McDowell is a Collingswood resident who works with Christiana School District in Delaware. He is the first Black superintendent in the history of the district, and succeeds outgoing superintendent Scott Oswald February 1.
By Matt Skoufalos | January 15, 2021
Four months after Scott Oswald announced he would retire as the superintendent of both Collingswood and Oaklyn Public Schools, the districts have finalized their search for his replacement.
Fredrick H. McDowell, a Collingswood resident and former superintendent of Trenton Public Schools, will succeed Oswald starting February 1.
McDowell, currently the Senior Director of Teaching and Learning at the Christiana School District in Delaware, will also be the first Black superintendent in the history of Collingswood Public Schools.
Collingswood Board of Education President Regan Kaiden said the district was impressed with McDowell’s diverse background in education, which spans appointments from New Jersey and Delaware to Colorado and Massachusetts.
“He’s worked in a lot of big school districts, but in different ways,” Kaiden said. “He learned how to work in difficult systems and not get rattled by them. He learned that sometimes you have to go slow to go fast in order to get all the stakeholders on board with initiatives.”
Kaiden said that McDowell also impressed the board with his perspectives on student achievement, equity, and social issues.
“He’s not going to shy away from the hard discussions, the hard conversations around race and around the need for more equitable practices,” she said. “He talks a lot about how these are conversations he’s had to have in his own life, and the importance of keeping high expectations for all of our students regardless of where they come from.
“He’s someone who can take the really good work that Dr. Oswald has done and build on that,” she said.
The board’s search began in September, when Oswald announced he would be retiring from his position in 2021 (his last day will be January 31). Its ad hoc committee engaged Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates (HYA) of Schaumburg, Illinois to conduct a national search for Oswald’s replacement.
“In the middle of a pandemic, when we couldn’t go out and talk with people, we wanted everyone to feel like they were involved in the process, particularly knowing that Dr. Oswald has been in the district for 14 years and he’s very respected and well loved,” Kaiden said.
Prior to the superintendent search, HYA Associates conducted focus groups with stakeholders among unions in both the Collingswood and Oaklyn districts as well as within their boards of education, parent-teacher associations, equity committee members, and community members.
Feedback was solicited from throughout Collingswood by way of a bilingual survey and community forum, Kaiden said.
A pool of about 60 applicants expressed interest in the position, from which the top six were interviewed via Zoom meetings in December. McDowell was one of three finalists for the position, which he was eventually offered at the end of 2020.
As he assumes office, McDowell inherits a full boat of priorities for both districts beyond the already tall task of navigating them through the end stages of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
In Collingswood, those include taking the lessons of the hybrid educational model that sprang up in response to the pandemic and “determining what we’ve learned from this new school model that might actually work better for some students,” Kaiden said.
Some of the access and equity issues in the district that have been laid bare by the pandemic have been addressed by technology, but others have not, she said. For the Collingswood Board of Education, making the most of lessons learned from changes to its educational model means not just returning to the status quo ante.
“How do we proceed from here?” she said. “How do we come back to school and improve upon it?”
Another top priority is improving district communication “to that next level of two-way communication,” Kaiden said, “to make sure that everybody feels in the loop, and that they feel like they really do play a part with the process of school as well as working with the town.
“I’ve seen the beginnings of community conversations and discussions about what equity in town or racial justice in town looks like,” she said.
“The school district has been having those exact same conversations in a different forum; it only makes sense that those two factions would work together to be more inclusive. It’s all the same people that are going to be affected by those things, and it feels like a natural place to come together.
“I think we can get there,”Kaiden said. “It’s going to take some time and some conversations and some effort.”
In addition to welcoming McDowell, Oaklyn School Board Vice-President Todd Schaefer said that his district has benefited a lot from Oswald’s leadership, including expanding its send-receive agreement with Collingswood Public Schools and passing a capital improvement referendum for the Oaklyn Public School.
“He’s certainly going to be missed by the Oaklyn Board,” Schaefer said. “We’ve certainly valued his leadership and the accomplishments we’ve achieved under his direction.”
Under McDowell, the district goals remain the same, he said: fiscal responsibility, student achievement, equity of opportunity, and successful emergence from the pandemic.
“As we welcome a new superintendent, we’re eager to see what his vision and goals will be,” Schaefer said. “Dr. McDowell might offer some unique perspectives on what we can do to continue to thrive as a district.
“We’ve had great support from the residents of Oaklyn, and that’s something I hope we can continue to maintain,” he said. “We want to make sure that the same opportunities are presented to all our students.”
McDowell will be appointed at a virtual special meeting of the Collingswood Board of Education at 8 p.m. on January 19.
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