Leading a school district may not be rocket science, but rather people science

Israel Soto, interim superintendent of the Highland Park School District, abides by a few simple rules with their roots in grammar, math and science. The 58-year-old native of Puerto Rico likes to deal in the present tense and the future tense, and refuses to get bogged down in the past tense. He accentuates the positive, looks at life with a “glass-is-half-full” perspective, and understands that the formula for student success and productive people chemistry is a hyper-focus on communication.

“I am all about the present, not the past. I just do what I need to do to build a bright future….I love the challenge, even the pressure, as long as I see a path forward toward igniting children’s passion for fulfilling their dreams…And I do not believe in failure – there may be bumps along that path, but each bump just serves as a learning tool towards attaining success,” Mr. Soto said. The fact that he is “interim” has no bearing whatsoever on his work ethic. “I give 100 percent – no matter what my designation,” said Mr. Soto, who was asked by the district to commit to the “interim” designation until June, 2015.

His work history indicates that he takes this philosophy seriously and has had success and advancement at every education administrative job he has tackled.

Coming from Moca, Puerto Rico in 1981, Mr. Soto began his career in school administration as a junior high school teacher in the Washington Heights area of New York City. His subsequent jobs in the New York City region included: bilingual coordinator, assistant director of bilingual education, assistant principal, and principal – a job that led to his being recognized as Principal of the Year in 2009 by the YMCA of Greater New York and then in 2010 by the Urban Dove. He crossed the Hudson River into New Jersey when he took the job as turn-around coach for the New Jersey Department of Education, then assistant superintendent (Highland Park) in 2013 and currently interim superintendent.

His accentuate-the-positive personality is clearly evident by the PS57 example. In 1999, he was put in charge of PS57, a school that had been identified as failing by New York City. Building strong partnerships with teachers, parents, community organization and private corporations, he catapulted PS57 from academic obscurity to a school of educational excellence, ranking in the top seven percent of high performing pre-k through-eight schools in New York City.

Married with three daughters and four grandchildren, Mr. Soto, who has two masters’ degrees and advanced doctorate-level coursework but no doctorate, decided in 2011 to retire. It lasted a nanosecond. Craving the satisfaction that comes from impacting the lives of young people, he decided to take a position at the NJ Department of Education as an advisor to districts underperforming districts. He then was tapped by the Highland Park School District to bring his energy and positive vision to Highland Park.

School “reform” has been a hot button issue in Highland Park, New Jersey, and nationally. Mr. Soto seems to be overcoming some of the negativity that could have affected his effectiveness on the job, considering he was hired by the recently departed and controversial former Superintendent Tim Capone.

“My goal since joining the district a few years ago is to reenergize the district, bring back that sense of awe, curiosity, enthusiasm, among both the student body and the faculty and staff.” He believes the attitude is infectious and he works to have everyone catch it through continuous communication among all the different school and community constituencies.

Kimberly Crane, president of Highland Park Education Association, summarized the Israel Soto impact by saying that “Superintendent Soto has fostered a strong climate of collaboration between the teachers union and administration. He is a lifetime educator who understands and accommodates the needs of students while expertly balancing administrative responsibilities and deadlines. We are looking forward to a continuing partnership with Mr. Soto and the Highland Park Board of Education as we strive to provide excellence in education of all Highland Park students.”

The appeal of the Highland Park district to Mr. Soto is that it has all the challenges of a diverse and complex district, but it is small enough so that he can have a noticeably positive impact on the lives of the students. The other asset of the district is that the community is very engaged in making the education conform to the highest standards of excellence.

Mr. Soto described the district as “a diverse and dynamic learning community, serving over 1,500 students in four schools. …We offer a broad range of programs and learning opportunities that are enhanced by strong support from families and community members. Our staff of professional educators has distinguished themselves in a multitude of ways, winning honors and public recognition for their achievement and expertise. They bring compassion, commitment and extraordinary skill to their classrooms each and every day. Our students and staff represent many cultures and ethnic groups, and close to 43 languages are spoken by our families.”

The district initiatives that he is championing include:

–professional development—“ I understand the crucial importance of continual professional growth, employing a professional development model that uses Professional Learning Communities, after-school workshops, in-class modeling and coaching.”

–Touchstones— The Touchstones Discussion Project “is a very exciting learning innovation,” he said, that increases student understanding of the process of having a discussion and how it can lead to deeper understanding of new concepts. The project, which recently received a grant from the Highland Park Educational Foundation, is being piloted in grades 3, 6, and 8. “My vision is to expand this program so all students (grades third through 12) will obtain the necessary discussion skills to advance in college and careers.”

—Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Although very much in the media headlines as a controversial program with negative educational ramifications for students, Mr. Soto – consistent with his inherently positive personality – believes the controversy and discussion is healthy and will help the district prepare for the rigor of the new computer-based assessment of the Common Core State Standards. “I am confident that the high quality teaching and learning already going on in our classrooms has prepared our students for this assessment. The state exams give us insight and help us, but they in no way tell the whole story of the district’s excellence. We must never lose sight of all the factors that go into teaching and learning excellence,” he noted.

–Special Education. The district has instituted several initiatives in the Educational Services Department, including: Community Based Instruction Program (CBI) for high school students that exposes them to life skills, including interacting with businesses in town and work experiences; Lunch Bunch groups to assist students with socialization and group skills (Bartle and Irving); English Language Learning improvements; computer-based, individualized-education program system; in-service dyslexia training for teachers at elementary level.

Administratively, Mr. Soto is pursuing better collaboration/partnerships with public and private community organizations, such as Rutgers, to give the district the tools to better achieve the educational vision.

Preferring that the focus of this article should be more about the excellence of the district and less about him, Mr. Soto asked HPP to give a shout-out to the Teachers of the Year and Educational Services Professionals awardees, who were publicly acknowledged at the Jan 4th school board meeting:

— Christina Kosci, first grade, Irving School;

–Amy Coppola, second grade, Bartle School;

–Mary Toye, school nurse, Bartle School;

–Tara Giovannetti, Spanish, Middle School;

–Deirdre Deitcher, child study team, Middle School;

–Nicole Krubski, English, High School;

–Jani Masur, nurse, High School


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