Last summer Tim Purnell, the superintendent of the Somerville school district, was honored by the National Association of School Superintendents (NASS) as superintendent of the year for suburban districts. In 2015, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators named Purnell statewide superintendent of the year.
In an interview, Purnell, who started at Somerville in 2011, shared some of the programs and strategies that he and his team have put into place in the district.
Professional Development Purnell and his team created an innovative resource, “3D PD,” for three-dimensional professional development. Teachers film themselves teaching a lesson in the classroom using a swivel camera, and post it to a private channel that only district teachers have access to. Colleagues can view the videos anytime, from anywhere. “You want your teachers to be able to serve each other,” says Purnell, “but you don’t want to continually pull them out of the classroom, because then their students lose contact time with a master educator.” Since launching in 2014, about 130 videos have been posted to the channel, with 25,000 minutes of lessons; that number continues to grow.
Alternate High School In 2015, Somerville began an initiative to address the fact that the district’s dropout rate was increasing. The program, called MAPS (Motivation for Academic and Personal Success), is a separate, non-traditional high school program for students at risk of not graduating. The students, who begin their day later than normal, at 9:30 a.m., eat breakfast at school, and use a combination of online learning and traditional classroom learning. The program also features regularly-scheduled parent meetings. In the one year the program has been in place, student attendance increased dramatically, as did the number of credits students earned, while discipline infractions for the group dropped, going from 140 the previous year to 16 over the same time period.
Community Engagement As a way of driving community engagement, and building support for the schools, Purnell started a Twitter hashtag that plays off the Somerville name, #allintheVille. “The community can follow along with the hashtag and see what teachers are doing and what’s going on in the district with one click,” he says. Purnell also began a fundraiser communitywide event, “Super’s Bowl Day,” which features a flag football game between teachers. Student music groups perform, local businesses which partner with the school are honored, and local dignitaries such as the mayor and local legislators attend. Purnell also instituted awards for staff, students and community members who have helped the schools.
Goal-Setting Another initiative of Purnell and his staff is the development, each year at each school, of “Wildly Important Goals,” or WIGs. The idea is to focus on one schoolwide goal, such as student literacy or parent engagement. “What happens with leaders is that when urgency and importance clash, urgency always wins,” says Purnell. “We tend to get bogged down in crises. But when you are focused on a WIG, it becomes a singular focus for what you want to achieve by the end of the school year.” To gauge progress on WIGS, in 2014 Somerville started “purpose-derived walk-throughs” to provide administrators the opportunity to measure the effectiveness of their initiatives. Somerville posts updates on the progress towards the WIGs on its “district dashboard” on the school district webpage.
Purnell also points to Somerville’s academies as fulfilling other student needs, including the Somerville Medical Science Academy, in collaboration with Robert Wood Johnson Somerset; the academies for liberal arts and performing arts, in collaboration with Raritan Valley Community College; and the LaRue PR Academy, in partnership with a local public relations firm. All give students a headstart on college and careers.
Purnell credits both his team of administrators and faculty members with the development and implementation of several of the ideas, and the Somerville Board of Education with supporting them. “The board has supported our risk-taking mentality; we couldn’t have done these things otherwise,” he says.
In December, Purnell announced he would be leaving Somerville at the end of the school year to pursue a position as executive director of the American Montessori Society, but assured the community in a letter that the changes and culture would continue. “I feel confident that the board and the personnel are in place to sustain these changes and move the district forward,” he wrote.