Tasked with leading a school system that has seen drops in achievement and enrollment in recent years, new Baltimore County superintendent Myriam Yarbrough said during a public forum Thursday night she would prioritize improving academics and student safety.

She also said she hopes to recruit and retain quality teachers, pointing to a planned salary increase as a tool for attracting talent to the school system.

Yarbrough said she plans to address achievement gaps created during the pandemic or prior to it, and to make sure students who are doing well are being pushed to excel even more.

“Even though all the students are in the same school system, they’re all individuals with different needs, and so we need to adjust to make sure that we’re meeting their needs,” she said.

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She also committed to ensuring safe learning environments in the classroom and making schools a place where students can feel welcome and included.

“If we truly want to get to priority number one, around academic achievement, everyone needs to feel safe, and I really mean everyone,” she said. “Not just our students, but all the staff members who go into work every single day.”

The new superintendent also pointed to a need to both recruit and retain effective teachers, leaders and staff members within the district. That means not only professional training, but also valuing and empowering staff and giving them a voice, she said, so that “if there’s a problem, they feel free to share what that problem is, but they also feel free to come to the table with what solutions might be.”

Due to a tentative contract agreement reached by the district and teachers union, beginning next school year, starting pay for BCPS teachers will increase from $52,927 to $58,500, which will make them some of the highest paid in the region.

The gathering of around 40 students, parents, staff and leaders at New Town High School in Owings Mills was the first of eight opportunities for Baltimore County Public Schools community members to learn more about and ask questions of Yarbrough, whose selection for superintendent was announced in May.

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Yarbrough will take over from Superintendent Darryl Williams, who announced in January he would not be seeking a second term. She has formerly served as the deputy superintendent of the school system, and before that held positions as the chief of the system’s Division of Organizational Effectiveness, the executive director of secondary schools in the west zone, and the director of school performance.

Yarbrough will take over the school system after a tumultuous period that included a pandemic. Superintendent Dallas Dance pleaded guilty to perjury charges in 2018. An interim leader, Verletta White, lasted just two years amid an ethics violation. Williams was also criticized for low test scores and school bus delays, among other issues.

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Earlier this week, the school board approved a $310,000 annual salary for Yarbrough, which will make her one of the highest-paid superintendents across the state. Her salary is slightly more than Williams made during his term.

Her contract is also slightly different from that of Williams. It requires Yarbrough to meet with the school board by Aug. 25 to discuss how they will work together effectively, and detail how she will communicate with students, families and staff.

Yarbrough said Thursday night she plans to “engage all stakeholders” and is committed to accurately representing what is happening within the school system.

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“If we say something, we need to follow up on it, we need to follow through,” she said. “And we should be held accountable.”

During the forum, attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions and to point out opportunities for improvement within the school system.

Many said there was a need to get parents more involved and improve teacher support.

Others pointed to issues such as discipline, language access and diversity training for staff.

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As the meeting came to a close, one attendee asked Yarbrough if she was looking to change the school system’s “rocking chair mentality” of repeating the same mistakes.

“Yes,” she answered. “We’re not about doing the same things over again, looking for a different result.”