By Steve Sears
Dr. Robert Zywicki, Superintendent of Schools for the Township of Mount Olive, is a man of goals, a man of action steps.
In October 2019, he celebrates one-year at the helm, and his expansive view from his third floor, Route 206 North window in Flanders is bettered by his enthusiasm for what he does and envisions for the future.
A Sparta resident, he and his wife Melanie have been married for 14 years. “We have two daughters (Olivia and Julia) and two sons (Robert and Ted),” he says proudly. The 41-year-old-Zywicki, a huge Lacrosse fan, was for three years Superintendent of a Weehawken school system of roughly 1,500 students. Then Mount Olive and its school system of about 5,000 students entered and became his new playing field – and the first year was an exciting, hard-working endeavor.
Zywicki, who has a B.A. in English from Rutgers University, and an M.A. and Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, grew up in Bayonne, after college worked in Finance, and then went, in his words, “an alternate route – I always had a passion for teaching, coming from a family of educators” – through different opportunities, moving throughout the Garden State, lived in Clinton for ten years, then lived in Sussex County when he was Assistant Superintendent of Schools in High Point.
His job, in his words. “I’m the chief school administrator, and I’ve been hired by the Board (of Education) to administer the school district. You’re part instructional leader, you manage the day-to-day operations of the district – there’s a fiscal component to that, there’s a political component to that. I serve a Board of Education; they are the elected representatives of the constituents of the school district, so I am in constant dialogue with the Board. The function of the Board is to make policy, and to evaluate me and to provide insight into my administration of the district. So, all of that being said, my philosophy is that it’s a team philosophy: the Board and Superintendent have to be a team, and I’m very happy to say I have that.”
Zywicki also claims he is not a “top-down” guy. He wants all in the district – teachers, aides, custodians, bus drivers, et al – to know and see that he represents them, works on their behalf. “As a student-centered organization, it’s not me and them; it’s all of us working for the kids, and everyone has to pitch in. That’s the philosophy that I bring to it, that’s the message that I try to send, and also demonstrate in my actions since I arrived here.”
He entered the system as Mount Olive High School was again ranked as a top New Jersey school. “And it’s going to get better,” he exclaims. “It is a Top 100 high school, definitely. One of the things that myself and Mr. (Kevin) Stansberry (MOHS Principal) discussed when we first met was an area we could improve upon was increasing access to APs, to college level sources (hence the recent dual enrollment agreement with County College of Morris), and giving kids those opportunities. I think another thing is looking at how we support our most at-risk kids. A key indicator for me is our graduation rate. We are in the low 90s; I want to see that number at 98. One of the things I’ve worked a lot on is implementing response to intervention, which is a series of tiered interventions that gets more intense as kids need more help, to really focus on and keep the kids who really are struggling to make sure that they graduate. It’s a combination of one, opening opportunities and serving the kids who take more APs and beyond at the college level, and then also to support kids who for a variety of reasons, maybe even things outside of their control, where they’re struggling to stay in school. I think we need to do both those things. Those two data points – graduation rate and AP participation – attending to those might improve rankings.”
Perhaps the biggest achievement in Zywicki’s first year is the signed Dual Enrollment agreement with CCM, but he tosses credit where most due. “I have to give full credit to our Board President, Elizabeth Ouimet. This was her brainchild. Liz has been pushing for this for a very long time. Even when I gave my little speech, I said, ‘We’re here because of Liz.’ So, Liz was a big piece of it, and then Susan Breton, who is our Director of Social and Emotional Learning. We reached out to CCM, had some really critical meetings in the fall and the winter about how we’re going to move beyond talking about this and we’re going to make this a reality by this summer (of 2019), and how we wanted it to be basically three things. One, programs that we have now with CCM (the Challenger program), that we expand them and really let parents know about those; the second thing, that we have these dual enrollment offerings where kids can earn college credit while they’re here; and then the third thing, in that we are actually a host for CCM classes (a calculus class, although not a dual enrollment class, was held during this summer with MOHS being the satellite campus). What’s unique about our situation is that we have kids taking CCM classes here, basically as CCM students; we have kids dual-enrolled on (MOHS) campus, and we have kids dual-enrolled on CCM’s campus.”
He applauds his new location and the people. “The thing about Mount Olive that has always attracted me to this district is the amazing opportunities afforded. I don’t know of any other district that offers these many opportunities. That ‘next level” was really cementing this dual enrollment agreement and I think it’s indicative to providing access to all kids.” The agreement calls for four fall courses, with expansion from there.
