By Jillian Risberg
They admire each other’s leadership success as only family can. That’s because Dr. Steven Caponegro and Maria Carrell were academically driven growing up, often competing against each other as many loving siblings do.
“Our parents instilled in us family values and a strong work ethic that we now instill with our children,” Caponegro says. “This is as much a milestone and celebration for our parents, as it is for us.”
The brother and sister worked their way up the ranks of the local school systems for years and couldn’t be happier to share this journey together. He is Florham Park’s new superintendent of schools and Carrell was recently named Hanover Park regional district superintendent.
“I am excited about the opportunity of continuing my career in the Florham Park Schools and working with a wonderful staff, BOE, PTA, parents and community,” says Caponegro. “It is an incredibly humbling and exciting moment in my educational career.”
And Carrell echoed that sentiment.
“I feel privileged and honored to be selected to lead the Hanover Park Regional High School District,” she says. “I would like to thank the Board of Education for appointing me, and I look forward to working with the students, staff, parents and communities as we implement a shared vision of excellence related to the District’s Educational Plan.”
Carrell assumes the superintendent position from Carol Grossi, who retired from the school system after a 45-year career in New Jersey education.
It takes hard work and dedication to get to this level and Caponegro says he is fortunate to have had a multitude of experiences that have prepared him for this challenging role.
“Such as being a middle school ELA/social studies teacher, activities director, coach, curriculum supervisor of special services, director of special services, principal, and adjunct professor at Drew University, College of St. Elizabeth, Fairleigh Dickinson University and the Alternate Route Teacher Program Coordinator at the Morris-Union Jointure,” he says. “Most importantly, building strong and valuable relationships with varying stakeholders and always continue to grow and learn as an educator.”
Carrell, on the other hand began her career as a chemistry and physics teacher at Summit High School and was then promoted to assistant principal for six years. She went on to assume the role of Director of curriculum, instruction & assessment for the Hanover Park Regional High School District for the past eleven years prior to being appointed superintendent.
“This is a moment that we will always remember and cherish, especially since we started our superintendency at the same time and now work alongside each other as a feeder district to the regional district,” they both say.
Brian Silkensen, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for the Florham Park School District has worked with Caponegro for 17 years in Florham Park and five years with Carrell through their local curriculum consortium.
“Which is Hanover Park, East Hanover, Hanover Township, Morris Plains and Florham Park,” Silkensen says. “If we look at trends and see that there’s a need — when we meet with the local districts we look at that data and then our programs, and talk about different ways we can work together to address those needs.”
In “Students to Science” the five districts joined together and did virtual labs with other schools and it was a scientist who led it from their laboratory.
“So we’ve done a lot of collaboration, working together creating articulation between the middle school teachers and the high school teachers and Maria was really the lead on organizing,” Silkensen says. “She’s always been collaborative and wants to include all the sending districts in the discussions.”
According to the curriculum supervisor, when he thinks of the two superintendents the statement that comes to mind is, ”Whatever it takes.”
“All conversations stem from what is best for the students and how can we support the teachers to meet the needs of the students,” the curriculum supervisor says. “They both put a priority on being actively involved with the students during the school day and evening events.”
Caponegro graduated Drew University, cum laude, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and political science. He also has a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) from Fairleigh Dickinson University, a Master of Arts in educational administration (M.Ed.) from Caldwell College, and a Doctorate of Letters (D.Litt.) from Drew.
And taking the reins as superintendent of Florham Park schools seemed like a natural progression since it’s where he spent his entire career.
He entered the district in 2002 as an English-language arts and social studies teacher at Ridgedale Middle School, where he coached softball, wrestling, and soccer. In addition, he served as the Activities Director at RMS, a role that focused on managing school activities, scheduling and disciplinary matters.
Silkensen first met Caponegro at RMS when they worked side by side as social studies teachers, the superintendent with the seventh grade and the curriculum supervisor with the sixth grade.
The siblings are also active volunteers for Halos for Angels and the NJ Coalition 4 Education & Positive Choices (NJC4EPC)
The superintendent had a kismet moment all those years ago when he just knew he wanted to be an educator.
“Oddly, it was shortly after I attended St. John’s Law School,” Caponegro says. “I tutored several students the summer prior and fortunately ‘caught’ the teaching bug.”
Getting to do this everyday — devoting their lives to the minds of tomorrow means everything.
“Working in a school district and with children is one of the most rewarding experiences since you are not only impacting the life and future of a child, but impacting the future of our community,” the siblings say.
Silkensen says he can visually see the superintendents excitement and pride when they talk about the students and teachers.
“It is an honor to work with such compassionate and dedicated educators,” the curriculum supervisor says.
According to the siblings, there is so much to look forward to with this new appointment: collaborating with the parents, community members, PTA, BOE, staff and various other stakeholders.
“Building strong relationships and increased communication is a vital component to being a successful educational and servant leader,” Caponegro says. “Continuing to improve upon the strong programs already established within the district.”
Carrell holds a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Albright College, and Ed.M. in educational administration & supervision from Rutgers. The superintendent is also a proud graduate of Hanover Park High School.
She discovered her calling in college.
“I loved the sciences, but knew that I wanted to help others,” Carrell says. “After taking my first education class, I knew that is what I wanted to do.”
Absorbing the gravity of her new position, the superintendent can’t wait to engage with everyone.
“I am looking forward to working with the students, staff, parents, Board of Education members and various other stakeholders in the community to continue to expand and grow upon the successful programs already inherent within the district,” Carrell says.
Silkensen sees a pair of educators that are completely dedicated to giving it their all and both have been active participants.
“They’re not ones who view it as just the school day’s over and then they go home,” the curriculum supervisor says.
“They are always available — anytime that I’ve reached out; if it’s in the evening or even the weekend they always get back right away and they always talk about going to the student events; whether it’s a game or the bands or a play, they are always there to support the students.”
According to Silkensen, when it comes to Carrell she always wants to connect and get one’s perspective on things.
“If she’s noticing something she’ll reach out to us and it’s always in a genuine way, not like ‘I got you,’” he says. “It’s ‘let’s work together,’ she’s a constant collaborator that wants to do best for the students.”
Of Caponegro, he says the new Florham Park superintendent has a wealth of knowledge.
“He was a teacher, he was a curriculum supervisor of special services and director of special services, a principal and now superintendent, so I can always go to him and know that I’m going to get sound advice.”
And Silkensen says Caponegro is always welcoming, which not everyone can say about their manager in any industry.
“I don’t have to fear going to him that he’s gonna say, ‘I’m too busy,’” says the curriculum supervisor. “He’s somebody that if somebody’s in need, he’s always there and always wants to help. He’ll drop what he’s doing so that he can address the needs.”
Having Caponegro and Carrell at the helm of these school districts is everything for the kids.
“Maria knows all the curricular areas and she’s been a part of a lot of the decisions. She knows the initiatives, what the teachers need and the students, so this transition is really no transition because she is fully aware of the changes,” Silkensen says.
Everybody is surely in good hands, whether it’s the students, the teachers, the parents or the community, from organizations to all the stakeholders.
“It means that you have two people fully committed in both the academics and also extracurricular,” Silkensen says. “You have superintendents that are gonna be actively involved.”