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New superintendents take over suburban Philly districts in challenging time for school leaders

At least eight area school districts have or are poised to receive new leaders this fall. Managing during a pandemic? “It’s like a snow day every day,” said one retiring school leader.

From left, Brian Scriven, incoming superintendent in the Cheltenham School District; Khalid Mumin, incoming superintendent in the Lower Merion School District; and Craig Parkinson, superintendent in the Chester Upland School District.
From left, Brian Scriven, incoming superintendent in the Cheltenham School District; Khalid Mumin, incoming superintendent in the Lower Merion School District; and Craig Parkinson, superintendent in the Chester Upland School District.Read moreCourtesy of Cheltenham, Reading, and Chester Upland School Districts

After 18 months of turmoil upending the education system, a new crop of superintendents is being charged with steering Philadelphia-area schools through the pandemic.

At least eight school districts in the collar counties have or are poised to receive new leaders this fall, from Cheltenham to Chester Upland.

The appointments come at a high-stakes time for public schools, amid heated debates over mitigation measures and efforts to restore greater normalcy and help children who struggled during virtual schooling.

“Taking a superintendent job is challenging in the best of times. Taking a superintendency right now is excruciating,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “You’ve got all this political banter going back and forth about masking, not masking, whether or not kids should be quarantined ...”

About 60 Pennsylvania superintendents left jobs in the first half of 2021, DiRocco said — more than in a usual six-month period, though not surpassing a typical year. Between 80 and 90 superintendent positions — the state has 500 school districts — turn over annually, he said. Many suburban districts pay their superintendents more than $200,000.

Still, the full year could see more departures than usual, DiRocco said — and more incoming leaders with significant tasks ahead of them.

» READ MORE: How are schools deciding to close due to COVID-19 cases? It all depends.

“It’s like a snow day every day,” Jim Scanlon, who retired last month as superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, said of managing schools during the pandemic. Normally, he said, a new superintendent would spend a couple years getting to know the school community and developing a relationship with the school board.

But in responding to the virus, “you don’t have time sometimes. You’ve got to make quick decisions” — that take into account the safety of students, staff, and the broader community, Scanlon said.

Couple that with heightened political tension, and “that’s a lot of stress,” he said.

With schools across the region back in person this fall after a patchwork approach to reopening last year, “our main challenge is to make sure we can protect the importance of remaining face to face,” said Brian Scriven, who last week was named superintendent of the Cheltenham School District.

A 1983 Cheltenham High School graduate who worked in Maryland school systems and is chief administrative and business operations officer for Baltimore County Public Schools, Scriven has been overseeing areas that have been deeply disrupted by COVID-19 — from food service to transportation to federal pandemic aid, including how to address learning gaps.

» READ MORE: COVID-19 has upended education. How will schools solve for learning loss? (from April 2021)

As he takes over in Cheltenham, “the most important piece is really assessing what impact did our students really experience” from the shift to virtual school and other changes, Scriven said.

While his current school system is much larger than Cheltenham — encompassing more than 175 schools, compared to the Montgomery County district’s seven — Scriven expects Cheltenham will serve as a microcosm of issues playing out across the education system.

“What do our student outcomes look like? Where are our identified gaps?” he said. “Are you seeing what you’re seeing across the board where students of color are not potentially yielding the same outcomes of other student groups? Let’s be transparent.”

Scriven, who starts Nov. 1, replaces Wagner Marseille — who took over the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District.

» READ MORE: In a speech to graduates, the Cheltenham school board president ‘greatly diminished’ Frederick Douglass’ enslavement. Now he’s stepping aside.

Other districts are also bringing on leaders from other area schools: The Lower Merion School District has selected Reading School District Superintendent Khalid Mumin — who was named Pennsylvania’s Superintendent of the Year by the school administrators association this year — to take over starting Oct. 18.

In the Chester Upland School District, which is overseen by a court-appointed receiver, Craig Parkinson recently took over as superintendent, leaving a position as principal of Phoenixville Area High School.

“It’s actually been a welcome challenge,” Parkinson said, citing an immediate focus: Assist students who have been out of school buildings for 18 months. “The key is re-acclimating them to being in school [each day] for seven-and-a-half hours,” he said.

The pandemic took a toll on many students and families, and Parkinson says his new district is emphasizing social-emotional learning while also trying to assess where students may have fallen behind and set priorities. “What are the skills our students truly need to move them forward?” he said.

In a district that has seen a series of new leaders in recent years, Parkinson has also been trying to build relationships with community members.

“It’s going to take actions and what I do on a daily basis to gain their trust,” he said.

Other districts with new leaders include the Central Bucks School District, where assistant superintendent and former high school principal Abram Lucabaugh was named last month to lead the state’s third-largest school system, and West Chester, which also tapped an administrator and former principal, Bob Sokolowski, to step into the top role.

The Spring-Ford Area School District earlier this year confirmed assistant superintendent Robert Rizzo as its new leader, while the Pennsbury School District hired Thomas Smith, a New Jersey superintendent, to take over the Bucks County district.

The challenge of managing the pandemic in schools won’t last forever, Scanlon said. But he advised new superintendents to brace themselves for pushback.

“No matter what you decide, half the people aren’t happy,” he said.