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Cajoling Partners on a Hard Climb

by Jay P. Goldman

When Victor Gilson took over the school district reins in Bridgeton, N.J., he did so with eyes wide open to the persistently poor academic results. Then he made certain everyone collecting a paycheck in one of the state’s poorest school communities understood the immense task ahead the same way he did.

Within just a few months of starting as superintendent of the 5,000-student Bridgeton district in 2003, Gilson had begun to schedule five-minute meetings with every staff member, all 900 of them, from the maintenance and food service departments to bus operations, counseling, coaching and teaching.

The purpose: Ensure buy-in to the four district goals by every employee. The goals deal, in order, with student achievement, safety, parental involvement and school facilities.

“All organizations are is a collection of relationships and the trust that exists in relationships … and it’s that trust that holds the organization together,” says Gilson, who served as superintendent in Dennis Township, N.J., between 1988 and 1994 before moving to Bridgeton as assistant superintendent. “They (the goals) gave people direction, and we’ve not wavered from them. We’re not into a flavor of the month.”

Gilson, 55, graduated from Bridgeton High School as part of a bumpy childhood during which he says “I lived in 14 houses in 14 states. We were always just ahead of the rent, which I later figured out.”

His unsettled start to life may explain the superintendent’s admitted impatience for meaningful academic improvements in the southern New Jersey community just west of Atlantic City. About 80 percent of the students qualify for the federal lunch program, and 87 percent are non-white. Gilson, who lives on a 20-acre farm with his prized show horses, says he runs “an urban district in the cornfields.”

He hasn’t allowed Bridgeton’s status as an Abbott District (special-needs districts so declared by the New Jersey Supreme Court) to thwart reform. In his first year as Bridgeton’s superintendent, he transformed six schools to a K-8 alignment, which contributed to a first-year drop of 2,200 disciplinary referrals among 6th through 8th graders.

Gilson pushed for more rigor, doubling the number of Advanced Placement courses offered. Unsatisfied, though, with progress on the high school level, he told the staff, “We’re not going to take three to five years for change,” a comment that momentarily took the breath away from his audience. He then sent 14 teachers and administrators to Atlanta to target a more effective model, the Talent Development High School.

These measures were rewarded last October when the New Jersey Department of Education announced it was removing Bridgeton from its “Districts in Need of Improvement” list (where it had resided since 2005), meaning the district reached proficiency in language arts and math at all grade levels for two successive years. The superintendent, acknowledging the “remarkable progress,” knows much improvement remains.

A talented infielder and captain of Bridgeton’s varsity baseball team, Gilson has committed to resuscitating the dilapidated athletic facilities that include a football stadium built as a public works project during the Depression. He has already helped raise $1.2 million through a community foundation toward a replacement stadium, the first part of a three-stage project that will include a new synthetic track and a field house that will double as a community center for surrounding towns.

Business leader Carl Kirstein, who chairs the foundation, says Gilson’s enthusiasm and personal efforts impress him. The superintendent, he says, has the sterling capacity to cajole others to join him on hard journeys.

Responds Gilson: “There is no leadership without followership. I am action oriented. I am definitely a ready-fire-aim kind of person, which is the antithesis of ready-aim-aim-aim. … I will drive 15 miles out of my way rather than sit in traffic for five minutes.”

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

 

BIO STATS: Vic Gilson

Currently: superintendent, Bridgeton, N.J.

Previously: assistant superintendent, Bridgeton

Age: 55

Greatest influence on career: My mother was a Christian, school teacher and the finest person I have ever known. Her moral and ethical standards are the benchmark by which I judge myself.

Best professional day: No single day jumps out. Rather, there are instances, such as the high school’s designation as a model school when the achievement of our students and staff make it all worthwhile.

Books at bedside: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... And Others Don’t by Jim Collins; The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Principle-Centered Leadership by Stephen R. Covey; and “Our Daily Bread,” a monthly religious pamphlet

Biggest blooper: I cancelled school for the next day based on a surefire weather report calling for a major snowstorm to begin around midnight. Not only didn’t we see a single flake, the sun was out the entire day. There have been many other days when it looked like it might snow that I kept schools open and there was no shortage of complaints. I have learned a valuable lesson: When there is the slightest question, close!

Key reason I’m an AASA member: The information, collegiality and professional support provided by the organization make it a requirement.