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Roxy’s Report from the Mendham Township Home & School Association Meeting on Elementary School Principal Transition and Recruitment

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Since we received the news on Halloween that our Mendham Township Elementary School Principal Michael Craver had resigned suddenly, there’s been a great deal of concern and discussion among local parents, both about the reasons behind his departure, and the transition process. The leaders of our Home & School Association reacted quickly to our concerns, enlisting School Board President Mark Ford and members of the transition team to join the regularly scheduled HSA meeting this morning.  The meeting was well attended by concerned parents, and I had trouble finding a parking space when I arrived at the school at 9:15am.  Pushing the discussion of Fall Fundraiser ideas and Sally Foster wrapping paper profits to the end of the agenda, we got right to the subject of the transition.

School Board President Mark Ford started out by trying to calm our concerns about the transition and recruitment process, including:

  • the amount of transition/turnover in our school district (new Superintendent Kristopher Harrison joins us on November 17th, replacing Dr. Christine Johnson, who left us after almost three years to join the Boonton, NJ school district);
  • the unfortunate timing of the transition, and the likelihood of finding the most qualified candidates in a principal search at this point in the school calendar;
  • how our children would be affected by the loss of their beloved Mr. Craver and the resulting transition period.

Mark Ford addressed these concerns by reminding us that, despite the turnover that tends to be created by the “stepping stone” nature of a K-8 (no high school) school district, Mendham Township — with its terrific children, active and supportive parents and Home School Association, and key educational initiatives — represents an attractive opportunity for a young, rising star to shine by implementing best practices. He assured us that the Board would be running recruitment advertising this Sunday, November 9th and expected by a November 25th deadline to have a field of 150 or so applicants from whom the School Board, including Superintendent Kris Harrison, would choose and interview finalists.  From there, he introduced the following members of the transition team and each one spoke about their intended role:

  • Catherine Mozak, Interim Superintendent:  Ms. Mozak will be filling the dual role of Interim Superintendent and Acting Principal until Kristopher Harrison arrives on Monday, November 17th.  The vagueness of Ford’s memo, as well as early discussion today, had led me to believe that Ms. Mozak would continue on as Interim Principal until Michael Craver’s replacement came on Board.  However, when asked directly whether she would be staying for the next two weeks or until a new Principal arrived, Ms. Mozak implied (”we’ll be able to see our field of applicants by November 25th, and make a determination from there”) that she’s not likely to be a long-term member of the transition team;
  • Sandra Cullis, Curriculum Supervisor:  Ms. Cullis, who implemented our new science curriculum, will be the one sitting in the principal’s office, getting to know our children by name, greeting them as the school buses arrive in the morning, dealing with disciplinary issues, and continuing to move forward on curriculum initiatives;
  • Elaine Lombardi, Director of Special Services:  Ms. Lombardi will be responsible for continuing our literacy initiative, and will provide support on the elementary school budget, and teacher/classroom observations;
  • Dr. Patrick Ciccone, Mendham Township Middle School Principal:  Dr. Ciccone will remain over at the Middle School, but will “fill in the gaps” and may help the Elementary School transition team to implement some of the programs, including a student tracking system, that have been successful in the Middle School.  If we don’t have a new Principal by January, Dr. Ciccone will participate in the annual process of observing and evaluating the team of teachers, providing guidance for making a better student transition from 4th to 5th grade.  When one parent suggested a formal “cross-training” program between middle school and elementary school teachers, Dr. Ciccone agreed that it was a good idea and that this time of transition and change might open up a better opportunity to involve 3rd and 4th grade teachers in the transition of Elementary School students to the 5th grade and the Middle School.

As you might expect, parents asked emotional questions that attempted to get at the reasons for Michael Craver’s departure, but there was no real news.  Without conceding that Principal Craver resigned under pressure from the Board, Mark Ford reminded us that the Board was bound to confidentiality with respect to personnel issues, and asked that we respect Michael Craver’s expressed wish for privacy.

I brought up the subject of teacher morale among the terrific teachers who saw Principal Craver as a leader in literacy, writers’ and readers’ worshops.  Catherine Mozak responded in two ways:  she mentioned grade-level staff meetings starting next week, and insisted that the four initiatives driven by Christine Johnson and Michael Craver would continue and thrive under new Superintendent Kris Harrison and the transition team:

  • Math prompts;
  • Writing prompts;
  • Math facts;
  • Leveled reading and balanced literacy initiatives.

Another mother ventured further into dangerous territory with a pointed question about whether a certain teacher faction whose members liked things “the old way” had forced Michael Craver out rather than adapt to the new standards required of them… Catherine Mozak distracted us from the answer to the question by introducing Dr. Ciccone “before he had to leave” and later Mark Ford advised us not to spend our time chasing rumors.  I could tell that it was almost time to move to the discussion of the Sally Foster wrapping paper.

One mom asked a question that brought applause from the other parents in the room: ”How do we know that the Board is representing the parents’ best interest?“  Mark Ford answered it directly, and a couple of active HSA members agreed: “Come to the Board meetings.”  The next School Board “work session” is scheduled for Tuesday, November 18th, followed by a “regular meeting” on Tuesday, November 25th.  All School Board meetings are held in the Mendham Township Elementary School media center at 7:30pm.  Click the link here for the complete schedule of Mendham Township School Board Meetings for the remainder of the 2008-09 school year.  Rex and I just attended our first Board meeting back in September, where the Board introduced our new Superintendent Kristopher Harrison.  As I posted after that meeting, and I wish I had conveyed to the crowd of parents at today’s HSA meeting, that initial meeting with Harrison gave me confidence that our Board had found an energetic leader for the Mendham Township School District.

My family remains saddened by Michael Craver’s departure, and we wish him well in his future educational endeavors and as a member of our Mendham community. I left today’s meeting somewhat assured that, while the remainder of the school year clearly will be a struggle instead of a “blue ribbon” year of best practices, the Mendham Township School Board’s decision did not represent a change in direction away from the educational initiatives that are so important to our children’s future.  As a note to the Mendham Township Elementary School Principal candidates considering a move to our school district, I do agree with Mark Ford’s assessment.  You’ll find a community of enthusiastic students and teachers, supported by parents who are actively involved in their children’s education and who are willing to commit the time and tax dollars to improving our school district’s academic reputation.

In closing, I’d like to reiterate my invitation to local parents to comment here, creating a forum for discussion of the Mendham Township Schools. If you attended today’s meeting, please share your thoughts. If you weren’t at the meeting but have questions, leave your question in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer.

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