Hairston served as superintendent there before coming to Baltimore County. By the late 90s Hairston was communicating with staff by e-mail, each of whom had their own desktop PC--unheard of at the time. "If you're going to work with Joe, you have to keep moving, and keep becoming. There's no choice."
Sense and sensibility
"Superintendents have to make sense out of nonsense, and strike a balance between the rational and the irrational," Hairston says.
Emergency situations test the need for being rational most. Baltimore's proximity to the nation's capital has forced some life-or-death situations. On 9/11, entities like the Red Cross and police and fire departments along the East coast were responsible for keeping people calm and safe. So was Hairston. "There was one institution that had perhaps the largest responsibility, with children being in school," he says. "Of course we decided to close school. "It's about doing the right thing."