Recently we sat down with Adam Fried, Superintendent of the Harrington Park District in New Jersey, to pick his brain about the challenges he’s faced and how he’s overcome them in his 9 years at Harrington Park. Fried walked us through the situation he walked into when he first began, talked about his early strategies for creating district-wide change, and gave us some very actionable advice for superintendents facing similar challenges.
→ Scroll down if you're looking for 4 Steps to Reduce Expenses, and 4 Key Ideas for Success.
When Fried first began as Superintendent at Harrington Park, the district was fiscally in trouble, and the culture of the district was fragmented. This meant he had to work not only on finding and allocating funds for everything, but also on unifying all of the district’s stakeholders—educators, parents, and taxpayers who didn’t currently have students in school—around a single vision, so that they could work together as a team to support their students. Or as a family, as he likes to put it.
Fried saw the budgetary concerns and the concerns around creating a single culture as one and the same, and tackled them head on with these two key points, which he told us were reiterated to stakeholders over and over as he got to know the community:
1) Great staff, in classroom every day
2) Small class sizes
How did change start in the district?
In the beginning, Fried’s efforts were very grass roots. He started by asking stakeholders to give him postcards with advice, grievances, or anything else they thought might be helpful for the district.
The idea here was to include everyone’s voice, and to make it clear that education was a project for the entire community—even those people who didn’t currently have children in school were still paying into the education system with their tax dollars, and it was important to hear from them too regarding what they thought could be done to improve the district.
As Fried says, the postcards “provided a guerilla approach for getting people in to help us in figuring out what we could do to make things better.”
About his first three months at Harrington Park, Fried says, “At the end of the day I’m a teacher and a coach. My first 100 days in the district I met with key stakeholders, and I kept telling them same thing, that I wanted 1) A great staff, and 2) Small class sizes. By being clear on my message and consistent with every person I met, I set the tone very early for staff and community members about what was important to me and what my vision was for changing the district.”
How emphasizing HR meant emphasizing strong teaching
As we spoke Fried placed strong emphasis on the improvements he made in HR when he first began, and which he has continued to cultivate over the years. He told us that, to find good teachers, it was incredibly important to create a really solid hiring process, so that the district was only bringing in educators that were truly top notch.
If districts don’t think about the quality of their HR process, this can be a blind spot that often leads to poor hiring practices, which ultimately leads to poor teaching. Though it took time to build the process and improve his hiring system, Fried attributes a lot of the success of his students now have to the changes made in the district’s HR when he first started.
But what about the budget?
Of course, it sounds great to say you want great staff and smaller classes, but the money to support these initiatives has to come from somewhere. Fried says that the key here was “to build great budgets, with a focus on the quality of teaching happening in each classroom.” But how can you improve the quality of teachers, make class sizes smaller, and do all of this within the constraints of a fixed annual budget?
For Adam Fried, the answer has had multiple parts, but the big picture is that you worry the details. Since a district spends large amounts of money on everything it needs, from electricity down to toilet paper, thinking carefully about every single line item expense can mean saving tens, and even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Here Are 4 Steps to Reduce Expenses
1) Creating consortiums for large purchases. When a big purchase needs to be made, such as buying a decide that indicates when lightning might strike for fields where sports are played, Fried has found other community members with the same needs and creates a consortium. In the case of the lightning detector, he brought together sixteen individuals in the municipality, and was able to reduce the cost to half what it would have otherwise been.
2) Leveraging community skill sets. By engaging the community when he first began, Fried has created a situation where community members can, and want, to give back. One example is a grandfather of a student who did work in helping corporations reduce energy costs, and volunteered to create a five year strategic plan for Harrington Park, free of charge. By reducing their energy costs using this plan the district was able to save over half a million dollars. This is money which could be put back into hiring high quality teachers, and keeping class sizes small.
3) Taking advantage of state initiatives. By taking advantage of an NJ state initiatives offering grant money to pay for more efficient light bulbs, the district was able to redo every light bulb in its facilities, which meant more efficient bulbs and a reduced cost for purchasing them. This single initiative saved the district $150,000.
4) Worry the details. Fried examines the budget closely, down to the smallest detail, to see where money might be saved. As with the light bulb example above, thinking carefully about every single expense could results in huge savings for the district, which means huge returns for the students in terms of getting more teachers.
Where Harrington Park Is Now
Nine years later, Fried’s two goals of having a high quality teaching staff combined with small class sizes is a reality. Right now, there are an average of 13-16 kids in each class, and the level of teaching is excellent.
A 2013-2014 review of the district’s academic achievement shows that the district’s students are in the 92nd percentile for Academic Achievement, the 87th percentile for College and Career Readiness, and 88th percentile for student growth. All of this, and the district actually spends less per student than the majority of districts throughout the state.
Fried emphasized that the quality of education in the district came from a shift in the culture in changing the ultimate goals of education. Instead of thinking in terms of a factory model, where he as superintendent oversees a labor force of teachers who are churning out students, he views his position as a leader of collaboration. The system is both bottom up and top down, so that whoever has a good idea can contribute, and trying new things is encouraged.
Following the model of the growth mindset, where failure is simply a part of the path toward mastery, Adam encourages his teachers and students to try new things, and encourages community members to view failure in these new endeavors as an opportunity for learning and growth. Due to the sense of ownership that educators feel, they’re not just working to earn a paycheck, but to make sure that their students succeed. They’re invested in the vision and the sense of family that the district has cultivated, and not just in doing a job and then going home (again, as you might see in a factory.)
4 Key Ideas for Success
Here are a few things that Harrington Park does that Fried feels have been crucial for the district’s academic achievement and continued growth:
1) Changes to the grading system.
Harrington Park has instituted some big changes when it comes to how students are assessed, and how they’re graded. For assessments, the district takes statewide tests, but also has internal assessments (both summative and formative) that are taken on a quarterly basis so that student growth can be tracked, which provides greater transparency for parents and other stakeholders, and allows teachers and students to get a clear sense of progress being made.
Regarding grades, the emphasis has been shifted away from traditional letter grades and is instead uses a Standards Based report card. Using this system, students are evaluated on their mastery of core anchor standards, so that their grades reflect their growth toward mastering new standards.
These approaches for both assessments and grading are meant to emphasize student growth, and provide real benchmarks to measure whether students are moving forward and mastering new standards across all subjects.
2) Regular meetings with parents and community members.
In keeping with his original practice of encouraging stakeholders to give him postcards, Fried holds a regular open meetings with anyone who would like to attend, called “Fridays with Fried”, where anyone can drop in and chat about issues they feel are important to the district.
Fried’s advice for administrators who have trouble getting parents to attend in-person meetings is to hold them online, and record them, to make things as convenient as possible for parents. He mentioned that most parents may have worked a long day, and if you can make things easier on them by providing a link to a webinar which they can attend from home, or view later, the amount of participation will almost definitely increase.
Keeping it well organized and making sure every expense is needed. See the list above for some actionable advice on how to do this.
Make sure it’s integrated into the “law of the land”, as Fried puts it, meaning, make sure it aligns with the curriculum and with the district’s overall goals and processes. Always avoid having one-off instances of technology, but instead look for tech that helps you tackle a challenge you’re currently facing across the district.
→ Administrators—Want to learn more about building consortiums, creating a seamless HR process, and squeezing a budget to find room for technology?
Attend a webinar with Superintendent Fried on Wed, 8/26 from 3-3:30 p.m. Register here!