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Joseph P. DeJohn

A Regular Reminder of ‘Why We’re Here’ by JAY P. GOLDMAN

Joe DeJohn’s colleagues in the Brandywine School District in Wilmington, Del., have learned not to tamper with a virtually sacrosanct hour on his office schedule. At 10:15 each Tuesday morning, the superintendent serves as a mentor to Calvin, an especially challenging 3rd-grade student.

DeJohn calls on his protégé weekly at Maple Lane Elementary School to offer social guidance and academic support as his personal commitment to a statewide youth mentorship program. Sometimes, Calvin joins the superintendent for lunch at his office, where DeJohn even hosted a surprise birthday party.

The relationship began when Calvin was a 2nd grader whose behavioral problems made him a candidate for pairing with a strong authority figure. DeJohn expects to continue with the child for another year. "We’ve both made progress," he says.

"The philosophy here at the district office is that it’s good to remember why we’re here, that the district office is here to support the buildings and not the other way," adds DeJohn, who is finishing his third year as superintendent of the 11,400-student district.

He has spent all but the first two years of his 25 years as a professional educator in Brandywine, an unusual career path for superintendents these days. In fact, DeJohn is one of the few superintendents in Delaware to attain the job as an in-state candidate. Of the 10 superintendents hired since his appointment, all have come from out of state. "Maybe I was a test case to see if anybody inside could handle it," he says, chuckling.

The Brandywine board gives him approving marks, having just extended his contract another two years. Says board president Ralph Ackerman: "He’s created an atmosphere where there’s a free exchange of ideas without judgmentalism. He’s upfront with the board about the successes and the problems."

Consider, too, that DeJohn’s performance falls closely under the eye of Delaware Gov. Thomas Carper, whose two elementary-school-age sons attend Brandywine schools. The governor has been known to sit in on PTA meetings.

"When he speaks to education issues, he usually comments on his children’s education in the Brandywine district," DeJohn says. "He seems very positive about their experiences."

The superintendent’s most taxing challenge to date came a year ago in the form of a districtwide restructuring project, forced by the lifting of court-imposed desegregation in Wilmington. This forced changes in school feeder patterns and attendance boundaries and vigorous debate over grade configurations of Brandywine’s 17 schools.

One change sought by the superintendent that did not occur was the downsizing of P.S. duPont Elementary School with its 1,250 4th through 6th graders--by far, the biggest in the state. DeJohn had been principal of duPont prior to his appointment to the top job and, according to Ackerman, "brought lots of good recognition to the school."

At his recommendation, the school board approved the opening this fall of an additional intermediate school to relieve the pressure at duPont.

Owing to his lengthy rise through the district ranks, DeJohn tends to be viewed favorably for his hands-on, personable approach. "He had an open door as soon as he became superintendent, something he also had as a principal," says Karen Gordon, vice president of the Brandywine Education Association and an elementary school librarian. "Because of that, when there’s a problem, parents feel no compunction about picking up the phone and contacting him. Staff do it too."

He also is respected for his planning and management skills, qualities that DeJohn attributes to his 17-year affiliation with the Delaware Army National Guard. Last year, he graduated from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., and now is a lieutenant colonel.

Those leadership experiences have been put to regular use in DeJohn’s civilian occupation as he works hard to bring singular status to Brandywine. He has brought in a consultant to help the district attain ISO 9000 certification, an industry standard recognized worldwide for continuous improvement of an organization. The process, which may take another two years to complete, is unusual among school systems.

"None in the country have been certified," DeJohn says. "We hope to be the first."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

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