New Moorestown School District Superintendent Brian Betze has been on the job for a little more than a month.
Betze left the Berlin Township School District, where he served as superintendent for nine years, to take over for at the beginning of July and has kept himself busy settling into his new job and making the rounds—meeting students, staff members and townspeople.
with 25 years of experience as an educator, including stints as a middle school principal in Cherry Hill, Washington Township (Morris County) and Shamong, as well as supervisor of special education and curriculum in Linwood. He began his career as a high school art teacher in Bethlehem, PA.
The Marlton resident sat down with Patch recently to talk about the challenges of leading a much larger district (Berlin had just two schools and 750 students), why it’s important for a superintendent to see and be seen, and what he’d like to improve about the school district, among many other things.
Q. What have you been doing for the last month?
A. First, I got to know the buildings, and then in and out of every school in the district. We run a number of summer programs, so I made it a point to get out to meet some staff members, talk to a lot of the kids. Which has been just fantastic. Kids here in Moorestown are terrific. The teachers are terrific. I saw some really, really good things happening. So I’m really looking forward to September to see what people are doing in the classrooms.
Q. What’s the biggest contrast you’ve seen in what you’re doing now versus what you were doing in Berlin? What’s the biggest difference in the two jobs?
A. It’s the layers that are here because this is a larger district. In a smaller district you tend to wear many, many hats, and here, because it’s such a large district, you have different people doing those responsibilities and they’re full-time jobs … (In Berlin) I would do curriculum, and HIB (Harassment, Intimidation, Bullying), and handle personnel. Where here there are people that do those things.
Q. Is that an advantage, or is it hard coming from a smaller district where you’re wearing all those hats, and you’ve got your hand in all those different levels? Is it hard to let go of having that level of control?
A. Yeah, I’m finding that to be the case. I’ll jump into something that maybe the former superintendents never jumped into. Which is fine—it’s just kind of my style. But because of the many hats, I feel very comfortable doing a lot of different things. And I just think it’s a good way to get to know the ins and outs of Moorestown.
Q. Coming from a much smaller district, explain how that changes the nature of the job. Are there other unique challenges—or opportunities—that presents?
A. The challenges are opportunities. I’ve met with a number of community leaders, business owners, the arts programs, the local religious groups. Those things don’t exist in a smaller district. I was able to have a great meeting with the (Moorestown) Education Foundation president. It’s a challenge to get to know those groups, but it’s absolutely a great opportunity to bring supports to the school.
Q. You talked about going to different events, trying to meet as many people around town as possible, as well as meeting the students. Why is it important to have those interactions?
A. As superintendent, you’re really the face and should be the point person for the district. It’s imperative to open those levels of communication both ways ... It’s important not to be closed behind doors. You need to be accessible. I’ll be practicing soccer with the kids in a couple weeks. It’s been really great to be out there to see the kids.
Q. , you said your goal is to have every student know who you are before the end of the year. When I was in school, I couldn’t have picked my superintendent out of a lineup. Why is it important for students to know the superintendent?
A. Part of it is just being a little selfish. I love kids. That’s why I entered this profession. And the more you move up the ladder of administration, the less potential contact you have with children. And I don’t believe in that. You need to get in there and get to know the kids. It sounds cliche, but it takes a village to educate a student. The more the students feel supported—not just by their teachers, or the principal, but by the superintendent—that carries a little bit of weight. You motivate kids. You help them want to come to school … It just shows that, if I care, the board cares, the administration cares, as well as the teachers. So I think it kind of sends a message to the students—and hopefully to the parents and community—that we’re all about kids.
Q. With it being summer, what opportunities have you had to interact with the students?
A. I spent a couple days out at the with the . I was over at the ; they were running an ESY (Extended School Year) program. I was out there in their classrooms for a little bit. And then they ran a summer Olympics program with all the students participating. So I spent some time out there—watching, participating, talking to the kids and teachers. That was really fun. And then there are small pockets of things happening. There’s a Y camp. There’s a track and field camp, the Phillies camp. I tried to get around to whatever was happening here in the district.
