As she helps the district she’s leaving to find her own replacement, outgoing Superintendent Nancy Ward talks about what she’ll remember most from her time in the school system.
By Matt Skoufalos
“It’s very hard to leave Haddon Township,” says Superintendent Nancy Ward.
“It’s so much easier to leave a place you don’t love.”
Ward, who will step down from her position with the school district at the end of July, does so with a heavy heart.
After serving in her role for nearly two-and-a-half years, the superintendent is being called upon to provide care for her elderly mother.
In her brief tenure, Ward shepherded the district through a $39-million bond referendum, a handful of student behavioral incidents, and the roll-out of a one-to-one technology initiative.
The items remaining on her to-do list are no small matters: to help the school board find and hire her replacement, and to bring ongoing contract negotiations with Haddon Township teachers to a resolution.
NJ Pen sat down with Ward to discuss her tenure with the district, her view of its future challenges, and what she thinks residents might expect of her replacement.
NJ PEN: It’s got to be tough to leave your position under these circumstances. Can you talk about how it feels to be stepping down?
NANCY WARD: Everybody has been so understanding and so wonderful. This community embraces its schools in a way that you don’t see anymore. The person who will follow me in this role is fortunate because this community wants you to be successful and is supportive in you being successful.
If it wasn’t for this situation with my mother, I really wouldn’t leave. I wanted to give the board enough time to be able to find somebody that they thought could do the job. The board is in the process of replacing me with a regular, permanent superintendent. I told them I would assist with that process in any way I can.
NJ PEN: When you look back on your time in Haddon Township, what would you say have been the highlights of your tenure here?
WARD: The bond referendum. That was a definite highlight that brings a lot of pride.
I was happy to have been the leader during that time; it was not all me, for sure. I was happy that we could engage this community in doing the right thing for the school district.
We [also]moved from a safety patrol program to a student ambassadors program in the elementary schools.
Our children are not on the corners crossing kids and telling on them when they do bad things, but our fifth-graders are peer mentors; teaching kids how to use computers, reading to them. The kindergarten kids look up to them, and [the fifth-grade students are]so proud to have these little guys who look up to them.
Things that I’ve been able to refine are that program and our honor society. In Haddon Township [High School], now our kids are doing more community service [and]our focus has been community service from within. They tutor our middle-school kids, our freshmen; they’re older-kid mentors for them.
The best way to help a kid developmentally is to give them a good mentor. It makes our mentor better and it makes our mentee better. It’s a wonderful partnership. I’m proud of being able to help get those programs molded and off the ground.
NJ PEN: Is it difficult to be leaving with the teacher’s contract still unresolved?
WARD: When I look at my goals of what to do before I leave, I’m working very hard to try to bring the contract to settlement. Another one is to assist the board in finding a new superintendent. My last day is July 31, so my hope is that I will have some time to transition whomever the board selects as well.
NJ PEN: What’s involved in the selection process? How many applicants have there been for the job?
WARD: Nine or 10 so far…people who not only on paper have the best qualifications but also seem to have demonstrated that they would be a good match for the district. Then the board will begin the interview process; two if not three rounds of interviews. The hope is to approve a candidate in May so that person can be ready to start August 3.
NJ PEN: What makes a good superintendent? Is there anything someone who wants the job in Haddon Township should know?
WARD: You don’t have to have been a superintendent in order to be a good superintendent to start.
Someone who’s had experience in a variety of areas—personnel and staffing law, finance, student issues, facilities—as many aspects of a school program as possible.
In Haddon Township, you have to be able to understand what a small town that is close-knit and very close to the school is like.
People want transparency, communication. They want to feel like they’ve been heard and understood. They just want to feel like you’re connecting with them.
NJ PEN: One topic of concern among some parents is the potential impact to the district from the Haddon Town Center project. Do you have any idea how many additional students it could bring?
WARD: It really depends on the grade levels in which they come. For right now, we’re doing the best we can to be prepared. We won’t really know until the demographer can give us some numbers.
NJ PEN: What’s the district volume like now?
WARD: We have a little bit of space and we can make things work at the elementary level, but when all is said and done, we’re going to be picking up classroom space only at Strawbridge and Van Sciver [through the bond improvements].
Jennings class sizes are small, but we’ve seen some larger kindergarten classes coming through at Jennings. For years, Edison was the small school with lots of room, then Jennings was; you watch the ebbs and flows of population coming in and out, and space changes.
NJ PEN: If there’s added volume at the elementary level, do you think there’s a chance the district could go to a full-day kindergarten?
WARD: I’m a believer in full-day kindergarten, but I don’t know that that would be affordable in Haddon Township.
Some districts can afford them because they get aid for early childhood programs, and we don’t get that kind of aid because we don’t have the numbers of students who are economically disadvantaged.
NJ PEN: Other school districts are trying some different things to generate additional revenues. Haddonfield is rolling out a services bureau for state aid packages; Collingswood and Audubon participate in school choice. Do you think things like that would work in Haddon Township?
WARD: It would be challenging to put a school choice program together in Haddon Township; it’s a comprehensive high school.
Our district really did a nice job of recovering within the last two years from the 2010 loss in state aid. We’ve been fortunate. Some of that has been through attrition because of some retirements.
I wish that grants were as plentiful as it seems. The state of New Jersey has not put out very many grants at all in the past few years. When I look at our business office, we’ve got multimillion-dollar construction projects coming through, and…you don’t get a dime until the projects are completed and you get extensive paperwork completed. Our business office is going to be very busy to get this $30-to-40-million project completed for the opening of school in 2016.
NJ PEN: You’ve had to deal with a couple of student behavior issues during your time. What I observed in your handling of them is an attempt to temper discipline with some understanding of the fact that kids will make some regrettable choices. How hard is it to strike that balance?
WARD: Haddon Township is very student-centered. That’s why I’ve loved being here. Everybody really does put the kids first. They think about who our kids are in 2015.
[Our kids] live in a very challenging time. I think we are all bombarded with this age of social media and this infusion of technology. We haven’t all adapted to all of this stuff yet. I just feel like our new normal keeps on being reinvented by the day.
You can still go back to a core value [that says], “This is still a young child who developmentally does not have the awareness of an adult, and while we may make judgments based on our adult understanding, we are here to teach.”
And what is the best way for us to teach our children? That is the whole child. Not just subjects, but to help them find their moral compass.
NJ PEN: What will you look for in the next superintendent?
WARD: That person’s just going to have to be open and appreciative and really see themselves as a servant-leader. It’s an easy district to lead as long as you recognize that you’re here to serve.
NJ PEN: How would you like to be remembered in Haddon Township?
WARD: That I helped this community bring out the best in itself.