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Short Report from the Mendham Township School Board Work Session Meeting Tonight — Tuesday, November 18, 2008

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At the Mendham Township Home and School Association (HSA) meeting following Elementary School Principal Michael Craver’s resignation, School Board President Mark Ford urged interested parents, “If you want to know what’s going on with the School Board, what issues we’re addressing, go to the School Board meetings.  They’re open to the public.”  Before tonight, I had only attended one other School Board meeting, the one in September welcoming our new Superintendent, Kristopher Harrison.  While I certainly would have preferred to stay home tonight and do math facts and read stories with London and Maddie, I wanted to learn more about the recruitment process for our next Elementary School Principal. The agenda included quite a few items, none of which were clearly labeled, “How’s the Principal recruitment process going?” That was eventually covered when Mark Ford asked for questions/issues from the public, but before we got there I learned a few things that I’d like to pass along.

Our new Superintendent, Kristopher Harrison, provided the “District Update” of his first two days on the job. Having seen him present twice, I continue to be impressed with his confidence and charisma… on the surface, he’s a likeable guy, but also gives the impression of having the intelligence, energy and commitment to deliver/execute on educational initiatives. Kris Harrison said that his immediate objective is to get to know our community, to be visible in the schools, and to get to know as many of the people who interact with our kids as possible. He’s had a jam-packed two days, including an HSA breakfast reception with the Elementary School teachers, lunch with the first graders (Maddie didn’t notice him, but I’ve already received the report that she’s far too busy chit-chatting with her friends to be observant, especially in the busy cafeteria), and an afternoon with the Middle School staff. He has spent a great deal of time interacting with Interim Superintendent Catherine Mozak, preparing to pick up where she left off on key initiatives. I was pleased to hear that Catherine Mozak will be staying on in a transitional role for an extended period of time.

The Gifted & Talented Update 2008 was a quick but encouraging presentation about the Cognitive Abilities Test (CogAT) by Curriculum Supervisor Sandra Cullis, who is the member of the Principal transition team who is 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.  Since she was introduced at the November 5th HSA meeting, London and Maddie have reported that Ms. Cullis has been in their classrooms frequently, getting to know them and taking an interest in their day-to-day activities.  If she has the qualifications required for the position, in the early going Ms. Cullis would seem to be a strong candidate for Principal, both from her efforts on curriculum initiatives and her commitment to putting our children first.

The CogAT, which was completed at every grade level K-8 in late September or early October, measures a student’s learned reasoning abilities in the three areas most linked to academic success in school: Verbal, Quantitative, and Nonverbal. The general reasoning abilities measured by the CogAT reflect the overall efficiency of cognitive processes and strategies that enable individuals to learn new tasks and solve problems, especially in the absence of direct instruction. The CogAT measures developed abilities, not innate abilities. The development of these abilities begins at birth and continues through early adulthood. It is influenced by both in-school and out-of-school “whole life” experiences.

With my personal educational agenda focused on what MTES is doing for high achievers, I had grown concerned that when Christine Johnson left the District last Spring, any progress she had made on our Gifted & Talented program would come to a halt or take giant steps backward.  With Principal Craver’s resignation and the ensuing transition, I couldn’t imagine the transition team would have the bandwidth to implement programs to challenge and enrich our best and brightest students.  So it was a pleasant surprise to learn about the progress Ms. Cullis has made — analyzing the results of the CogAT, comparing with NJ ASK (achievement tests) and students’ grades/making the honor roll, identifying 6 to 8 students per grade who might participate in G&T cluster courses at the Middle School, preparing letters to parents with each child’s test scores and a brief explanation of their meaning.  She’s also planning to present a detailed explanation of the CogAT at the next HSA meeting. While I had worried that London and Maddie would be at Mendham High School before G&T reached our elementary school, Sandra Cullis actually seemed disappointed to report that G&T programs for the elementary school would not be in place until next year, when London will be in the third grade.

Getting back to the subject of principal recruitment, when School Board President Mark Ford opened the discussion to the public, Kristopher Harrison addressed several parents’ questions about the Board’s progress/state of play/expectations, as well as what they are looking for in our next principal and how we might avoid an ongoing sense of turnover/transition in our district.  I thought Kristopher Harrison’s answers were well thought out, particularly for someone who has been on the job for all of two days.  On the subject of transition, Mr. Harrison believes that what Mendham Township is going through is not uncommon.  There’s plenty of opportunity out there for administrators, so it is not surprising that the most qualified candidates move up and out.  He warned us that finding our new Principal was likely to be a long process…reviewing the resumes, hoping to find a slate of qualified candidates for interviews, negotiations, and the expectation of at least 60 days notice to the new Principal’s existing school system.  We’re looking for…

  • someone with experience who wants to be here for a long time;
  • instructional leadership background;
  • strong interpersonal skills;
  • balanced literacy background;
  • capable of modeling for and leading our teachers;
  • committed to putting our children first.

Kris Harrison reminded us that it will be hard to find all of these qualitites in one person, that we need to take the time to find the right person, and should not settle for someone who will only lead to further transition.

In the meantime, one parent expressed a concern about who the teachers are reporting to, who is keeping track of the implementation of balanced literacy and Writer’s Workshops in the classroom.  The answers? Ms. Cullis is responsible for daily instructional walk-throughs, and grade level meetings, while Ms. Mozak is not on her way out and remains committed to assessing the implementation of balanced literacy and making sure teachers are following the appropriate instructional protocol.  Based on his observations over the first two days, combined with input from the principal transition team, Kris Harrison feels confident that our “teachers have the tools that they need” to move forward on all of the key educational initiatives.

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