William H. Adams

Deliberate but Diplomatic Vocational Leadership by Jay P. Goldman
Bill Adams had just finished delivering his congressional testimony on the funding needs of




superintendent, Salem County Vocational Technical Schools, Woodstown, N.J.


principal, vocational technical high school, Pennsauken, N.J.



Greatest Influence on Career:

Two people I’ve never met: Vince Lombardi and Walt Disney. Lombardi had the uncanny ability to motivate his players to perform well beyond their abilities. Walt Disney’s creativity, imagination and desire make everyone feel comfortable in a children’s world.

Best Professional Day:

Every day that I have had an opportunity to serve children and young people has been a wonderful day and great privilege and opportunity.

Books at Bedside:

When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss; Strive to Excel: The Will and Wisdom of Vince Lombardi by Jennifer Briggs; and Schools That Learn by Peter Senge

Biggest Blooper:

During a presentation to our board of chosen freeholders. I was asked about a proposed merger of our technical school and a community college—on which our full board had not yet been briefed. Unfortunately, the next-day newspaper highlighted that.

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:

When I joined AASA, my motivation was the professional development and networking opportunities and the desire to belong to what I believed then and now is the premier organization for educational leaders.

vocational education when the late Sen. Claiborne Pell, who chaired the hearing, asked him: “If we changed the name, wouldn’t it change the image?”

No, responded Adams, “it’s what we provide to students that will make all the difference.”

Adams, then and now the superintendent of the Salem County Vocational Technical Schools in southern New Jersey, has mounted his venerable career in school administration on that guiding philosophy. It’s not the face of vocational programs that need uplifting, he reckons. It’s the instructional process and the payoff at the end.

For 30 years Adams has been superintendent of the small, rural county district that serves 1,079 students in part-time and full-day programs that have changed rather dramatically over his tenure, prompted in large part by Adams’s restless drive to keep pushing forward.

“There’s always unfinished business,” he says, explaining why retirement isn’t a short-term goal. “Schools of choice always have to continue to be innovative to meet needs.”

Salem County, one of the state’s smallest with 65,000 residents, has promoted a new wave of technical training that barely resembles the industrial shops and trade programs of the 1970s, in the days when Adams occupied a windowless office in a one-time supermarket. In the past four years, Adams has overseen the addition of five distinct academy programs in environmental science, chemical engineering, and graphic arts and design, among others. He’s overseeing the retooling of one academy to expand this fall into the medical sciences.

“We’re still involved in auto technology and welding because as long as people drive automobiles there will be a need,” he says. “As long as people eat, there’ll be a need in the culinary field.”

As his district has introduced specialized programs that appeal to academic high-fliers who would have shunned the thought of vocational studies in years past, Adams has needed to rely on all the political savvy he could muster—not necessarily to deal with community forces or resistant staff but with the superintendents who run the 15 local districts within Salem County. With state aid following students who opt for the attractive programs, Adams has moved diplomatically with each program change. He won’t detail the feather ruffling that has occurred other than to concede, “There have been some big-time issues.”

One tack has been to house some of the new technical programs on the participating districts’ high school campuses. He has crafted collaborative agreements with four of the five school districts that send the largest number of students to the county district. His language too is deferential as he refers to "host site partners" and “shared time students.” Adams also manages a 35-member citizen advisory board that elicits the sort of public support that other vocational programs long for.

One advisory board member, Geraldine Burt, a retired high school guidance counselor, marvels at how Adams tries to meet existing and emerging student needs while making the tough decisions to eliminate programs that no longer have a base of support or lead to career prospects.

“He makes sure he doesn’t shoot from the hip,” Burt says. “He takes his time, he does a lot of research. He thinks about who’s being affected.”

Adds long-time colleague Peter Contini, who is the president of the local community college: “He’s not someone who dictates to another group. … He’s not territorial.”

Adams, a native of south Jersey whose own postsecondary studies started in an electronics technology program at Temple University, has worked consciously to raise the awareness of vocational programs at the national level. He’s done this largely through his wholehearted involvement with AASA over the past 15 years when he’s served on the Executive Committee, chaired the instructional leadership and technology committee and addressed the Congress on behalf of the association. He was recently asked to chair AASA’s resolutions committee.

“I felt if I was going to be successful and that [vocational education] was ever going to be part of the mainstream, then I needed to be involved,” Adams says.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: