The rapid change defied conventional thinking about school districts.

In the Weehawken Township School District, the school board laid the groundwork for change in 2015, when it set up new short- and long-term district goals that sought to remedy identified gaps and weaknesses in the schools. The board’s primary goal was to recruit and hire an innovator to turn that vision into reality; a superintendent who was not afraid to make a sea change and rapidly implement innovative techniques to do so.

Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone Dr. Robert R. Zywicki was the unanimous choice of the board to lead the district. In February 2016 he hit the ground running. Within months, Zywicki, who holds a doctorate in education from St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, had introduced many innovations, always with the school board’s goals in mind.

It wasn’t easy to change course so rapidly without facing a mutiny. Zywicki credits the school board’s support of professional development, which was ramped up for all teachers and administrators. To say the staff was cooperative is an understatement. Ninety-eight percent of teachers attended the district’s first summer learning academies, and almost 80 percent of the teachers became Google Apps-certified. Teachers rapidly infused the new blended learning strategies throughout the curriculum.

The district also took a proactive approach to community relations, using social media such as Twitter. Part of Zywicki’s leadership profile involves using  social media not only to “build a brand,” but to create a common space for people to share information and experiences and to help unite the school district. Administrators and teachers recognize the work of colleagues, celebrate student outcomes, and highlight educational experiences using hashtags such as #WeehawkenTSD, #WeeLearn, #WeeLead, #WeTeach , #WeeAreHawken, and others. The district posts on YouTube, Instagram and Periscope (a live streaming video app).

Thanks to Weehawken’s innovations, only 18 months into Zywicki’s tenure, the district was named one of 12 in the nation named an “Innovative District” for 2017 by the International Center for Leadership in Education.

The center recognized Weehawken for “substantive growth year over year; a district culture that puts students at the center of learning; and dedication to transforming instruction to meet the demands of the future.” The adoption of platforms such as ST Math and Achieve 3000 have allowed teachers to augment traditional methods with blended learning tools that tailor instruction to meet the needs of each student.

The AP Capstone Diploma Program Cited in particular was the district’s implementation of a “rigorous and relevant curriculum that engages and challenges students to think beyond the classroom to solve real-world problems.” One of the first moves made by Zywicki was to pursue selection for The College Board’s AP Capstone Diploma Program, making it the only high school in Hudson County and one of 31 districts throughout New Jersey to implement this program. In the AP Capstone program, developed by the College Board, students take two new courses, the AP Seminar and AP Research courses. The courses help develop critical thinking skills. The AP Research course culminates in a year-long research project, a thesis and public presentation. A student who successfully completes the program and obtains scores of 3 or higher on at least four other AP exams receives an AP Capstone diploma.

Although the Weehawken School District’s goal was to increase AP Exam participation by 10 percent, it succeeded in increasing it by 83 percent. The “culture of risk” being developed at Weehawken High School has more students feeling supported enough to take on the challenge of college-level work, Zywicki said.

The district greatly expanded the number of STEAM electives, and opened up advanced placement (AP) participation to any student interested–whether or not that student had taken honors classes or been in a gifted track previously. As a result, the number of AP classes at Weehawken High School has more than doubled from 12 during 2015-2016 to 31 in the 2016-2017 academic year, when the school administered 240 AP exams to 112 students.

The commitment to increasing access to advanced placement resulted in the Washington Post ranking Weehawken High School on its 2017 list of “America’s Most Challenging High Schools,” and in the top 12 percent of all high schools in the country. named Weehawken the number one district in Hudson County – particularly gratifying, outranking as it did a district with a highly-regarded magnet school that has in the past been chiefly responsible for luring away some of Weehawken High School’s best students.

On-campus college visitations have increased dramatically as recruiters are seeking out AP Capstone students. College acceptances for the class of 2017 included Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Yale, Michigan, Boston College, Georgia Tech, USC, and Case Western Reserve. Moreover, the success of the first year of AP Capstone has created a buzz among rising underclassmen and their parents, who are excited by the opportunities now available in their local public high school.

More important, the introduction of the AP Capstone Program had the community expanding their discussions of college from, “How will my child get into a good college?” to also, “How can my child develop the skills to succeed there, and then make a real difference with action-based scholarship?”

Recently, the district’s successes as well as the sharing of those successes via Twitter, Facebook, the district and school websites, and meet-and-greets in recently-developed waterfront neighborhoods has spread the word and there is now an influx of tuition-paying out-of-district students at Weehawken.

Enacting an RTI Program But the school board’s plan did not just include serving high-performing students. In his first weeks, Zywicki established a comprehensive Response to Intervention (RTI) system. RTI is a set of proven tiered interventions for struggling and at-risk students. Using this approach, a Weehawken teacher identifies areas where students need support and provides differentiation. If that intervention isn’t enough, the teacher and RTI coordinator quickly tap the right professionals to help, whether they be reading specialists, academic coaches or behaviorists. “Our goal is to prevent any student from falling through the cracks,” Weehawken Director of Academic Affairs and Innovation Francesca Amato said.

The district has even reached out to students who had left school before graduating. Zywicki is dedicated to the idea of outreach to students who dropped out. Home instruction and credit recovery helped just such a former drop-out graduate last August. “We always talk about ‘all kids,’ and we mean it,” Zywicki said.

The RTI approach is working. In 2015, Weehawken High School’s graduation rate was 83 percent. A year later it had risen to 93 percent. This year, it was certified at 98 percent. In the last 18 months, approximately 200 district students have made academic gains due to RTI-based interventions.

Not all the changes can be quantified. For the first time, the biannual trip to Europe is being tied directly to language classes: Students taking Spanish can go to Spain, and those taking French can go to France. Also for the first time, there will be a human rights trip to Europe. Although the school has had an award-winning marching band, and still does, a string orchestra has been introduced into the middle school. Students there can also track the migration of sharks online via a unique partnership between the Weehawken School District and Ocearch, which tags and releases sharks.

In a survey put out by the board before Zywicki was appointed, parents and caregivers expressed the desire to be kept in the loop. Zywicki launched a “parent university” with workshops on many aspects of their children’s education, including ones on how parents can participate, such as recommendations on the best books to select for young readers.

A supportive mayor and community of parents and even senior citizens whose children were long out of school, collaborated to pass a $16 million capital improvement bond referendum with 90 percent of the vote in the affirmative. “We all have the same vision, and now we are starting to achieve that vision,” said Weehawken Board of Education President Richard Barsa.

The bond vote was in January, and by September, the children were going to schools with greatly improved security and aesthetics. The high school students even had strategically-placed places to charge their devices for the first time.

When Weehawken was recognized by the International Center for Leadership in Education, its founder and chairman, Willard R. Daggett, summed up the district’s overarching achievement, saying, “We are proud to honor and showcase this future-focused district for implementing a rigorous and relevant curriculum that engages and challenges students to think beyond the classroom to solve real-world problems.”

Gabrielle Jonas served on the school board that hired Dr. Zywicki and helped develop the Weehawken Township School District’s strategic plans.