The incoming Haddonfield superintendent discusses his priorities in the first of five years on the job, from educational goals to community-building.
By Matt Skoufalos | August 15, 2018
Larry Mussoline hails from Pennsylvania coal country.
He graduated from Hazleton High School, where his teammates in the Cougars outfield included Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon and Pennsylvania Congressman Lou Barletta.
He lost his dad at age 15.
After graduating from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Mussoline began a 38-year career in education, during which he taught high school, coached and officiated sports, and worked as a principal and superintendent.
In 1998, Mussoline completed a Ph.D. in educational administration at Penn State, publishing a dissertation on the importance of both the strong community and academic attributes of successful school districts.
Mussoline’s career as a superintendent has spanned districts like Pine Grove, a rural community of 1,800 students, and Downingtown, the eighth-largest public school district in Pennsylvania. He retired at 60, and was coaxed into action again by the Haddonfield Schools search committee, which didn’t renew the contract of former full-time superintendent Rich Perry.
Mussoline spoke with NJ Pen about his priorities in the first of his five years on the job, horizon goals for the district, and the need for Haddonfield to adopt a 21st-century attitude toward education.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NJ PEN: Headed into the first year of your term, what are your priorities for the district?
MUSSOLINE: I think what the board wanted was somebody to organize the district to be better prepared for 21st-century learning.
The way I see things, from the principals on down, we’re pretty strong.
I think we need to reorganize things from a board and central office perspective. So that’s one of the top priorities.
We just went out to hire a curriculum director; it’s an open position. I’m going to take this to “director of curriculum and chief academic officer.” Their responsibilities will include professional development, assessment, and even moreover, accountability.
Are we accountable to our students? Are they learning on grade level? Are we doing a service to our high-school students in terms of where their end-goals are? We’ve really got to put a resource towards that. We’re lagging a bit in what I would call 21st-century teaching and learning.
NJ PEN: How do you define “21st-century learning?”
MUSSOLINE: It’s what our students need after they leave Haddonfield. [In modern careers,] people telecommute, they fly to different cities, and they conference-call. Are we teaching those skills?
Let’s leverage those skills so technology becomes the great accelerator to work, to the pace of work. Technology in itself isn’t the silver bullet to learning more, but it is a tool that has to be mastered for productivity in the future. The only way we can master that is to leverage what we’re doing curricularly.
[For the Chief Academic Officer post,] we’re looking for somebody that understands accountability, grade-level achievement, and digital learning. Maybe that includes STEM, and maybe it includes other skills that are non-cognitive—grit and determination, and collaboration and higher-order thinking. That’s the type of person we need to lead.
NJ PEN: What are some of the other needs you’re looking to fill?
MUSSOLINE: We’re going to have a redesigned website probably at the beginning of the school year.
We need somebody to upkeep that website, to tend to it every day, with pictures and videos, and helping people at the school level leverage this new portal that we’re going to have.
On top of that, I want somebody to do a better job communicating to our stakeholder groups.
That’s the other big position, and it’s really just a part-time position that I’m looking for.
If we don’t tell our story, somebody’s going to tell our story for us. We have to communicate on the balls of our feet, not on our heels.
NJ PEN: Haddonfield has no shortage of vocal stakeholder groups. How are you planning to engage with them more meaningfully?
MUSSOLINE: We’re going to do a large-scale strategic planning to engage the community, our teachers, stakeholder groups, in just where should we be headed in the future. That’s what good districts start with. Hopefully that will create a blueprint for the next couple years in Haddonfield.
I think in 5, 7, 8 years, we can organize the place so that the next hand-off is very smooth, and much easier than this hand-off was.
Stakeholder engagement is critical, but once the plan’s set, the rest has to be left up to your elected officials. In a place like Haddonfield, it is a balance. There are so many people that have great background, experience, and expertise, that you have to engage, but you also have to realize that you’ve elected people to do this for you.
I believe there’s no more difficult political job than being a school board member for those reasons. You are onstage constantly.
NJ PEN: There are a number of long-range planning topics in the Haddonfield school district, including land use (especially the Bancroft parcel) and infrastructure needs. What’s on your radar?
MUSSOLINE: I think the biggest fear in what we’re seeing is that we’re running out of space.
When I began, a mass of folks came to a board meeting saying, “We want smaller class sizes,” which is wonderful if you had the space and the money.
We don’t have the space right now. We would have to eliminate art rooms, libraries, choral rooms, which are space rooms that we need. All the kids go into those rooms like a gymnasium. And if we start eliminating them, now where do we go?
“In a place like Haddonfield, it is a balance. There are so many people that have great experience and expertise that you have to engage, but they also have to realize that they’ve elected people to do this for them.”
—Haddonfield Superintendent Larry Mussoline
There’s lots of issues that a landlocked community like Haddonfield has to address. That’s why the Bancroft site is really advantageous to the district. The question is, how do you do it when you have finite budgets and you just can’t spend millions of dollars on land?
There’s all sorts of political issues and construction issues and development issues, and overall politics that get involved in a community like this where land is scarce.
NJ PEN: Some of those politics have been on display in community conversations about what to build at the Bancroft parcel. How do you create equity in a district with an affordable housing deficit, where the household income is so high, and the population is almost uniformly white?
MUSSOLINE: In a de facto way, our population is what it is. We’re about 94 percent white and about 5 percent Asian-Indian, and 1 percent African-American. And that’s the population of our schools, and that mirrors the population in Haddonfield. People want nice housing in the community that’s cheaper than paying $25,000 to $30,000 in taxes. I understand it.
One thing that the board keeps saying about Haddonfield is that when a house sells, it’s families that come in. It’s typically listed as one of the best places in the nation to bring up children. It’s known for children, it’s known for schools.
Children are always going to be a part of this community. We need to make sure that in the future we’re not strapping a board and a superintendent by the fact that there’s nowhere to go, that we’re turning them away, or that we’ve got to increase class sizes to higher amounts.
NJ PEN: That means more capital improvements, and nobody has the appetite for the costs.
MUSSOLINE: When the board went out for this last referendum, they did an architectural study.
The study came out to $250 million of needs in our schools. They pared it down to $35 million.
We already know, we’ve known for the last few years, that we needed $250 million to bring these schools up to what modern facilities are. That alone tells you that there are going to be other referenda coming up without a doubt in the next few years. That’s a problem with taxes being what they are.
NJ PEN: How did Haddonfield do under the new fair funding formula?
MUSSOLINE: We were up about $300,000. That was unexpected money this year. As long as that continues, we can use that to help taxpayers, but that’s nowhere near enough to offset [the cost of facilities improvements].
There’s no way to keep the costs from overrunning when you’re dealing with the age of the facilities we have. Once you start getting into walls, there are too many unpredictable, unknown issues that nobody can determine until you get into them.
NJ PEN: Aside from the challenges of facilities planning, you’ve also got the bias incident that led to the shortened boys lacrosse season this year. How do you plan to address the circumstances that led to something like that?
MUSSOLINE: The situation that occurred in the spring is a function of society. There’s no way around it.
You could look at a lot of antecedents to that action. Politics today, you could look at the makeup of the community, you could look at the #metoo movement, you could look at the things going on in society today, but it also has to be addressed. You cannot under any circumstance think that it’s being addressed by everybody else other than you.
We have got to own this problem. We have got to, as a school system, ensure that we’re teaching diversity. If we’re not where we live in a diverse area—and it’s changing, by the way, we’re becoming more diverse—we have got to make sure that we’re exposing our students to equity and diversity and all the issues that surround diversity.
This year, we’re going to work with Dr. Shelley Zion from Rowan University. Shelley is a nationally known presenter, facilitator, for equity issues. She came from the University of Colorado to Rowan to establish an equity council.
She works with a number of New Jersey school districts on the same issues that we have to address: issues of understanding diversity, unpacking it, unpacking feelings, and then creating ways that we can understand and work with equity.
“As a school system, we have got to ensure that we’re teaching diversity. If we’re not in a diverse area, we have got to make sure that we’re exposing our students to equity and diversity, and all the issues that surround diversity.”
—Haddonfield Superintendent Larry Mussoline
That’s what this is about. It’s about the fact that all men are created equal; that’s the whole key here. We have no reason for gender, or race, or religion, or some other reason to say that someone is better or greater than someone else. She’s going to work with students, with faculty, with me and the board, to unpack this, to understand it, to address it better.
We’re not experts in this. We’re owning it, and we want to address it head-on. I think we’ve got the right person and the right mindset, and I think we’re going to be fine.
NJ PEN: What’s your philosophy of education? How does your experience influence what you want to see the district become?
MUSSOLINE: I would like to see us get a little deeper into what I consider digital teaching and learning, and I’d like to see more choices for students.
My vision of schooling in the future is that students should be taking college courses, we should have more dual-enrollment opportunities, more students should be taking courses online, in a blended format, where they’re meeting once or twice with a teacher, and they can go into chat rooms.
I think they should be taking courses traditionally. I think we should be working with other schools to leverage course selection. I don’t see, in my crystal ball, that students need to come to school at 8 in the morning and leave at 2:30 every single day, in high school, especially.
I don’t believe that’s the way the world is set up. I believe it’s an old paradigm, and we’re still functioning in that old two-by-four-by-eight-by-180 structure. There’s two covers to a book, four walls to a classroom, we can’t function without eight periods in the day, and 180 [school days]is the magic number. It’s a paradigm for the industrial revolution, and we’re way beyond that.
Our work world is global, internet based, digitally based. We can’t be teaching on a hundred-year-old paradigm, and here we are. Why do we have to shove every kid in that paradigm? I don’t understand it. I’m all about this cultural change in education. It is about equity and intra-space learning, and project-based learning, and relevance in learning. What’s relevant to the student? Teach it in high school.
“We can’t be teaching on a hundred-year-old paradigm. I don’t understand it. Cultural change in education is about equity, and intra-space learning, and project-based learning, and relevance in learning. What’s relevant to the student? Teach it in high school.
—Haddonfield Superintendent Larry Mussoline
We can provide a Carnegie unit of learning in many different ways. I believe there are ways around it. I believe the problem is the mindset of a lot of educators. In college, just about everything is blended. You might still go to class on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but nowadays the professor is going to say let’s meet online. And some courses are fully cyber, and some meet just once a week, and the expectation is that you do the rest of the stuff online.
The world we’re sending our kids into is a blended world. I read books on my phone, on an iPad, I read books with pages, and I have books that I listen to. Why isn’t our education that way?
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