By LINDA G. RASTELLI
Kathi Cronin, a Middletown native and Mater Dei grad, has two passions: public education and the New York Mets. “Hope springs eternal,” she says, referring to the latter, though the idea would seem to apply to both.
An English teacher at Rumsons Forrestdale School for eight years, Cronin later spent four years each as a Rumson curriculum supervisor, Deane Porter School principal and Forrestdale principal. “I’m on the four-year-plan,” she says.
Cronin took the reins as superintendent for the Fair Haven school district in January. She spoke with redbankgreen recently about why classroom teaching is better now than it ever was, why she won’t be cooking breakfast for teachers, and the secret process of declaring a snow day.
You’re the superintendent in a district with just two schools: the Viola L. Sickles School (pre-K-3) and the Knollwood School (4-8). What are the challenges of this job so far?
One thing I really like about being a superintendent instead of a principal is that you can network. You get to go to meetings and be out with other superintendents. Being a principal is really a lonely job.
There’s always the budgetary challenge of trying to meet the needs of every child. Another challenge is we do have really bright children, and it’s important that we meet their needs.
Enrollment’s up to 1,008 students. Bigger families seem to be moving in. It’s very important to keep our class sizes low. We average about 22 in a class, and once you get beyond 24 or 25, it does become difficult. It’s not like in the ’70s, where the teacher stood up in front of the room and did a lecture and dictated some notes. Teaching is so different now. The teacher acts as facilitator very often. We do a lot of differentiation: In a class of six students I recently observed, the teacher actually had three different homework assignments based on the students’ needs. That’s the challenge doing that within the budget.
What changes do you think you will make in the running of the district?
I’m trying to give more site-based controls to the principals. When I first got here, we had a staff development day, and the secretary said, “Your job is to cook the breakfast.” I thought she was kidding. I said, “Yeah, right,” because I cant even microwave. Thats what Bill (Presutti, her predecessor) did for 100 people. He did everything himself. That day I gave a little speech and said, “Thats not going to be one of my things.” I don’t even like, to tell you the truth, arranging those things. That’s not my strength. The principals have leadership ability and they should use it.
There’s a perception about the “good old days” when kids learned their times tables at school. Now people seem to think the schools are failing.
The public perception is not square with what’s going on in a district like Fair Haven. Our children come to us with so much. They have books in their homes and cultural things. They’re very prepared for us, so we can go further.
People always think the way they were educated was the safer way. People think memorizing was a great thing because that’s the way they learned. Certainly you need to memorize your times tables, and memorizing poetry is a great thing. But now, classes are so much more based on making kids think critically, as opposed to just providing information. That’s the major change. I think I would have loved math had I had the math that’s being taught today. The explanations are so clear, and there are so many ways to show children how to do things concretely.
We have short courses here called “Explorations.” Our eighth-graders went to see Macbeth at the Two River Theater, and they absolutely loved it. Then a teacher offered a Shakespeare course. She just throws out a question or a point. They sit in a giant circle and they just take over the discussion. It’s amazing the level at which eighth graders can discuss Shakespeare. They were not told they had to do this. I think they loved it because it was a little violent and there was blood. Right up the alley of an eighth grade boy.
How do you feel about standardized testing?
It’s time consuming that’s the only negative. It’s the only way to measure progress. We held a meeting for parents and it was really interesting. The parents said, “Now we understand the math our kids are bringing home.” It’s not just a worksheet. In the old days, for reading comprehension, you could just read the questions and go back and find the answers in the passage. Theres nothing like that at all [now]. It’s all reasoning. “NJ-3” is coming up [this month]. Parents say, “How come you have to spend time on test prep?” But the kids learn from the test prep, and you want them to feel comfortable with timed activities. There are big stakes behind these tests. You don’t want to stress third-graders out, but they’re important. We scored in the top ten-percent of the state in grade three in our district factor group, a group that’s based upon the socioeconomic and educational level of the parents, which is great.
Given that property taxes are a major complaint of residents, are you looking at ways to cut costs in the schools?
It’s actually health care costs, staff salaries and energy costs that are the major pieces of any budget. Not school supplies, as many people think! You have to always shuffle things around. The bargaining unit will get a certain increase every year, so that has to be figured in. We’re sort of at the mercy of the health care industry. Then we have to create our budget from there. There are some creative things you can do. Some districts, including us, offer people the option of not having benefits and getting money instead. I’m hoping it doesn’t get to the point where costs are ridiculous.
Any concerns about voters rejecting the budget?
Youre always a little bit concerned, especially since this is my first budget. In the past, budgets have passed pretty easily. Many people in Fair Haven went to school here themselves. I’m feeling optimistic about it.
You’re making $145,000 a year. Pete Righi, the superintendent at Rumson-Fair Haven High School, is paid $176,000. Yet at salary levels like those, there arent enough superintendents in the state to fill all the openings. How come?
About 80 districts in the state don’t have superintendents. It’s not the salary. I don’t know whether it’s the responsibility piece of it or what. I’d think there would be a lot of pressure in a large district. Here, there are challenges, but it’s so positive, and there are so many people willing to help. We have a generous education foundation that helps us with technology needs. We have a wonderful PTA, great teachers.
One pressure is the whole snow day thing. I used to be a lover of snow days as a teacher, but now that I’m the decider of snow days, I’m not. It affects our graduation date, so that’s really stressful.
You make the decision by yourself?
We do it as a group. Roger [Caruba, superintendent of Rumson Elementary] calls me at 4:30 am, and he calls Pete [Righi] and we all look out the window [laughter], and then I call the police chief in Fair Haven and then Roger calls me back and we finally make a decision. Not always the same decision, though. Last year when we had that big ice storm, Rumson only had one day off and we had three days off.
So, why the Mets?
I dont really know why. The 1969 Mets were in the World Series and no one believed they could win. That’s what I remember most about my freshman year in college. I come from a family of Mets fans.