In a letter dated March 2, 2015 and addressed to the Highland Park Learning Community, Interim School Superintendent Israel Soto announced his intention to retire at the end of this academic year. In the two years he has been affiliated with the district, first as assistant superintendent and then interim superintendent, Mr. Soto has been praised by parents, teachers and administrators for his energy, optimism, communication skills and unwavering commitment to delivering excellence in education. In his letter he gave no concrete explanation for his decision, other than the decision was made after “much consideration, family discussions and reflection.”
School Board President Adam Sherman said that “Mr. Soto provided tremendous optimism and stability for our community during his time in the district. His enthusiasm for our students will be missed.”
Interviewing Mr. Soto a few weeks ago, the Highland Park Planet learned that Mr. Soto, who had spent most of his professional life as a renowned change-agent principal within the New York City schools. He attempted to retire once before in 2011, when the New Jersey Department of Education asked him to do a “retirement consulting job” as turn-around coach/consultant for underperforming school districts in New Jersey. His excellent work as a coach got him noticed by educational professionals throughout the state and led to his becoming fully engaged with the demanding job of assistant superintendent for the Highland Park School District and then interim superintendent. But the father of three and grandfather of four did indicate that his wife was living in Florida – making for a rather challenging commute.
The process of choosing a new superintendent will be “transparent,” “open,” and will allow “all voices to be heard,” Mr. Sherman said. “I hope the board will approve at the next board meeting a request for proposal to solicit support in our search from superintendent search firms, who will help guide the board and the community during our search process.”
Mr. Soto, who was hired as assistant superintendent by the recently departed and controversial former Superintendent Tim Capone, said that his “goal since joining the district has been to reenergize the district, bring back that sense of awe, curiosity, enthusiasm, among both the student body and the faculty and staff.”
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 has pursued better collaboration/partnerships with public and private community organizations, such as Rutgers, to give the district the tools to better achieve the educational vision.