Q. What are you picking up on in these interactions, with the students and the community? What are you learning from them?
A. From what I’ve seen and what I’ve felt, there’s a deep passion to educate students to the highest level possible. That makes our jobs as educators that much more easy. Not that it’s easy, but to have that support from the community, from the parents, it makes our job easier because we can really tap into the resources that help kids.
Q. In your letter, you also mentioned looking for areas of improvement. Have you been on the job long enough to recognize where you perceive some areas of improvement?
A. The first thing that’s very glaring, if you look at our NJ ASK scores the past number of years, and even this year … between maybe 17 and 25 percent of students are not meeting the state standards. And you think Moorestown, all the students should be. But if you have 10 students and two of them are not reading on level, that’s an issue. The good thing is, we know how to teach reading; we know how to teach writing. We can figure this out, and approach it in a systematic way and put targeted programs together for individual students.
Q. Are there any other areas where it’s maybe less of a curriculum or testing area, but another area where you’ve seen—maybe not an area of improvement—but something where you think, “That’s something I want to make a focus once the school year starts”?
A. Administratively, from the board straight to me, principals, vice principals, teachers—we need to be aligned in our vision and in our goals. And I’ve found that we’re all doing really good things, but we’re all running on different tracks. We need to align those tracks to help students. So I’m in the process of doing just that. Working with the board and the administrators, making sure that we’re all doing the same thing, as well as maybe engaging teachers come September to help kids in a direct manner. I think just that alignment of goals will really help kids.
Q. There was a conversation about the district lacking a singular vision. That was something they wanted the new superintendent to be able to come in and guide the district toward. Is that what you’re referring to?
A. On Aug. 20, we have our administrative retreat, and one of the tasks I’m asking the administrators to do is look at where they want their school to be in three years. How do you do that? What does it look like? What does the structure look like? What does the curriculum look like? What do you have to change? What can you keep? … How do you get there? There are a lot of resources we can tap into. We’re partnering with Apple to do some professional development with our administrators, demonstrating what instruction should look like in 2012 through 2015. It’s a lot different than when I went to school with flashcards and those kinds of things. We’re at the point in this profession where students are creating their own textbooks through research and technology and using iPads and those kinds of things. They’re doing their own learning.
Q. Speaking of technology, from what you’ve seen thus far, do you think Moorestown’s using technology in the right way?
A. I’ve not seen many teachers at all (during the summer), so to judge how well—if they’re even using technology in the classroom—it’s tough for me to tell at this point. But I do know when I walk through the buildings and look into some rooms, I’m surprised not to find computers in a good deal of the classrooms. And that’s not the teacher’s fault. That’s going to be my responsibility … But not just throw technology in there. Why are we doing it? How are we going to use it? What are the benefits? How are we going to evaluate the success of that technology? But that’s part of the three-year plan of where instruction should be going.
Q. You could look at your position two ways. That there’s more pressure coming into a district with the reputation Moorestown has: Blue Ribbon Schools, does well on standardized testing. You could see that as adding pressure, or you could see it as, “I’m coming into a school district that was humming along quite nicely before I showed up,” so maybe that takes some of the pressure off because you’re not building from scratch. Which is it?
A. Let me repeat two things you just said: Blue Ribbon Schools, and we do fine on test scores. We haven’t won a Blue Ribbon Award since 1999. And I just said there are places where a third of our students are not meeting standards. That’s pressure regardless because you’re helping students—doesn’t matter what district you’re in or what school you’re in. That’s not to say we don’t have Blue Ribbon-caliber schools, but we can’t rest on our laurels. Things are constantly changing in our environment, in our communities, in our culture. We just need to continue to move and modify and revise. Is there an added pressure here? No, because it’s about helping students. The pressure is everywhere.
Check back with Moorestown Patch tomorrow (Saturday) to read Part 2 of our interview with Superintendent Brian Betze.