On August 1, Bonnie Edwards succeeded Nancy Ward as the new Superintendent of the Haddon Township school district. Edwards was an in-district candidate in the executive search led by the Haddon Township Board of Education, having served four years as the district Director of Special Services. She spoke with NJ Pen about setting goals for the district, her view of its strengths, and what’s next for the 2015-16 school year.
NJ PEN: How do you approach the job of being superintendent?
EDWARDS: I think that one of the reasons I was a good fit for Haddon Township is that I believe as strongly in being student-centered and making education work for each student individually as Dr. [Nancy] Ward did. That’s just been the tradition in our township. You always have regulations and things that you have to navigate, but I do think it’s the job of the superintendent to set the tone.
I think there are different ways that people conceptualize this position. The only way that makes sense for me to conceptualize it is the lens of being a servant-leader. That’s how I’ve always seen myself in my entire career in education.
What does that mean? Being approachable; being open to suggestions and concerns from the community. Going out and seeing for myself what’s going on. Participating, so that I have a sense of what we’re doing and not doing. Making decisions collaboratively with other stakeholders versus a top-down, micro-managing type of approach. That’s the type of leadership skill I have, and I’m very excited to be transitioning that style into this position.
NJ PEN: What do you think are the strengths of the Haddon Township school district?
EDWARDS: I am very excited to work with the community at the level that this job affords.
I have never worked anywhere where such a high percentage of people wanted what’s best for students and were willing to give so much time to work together on behalf of that.
The energy that people have–and are willing to invest in order to enhance the school district–I have never worked anywhere where it was as high as here. I see it as a great privilege to work with these groups of people and see what we may be able to do in the future.
NJ PEN: Two of the big goals Ward established before leaving her position were to pass the $40-million bond referendum and to hammer out a new teacher contract. With both of those realized, what are your top priorities now?
BONNIE EDWARDS: Making sure that we’re maintaining a sound educational environment while we’re doing this. My job is to come in and competently manage all of the [building]projects so that we are able to minimize disruption to the learning environment, and [to]be good neighbors to our community in terms of how the projects are being completed. That’s been a big focus of mine starting out: to make sure that we had things in a safe and reasonable place for school opening, [and] to make sure the principals have been involved in our decision-making and the planning projects.
NJ PEN: How do you lead a district through the various legal and technical overlays of the state-driven education system and still keep that student-centered vision intact?
EDWARDS: By claiming our professional practice in terms of a landscape that’s had a lot of mandated things on it.
That was my focus starting out with staff: to think about the ways in which we have control of what we’re doing, in terms of what’s best for students, [and] that we don’t let go of our ownership of those things.
I think we can always work together as colleagues on behalf of individual student needs. It isn’t always about what one individual person does; it’s often what we can pull together to help this student in this situation. In Haddon Township, we have a tendency to focus on shared leadership for making sure that students are successful.
NJ PEN: Last year, the district rolled out a technology initiative that saw students get their hands on iPads for educational use. How is that going, and what are your plans for the program in Year Two?
EDWARDS: Tech is a process that needs to continue. The iPad rollout was the beginning of the process, and obviously we will be moving forward with an effort to support staff in engaging students and using the devices to enhance instruction. The specifics of that will be forthcoming, but a rollout of devices is the first step, not the last step, to successful implementation of this type of thing.
My general thoughts about technology are that it’s important that we look for the ways that we can engage students and enhance the instruction that we’re already doing, not just look for a way to do what we already did with technology.
NJ PEN: The PARCC assessment is another big issue for school districts across the country. What are your thoughts on the district impact of PARCC?
EDWARDS: There are meetings that are taking place right now regarding PARCC. It’s a little early to say anything, considering we don’t have any scores yet or any feedback. We’re sort of waiting to see.
We did address last year the issue of students not “sitting and staring” at the test, and certainly, consideration for all of those things will be given for this year. But I think we’re going to need a little more information of where we are with it before we can make any grand statements about what is or isn’t going to happen.
NJ PEN: Given all those varied and demanding tasks—building improvements, standardized testing, being student-centered—how do you prioritize your duties in the district?
EDWARDS: The 21st century challenge is the balance of those things. I think that you need to keep listening to all of the stakeholders. The fundamental thing you can be doing in this position is not cutting off an avenue to any group of people; continuing to listen to everybody who has concerns and a stake in what you’re talking about.
I honestly think if there’s any answer, it’s to continue to do that as we move along, and to try to be as transparent and up-front with what we feel needs to be done as we can, and to give the community the opportunity to hear that and to give us feedback.
I’ve been around long enough to know that there are many challenging times in education. This isn’t the first time we’ve dealt with challenging things, and we’ve done it before, so we can do it again.