Zywicki’s first challenge was getting to know everybody, sense of culture, traditions, “‘Why do we do things this way?’ Anytime you enter someplace new, there’s the challenge of finding how things are done, getting to know everyone, and everyone’s been really, really receptive. Dr. (Larrie) Reynolds was an excellent Superintendent; anytime you follow someone who’s had a fantastic track record, you have to download a decade of institutional history pretty quickly and see what’s going on. I think that’s a given. Other challenges we had to go through are state monitoring this year, QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum), and we did really well with that. It’s an intense amount of work, and we had to jump right into that. I think the other thing, too, is we are so high performing, it is sometimes hard to make the case to go from ‘really great’ to ‘truly exceptional.’ How do you make that next leap? One of the things to make sure that we maintain this amazing school district and continue to enhance it, the Board and I have worked to put together six district goals about things we want to attend to that will keep things going in that direction.” With regard to the goals, it serves as roadmap for what Zywicki and team are doing from 2019 – 2023. One of his key initiatives, which falls under the first goal, is increasing security, especially at the elementary schools. There is a whole new lockdown system, cameras at all the entrances and in every door. The six goals are accompanied by annual action steps underneath them, with developed metrics to make sure all is on schedule and happens.
Per Zywicki, communication can always be better – and he’s working on that, too. “We’re on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, each of the Principals put out a digital newsletter (a Smore) every Friday, and we still have our hardcopy newsletter which we’re never going to abandon. You cast a wide net and meet people where they’re at. So, if people want traditional media, we’re going to try and give you as much traditional print media as possible. If people like the weekly digital newsletter, they get that. If they want to go the Facebook, we’re now on Facebook. When we reach everyone, then they feel more connected, then they also have a path of communication back to us.”
Another key component of the above is the Future Ready Schools Certification program, of which Zywicki has much experience. “In New Jersey, it’s a certification program that’s administered between the Department of Education, the New Jersey School Boards Association, and NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology). It’s a self-assessment that says, ‘How are we putting resources in the hands of kids?’ particularly with technology but not just with technology, to really create a personalized learning environment. I’m very happy to say that all of our schools went through that process, and we’re waiting to see how we made out with that.”
His biggest influence in education is Melvin Klein, legendary Superintendent of Schools in New Jersey who Zywicki interned under and was mentored by when he was in graduate school. “Mel Klein wound up being Superintendent in 19 districts. I’ll never forget, he said that, ‘When you get to the Superintendency, this job is about trust. People are trusting you.’ That is the most important thing, because we’re entrusted with kids, so safety is first and foremost before we educate them, and then we’re trusted to educate them and grow. The Board has placed trust in me to steer a course that maintains and takes us forward, and then also among the staff, when I say, ‘We need to push forward and try this,’ it’s what’s best, and also trust that they can try new things, and I’m not going to play, ‘Gotcha!’ They can try new teaching techniques; they can try new pedagogies and we’re going to reward that risk-taking. So, I think that’s was one of the biggest things for me and it’s one of the things I reflect on daily.”
One of the big things to happen in the 2019-2020 school year is the conversion of a MOHS classroom into a B-STEAM lab: how STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) gets applied in business. “Financial services, AI (Artificial Intelligence) – so we’re converting one of our classrooms where we teach economics into a Finance B-STEAM lab.” Also new is the Barcode of Life Program, which is a DNA research program, and to also be proactive and not relying on test data which arrives in July to discover which kids need enrichment or intervention, but instead looking at internal data to focus on (especially at the elementary level) reading levels during the course of the year. At Mountain View school last year, WINNTime (What I Need Now – a part of the school day dedicated to enrichment or extra help) was effective, and this year will be used in all the elementary schools.
Professional development amongst staff is important as well for Zywicki, and this summer established was the Professional Learning Academy which offers many professional development courses for teachers, the teachers turnkeying it with their staff going forward. Another thing Zywicki continues this year is his Parent University, where he presents and discusses important topics in education for folks who don’t work in the realm and would like to know more. Six events were held last year, and he plans seven this year. Parental participation is highly encouraged.
So, with all this going on, he has time to enjoy Lacrosse? Absolutely. When asked how his job is related to Lacrosse, he beams. “Love this question. Lacrosse is a game that combines speed and strength and is my favorite sport to play. What I have learned from playing and coaching lacrosse is that pacing and tempo are the keys to success. Knowing when to throttle up into a fast break or transition offense and when to slow down into a settled offense are key decisions in lacrosse gameplay. I definitely transfer the concept of pacing and tempo to being a superintendent. There are times when changes need to be implemented quickly for the benefit of students such as new curricula, technology, or security procedures. The pace then needs to be balanced to let changes settle in, take root, and become institutionalized.”