In step with Barbara Russell, district’s new superintendent
PERKIOMEN» While students and staff in the Perkiomen Valley School District had three months of fun in the sun this summer, new Superintendent Barbara Russell had the unenviable job of trying to seamlessly take the helm from her predecessor, Clifford Rogers.
Rogers retired in June after serving as Perk Valley’s top administrator for nearly a decade, beginning in the summer of 2008. Filling his shoes meant Russell wouldn’t be getting time off this year.
“It’s funny people asked me are you going on vacation, are you going away? No. And that’s OK,” she said laughing. Because it was a great time to just think, organize and get ready. And that was OK. It was very comfortable.”
Changing of the guard
Russell, 53, is still adjusting to the fast pace of the new position and its weight, having only about two anda half months of work under her belt. Yet she credits her time as assistant superintendent and Rogers’ invaluable mentor--
ship as the experience she needs to help her set a course for a new chapter in the district.
“He was a great mentor and he afforded me lots of opportunities as the assistant superintendent to be a part of many of the con-
versations that he led or the projects that he worked on,” she said of Rogers. “So I felt very well prepared in most respects.”
While she may be new to the job, Russell has a long history
within the district. She began her career as a science teacher at Perkiomen Valley High School in 1985. She later served as a teacher-on-special-assignment for science curriculum coordination for four years. She was assistant principal at Perkiomen Middle School West, principal at Skippack Elementary School and served as assistant to the superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment from March 2007 to February 2011. In March of 2011, she was named assistant superintendent. The school board approved Rogers retirement request in January and said it was in talks with Russell to take over at the end of June.
“I’mnot an expert. I don’t know it all,” Russell admits. “But at least I feel like I was privy to a lot of the things that come to this desk. So that has helped me tremendously to try to navigate already some of things that are starting to present themselves. To just feel comfortable or at least know where to go with questions orwhat to think about in response.”
The biggest first hurdle she wanted to clear as the new superintendent was the first school boardmeeting this past July, she said.
“It was great to get through that first (one) and it was great (that) it was (in) July, because it’s a little calmer,” she said. “Which I have said to people calmer is a great time to transition because there’s a lot to do but there’s also a slower pace. It’s a little bit different from the school year and it really gave me time to be thoughtful about the start of the year.”
Vision for the year
The school year started about as well as anyone could have hoped, she said. The first day of school felt like students had never left. Other than a few minor transportation glitches in the afternoon, students were comfortable and excited tobe back and so were staff members.
Before the year began, Russell met with the members of her administration during a retreat and said the focus was to build on the district’s accomplishments under Rogers but to also continue to grow stronger
Russell then laid out her vision for the year with the board and then staff members. The vision is composed of four parts: engaging and inspiring students, maintaining and strengthening positive school communities, maintaining fiscal integrity, and engaging the community and helping its members feel up to date on what’s going on inside the classroom, she said.
Russell led her conversation with faculty and staff by asking “how are we going to do school differently?” Due to the widespread use of technology, students today have access to a limitless amount of information wherever and whenever they want. It also allows them to connect to whomever they want.
“How do we capitalize on some of the skills that they’re developing and the ways that they’re learning using these resources in our classrooms and in our schools?” she said.
The school district started using the hashtag #PVSDDoSchoolDifferent on Twitter, so teachers could share stories ofwhat they’re doing to try to engage their students, such as innovative uses of Google Chromebooks and smartphones or how they rearranged their classrooms.
“There’s a couple people that have been in there and shared some things,” Russell said. “And I’m hoping that grows. Not everyone is a Tweeter. Andwe talked about that. This is one example of how you can share these ideas. Anyway there’s been some nice stuff already.”
While the school year may still be new, the challenges for the year are not, Russell said. Her priority of staying fiscally responsible has led her to begin thinking more strategically on how to get the maximum return for any investment, she said.
Among the bigger expenses over the summer included the completion of several capital projects designed to improve energy efficiency. Those projects include:
• New roofs at the high school, middle school east, Evergreen, Skippack and South elementary schools and the administration building.
• Pool renovations at the high school.
• 21 new HVAC units at the high school.
• Digital controls in multiple buildings.
• Cleaner air ionization products designed to improve air quality.
• Air conditioning for middle school east gymnasium.
The estimated $13.3million cost for these projects will be paid for through an $8.350 million new money bond issue that will be strategically placed into exist- ing debt structure payment columns, according to the district. This will be combined with an existing $5 million balance for assigned capital projects to cover the cost over 14 years without raising taxes specifically for these projects.
“It was actually pretty impressive how much the construction teams got done over the summer. I was really impressed,” Russell said. “It was definitely challenging at times when the roads were closed, we didn’t have access to the pool, they couldn’t get into their classrooms, the temperature was very warm, we didn’t have (air conditioning). But it’s really when you look back it’s pretty impressive at how much they got done in the time frame.”
In November the district will hold a referendum for voters to decide whether it should spend $2 million to finance the construction of multipurpose turf athletic fields.
“Challenge is kind of a strong word,” Russell said. “It’s a new and different project for us. We’re again attempting to navigate that terrain and figure out how do we communicate effectively with our community and support our board in its effort to actually support our kids with this facility?”
Finally, another challenge Russell faces is the desire to continue what she calls the district’s “digital transformation” and increase. the number of devices in the hands of students.
“Can we some day move to one to one? I’d really like to do that in our school,” she said. “That doesn’t just happen though. That’s a challenge. So moving teaching and learning forward always. While there’s lots of successes, it’s also a challenge. It’s a project ongoing.”
Keeping true to her vision, Russell said she has made a point to try to keep the public up to date on what’s going on in the district. She has her own page on the district’s website that she uses to stay in touch with the community. Her social media feeds can also be found at the bottom of the page. Russell also has four superintendent’s roundtables scheduled this year which will be held: Wednesday, Oct. 4, Wednesday, Jan. 24, Monday, March 19 and Wednesday, May 23.
They all begin at 6:30 p.m. and will be held in the district office. Usually the district asks those interested in attending to RSVP to Jessica Lester, manager of school and community engagement, at firstname.lastname@example.org if they would like to attend, just so the district has an idea for the number of people to expect.
“I’m really looking forward to hearing the voices of our community members,” said Russell. “Whether they’re parents or community members. Again, trying to make as many connections or strengthen the connections we have as much as possible. I really want to be able to reach out. I want to be an approachable individual and somebody that people know and really appreciates listening to their ideas and hearing themout. That’s important.”
New Perkiomen Valley School District Superintendent Barbara Russell has taken the reins from former top administrator Clifford Rogers, who stepped down in June after nearly a decade.
Barbara Russell, Perkiomen Valley’s new top administrator, said she wants community members to feel comfortable approaching her with comments or questions they may have.