EAST PENN SCHOOL DISTRICT Dr. Michael Schilder plans to visit classrooms, be accessible
"There's a lot of attention to detail in this district," Dr. Michael Schilder, newly installed superintendent of East Penn School District said during a recent interview with The Press.
Schilder has been at the helm since the beginning of July and while it has given him ample time to observe the district's strengths and determine a broad scope of goals for the district, he is still, so to speak, getting his feet wet.
"The review process here is not done in a haphazard way," he continued. "Its programs seem to have a certain coherence to them. It's not a trendy district, and yet it's still a progressive district."
Schilder does not cite particular trends or think of them as solutions to apply to a problem without first analyzing whether the need exists.
"My position first is to see what a school needs," Schilder said.
At this point he feels it is still too early to tell in more than a general sense which programs are strongest and where the needs are. But once the school year begins Schilder will be in the classroom and on the scene, observing on a regular basis.
Schilder says he tries as often as possible to get out of the office and into the schools, to become recognizable.
"When I have conversations with kids, when I get into buildings and really get to know students and they actually know who I am, it really does help me with decision making…I think it keeps me humble; it keeps me real; it keeps me honest."
One of Schilder's primary intentions is to assist district staff in managing mandates coming in from state and federal directions, including a close look at current mandates to see what can be "streamlined."
"It's very important to make sure teachers have enough time to teach and administrators have enough time to lead," Schilder said.
State and federal mandates do not come equipped with provisos for overriding previous mandates that may be accomplishing much of the same thing. So Schilder will be on the lookout for redundancies.
"The district could continue doing a multitude of redundant activities," he says. "So it definitely falls back on the shoulders of the district to take a hard look at that."
Schilder said staff both in Pennsylvania and in New Jersey are feeling overwhelmed by state requirements. But he isn't concerned it's affecting their performance.
"They're good teachers so they're going to find a way," he pointed out. "I worry about the compromises they're going to have to make in order to fit everything in."
Compromises can mean less freedom to focus on the classroom and to focus on students. Schilder is concerned about em- powering professional staff to do their jobs in the most effective way possible.
The same goes for principals. The increased requirements for teacher evaluation, involving complex reports and formulas to determine efficacy, are causing administrators to spend more time on reports, and Schilder noted one of the consequences is a decrease in a principal's visibility in the building.
"They're more chained to their offices. And that bothers me; that worries me. Because I think a principal should be as visible as possible."
Schilder recalls his days as a fifth grade teacher as some of the best in his career, both for the opportunity to connect with students and for sheer job satisfaction. That background is part of what fuels his practice of visibility around the district: conversing and keeping in contact with students as much as possible.
Along with state mandates, the district is also concerned to a degree with attracting charter school students back into the public school system. There is a great confidence instilled in the district's staff its schools can match or exceed the merits of any charter school and the superintendent is as strong a proponent as any.
"East Penn as far as I'm concerned can compete with any charter school in the area," Schilder said.
It is often argued by some members of the school board charter schools do not produce results nearly as strong as, for instance, the school performance profile scores in East Penn School District.
Schilder acknowledges the advantages of charter schools as an alternative in areas where the public schools are struggling or failing, but he places strong emphasis on the need for parents to closely investigate before deciding against the public schools. Particularly in East Penn, where so much charter schools focus on is already accessible.
"In a district like East Penn," Schilder said, "the attraction of a charter school is that it offers something different. Not necessarily something better because our programs are already very strong here, but something different. And then it's up to the parent to determine whether that difference is something that they want."
Schilder said this can have much to do with the climate particular to any given school or the specific needs of a family or child.
Charter schools are often a controversial subject in the district because of the large amount of money diverted away from the district to fund them. The loss of one child from the school district, Schilder said, is a $10,000 cost that cannot be compensated for in other areas.
Multiply that amount by 330, the average number of students per year in the district who move to charter schools: that's $3 to $4 million lost. But because the loss of students is spread demographically across grade levels, the cost cannot be concentrated in just one area, which is the only way Schilder said it could be compensated.
But while the district does not actively take steps to draw students away from charter schools, Schilder says it seeks to make sure the public is aware of everything the district offers. He cites the district's new website and encourages parents to explore everything available there, including raw data with respect to the successes and advantages of each school and the district as a whole.
"[But] data doesn't tell about school climate," Schilder noted. Interested parents are strongly encouraged to tour schools. "We'll literally stop what we're doing to walk that parent through the school and show them anything they want to see."
But above all of that, Schilder emphasized his role of superintendent as one of ensuring the quality of teaching in the district.
"Recruitment and hiring and placement of teachers, to me, is the most important job of an administrator," Schilder said, "because that's the most important relationship. That's where the magic happens. That's where the results are going to happen, between a teacher and a student connecting."
Schilder sees that relationship as the foundation of a district's success; when educators and students connect "then test scores and student achievements and all those types of things will flow, will come; but it can't come unless there is that fundamental relationship between teacher and student as being very positive."
One of Schilder's most fundamental concerns with his position is to be approachable and he views it with an open eagerness and pleasure in both serving and leading the educational community.
"I love being a superintendent. Not a lot of people can say that, but I can. I really enjoy the job itself. It's the ability to connect on a lot of different levels– it's with kids, it's with teachers, it's with your fellow administrative team– it's a great job."