When the Mt. Laurel School District Board of Education held its May 19 meeting, one of the most critical items on the agenda was introducing the two newest members of the K-8 district’s administrative team.
Superintendent Dr. George J. Rafferty welcomed Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Christina Fletcher, and Larchmont Elementary School Principal Patrice Clark, who start July 16 and July 1, respectively.
“We’re really excited to have them join our team,” Rafferty said, describing the newcomers’ roles as “critical positions” for the district. “Even in this COVID-19 atmosphere, these two candidates shone through.”
The principal position alone received roughly 100 applicants, but Rafferty said each candidate “stood out from the rest” of their fellow candidates in each round of interviews.
Fletcher, who began her career as a teacher, will be Rafferty’s “right-hand person” as the district rolls out curriculum initiatives designed to bolster academic achievement. It is not only her administrative but also her hands-on classroom experience that Rafferty said made Fletcher the obvious choice for the eight-person committee that ultimately recommended her to the board as its selected hire.
“She has an excellent background that really makes her the perfect fit for Mt. Laurel,” Rafferty said. “She has a strong, broad-based experience in curriculum in general, but she has specialty knowledge in literacy. She has direct teaching experience with elementary school grades as well as middle school.
“We couldn’t ask for more.”
Clark is poised to receive her doctor of education degree from Seton Hall University this fall. Her own continuing education as well as her experience as a teacher were among the factors that helped her emerge as a front-runner early in the interview process.
“Patrice Clark was another one who, during this process, stood out far ahead of the pack,” Rafferty noted. “It was unanimous: Everybody felt she would be a great addition in terms of meeting the needs of the students, the staff and the community of Larchmont Elementary School.
“We expect great things from Patrice.”
Both incoming members of the school district team said they were drawn to their respective roles because of the district’s warmth, the quality of its education and its prevailing sense of unity.
“The family aspect that they have, the way Dr. Rafferty is with his employees, the compliments that people whose children go there have for the staff — that whole community feel that the district has was what really attracted me,” Clark said.
“I’m very excited about this opportunity because I’m familiar with Mt. Laurel, with the rigor and the high standards they have, and its wonderful reputation for excellence,” Fletcher added. “Those were all very important to me.”
Fletcher and Clark also both agree that having been teachers themselves and the insights they’ve gained in administrative roles will go hand in hand to ensure their strengths are assets to students, faculty and parents.
“I started years ago as an instructional coach, and I enjoy that opportunity to coach while I’m working with students and teachers,” Fletcher explained. “The more we put into teacher growth and teacher professional development, it only helps the students. We want to make sure our teachers continue to grow professionally and that we continue to meet our students’ needs in a variety of different ways.”
Clark said considering the entirety of a student — from current goals to future potential, to their academic needs, to their emotional ones — is key.
“Whatever they choose to do in life, we give them the tools to be successful,” she said. “Not just their overall academic performance, but making sure they’re successful at each fundamental part of their education.”
The initial round of principal candidates had in-person meetings right before the statewide shift to remote learning. But its second stage and everything after, as well as the entirety of the assistant superintendent interviews, pivoted to Google Meet.
There were some glitches and freezes and other technological hiccups along the way, but Rafferty said that the committee forged ahead in its goal as it made the transition to digital interviews.
“We had to move forward because these positions are important,” said Rafferty. “We all felt we were still able to get that important information from each of the candidates in order to make the right decision. At the end of the day, that was the most important thing, seeing all facets of a candidate in order to make a good decision.”
The superintendent added that the new approach to interviewing allowed every applicant’s personality to come through in each stage of the interview process, including their patience, problem solving and adaptability in the face of new challenges.
“There are these aspects of the virtual platform … giving us good information about the candidates, like who can handle the platform and who is able to present their best self under these conditions that no one has a lot of experience with,” Rafferty said.
It is a testament, he added, to not only how cooperative all parties were throughout a highly unusual interview process but also the integrity of the school district’s approach to vetting applicants.
“One of the things I think has really helped us in these COVID-19 times in hiring for two important positions is having a really clear and defined process,” Rafferty said.
With their start dates already on the horizon, both Fletcher and Clark are looking forward to starting new professional chapters next month as they get to know both the schools and community they’re ready to call home.
“I want to build on what’s already there — there are a lot of good programs and a lot of good things already happening in Mt. Laurel,” said Fletcher. “I want to see how I can continue to build on the already established programs that are going well.”
“I’m ready to hit the ground running,” Clark added. “We’re already fantastic academically and culturally; I just want to be a part of it to see if I can strengthen any areas and give the staff and the students a well-rounded leader to support them.”