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September 14,  2009

Holodick ready to 'hit the ground'
at flank speed as superintendent

If Mark Holodick gets the job as Brandywine schools superintendent -- and no one seriously doubts that he will -- there won't have to be much of a transition pause. He'll bring to the office a couple of things his immediate predecessors lacked: Intimate familiarity with how the district functions and a considerable amount of personal support among key constituencies with which he'll have to work.

He also will bring to the office an agenda which has been demonstrably successful on a pilot scale.

That was evident at a pair of get-acquainted sessions which, at first glance, might be dismissed as disappointing because they didn't attract much interest or attention. Only half jokingly, he said turnouts of fewer than a dozen people at P.S. du Pont Middle School on Sept. 8 and at Talley Middle the next evening were votes of confidence in his candidacy, demonstrating that the public was happy with the school board's decision to designate him as sole 'finalist' to be prime administrator.

It appears that he may have been right.

The low-key sessions turned out to be one-on-one conversations on a variety of district and general educational topics. That was in sharp contrast to the relative extravaganzas staged three and eight years ago, respectively, for Jim Scanlon and Bruce Harter. Those sessions included roving microphones to gather audience questions and even what passed in Delaware for a television anchor person to moderate the proceedings with the full seven-member school board in attendance.

The biggest contrast this time around was in Holodick's responses.

Instead of coming back with general professions of allegiance to current pedagogical fashions, he by-passed schoolspeak and offered specifics about what intends to do once he's in office. To be sure, most of the time he qualified his remarks by saying things like "if I'm lucky enough to get the job," but everyone understood that to be largely pro-forma.

The board -- which refuses to say how many serious candidates it considered or explain the behind-closed-doors process by which it came to settle on the 47-year-old principal of Concord High as its choice to be the district's top administrator -- is scheduled to make it official at its regularly scheduled monthly open-to-the-public meeting on Sept. 21. All seven board members have already publicly endorsed Holodick.

Most of the attenders at the get-acquainted sessions already knew him, either as teachers or former students.

Richard Carter, principal at Talley, was particularly effusive as he recounted how Holodick took the time and exhibited genuine interest in introducing him to the inner workings of the district. "He'll generate the energy for people to be out there to perform professionally," Carter said. A Concord graduate embarking on his first teaching assignment, not in Brandywine, said Holodick was primarily responsible for his having chosen to pursue a career in education.

The strongest point in Holodick's resume is his record during the three years he has had the helm at Concord. Enrollment has increased from 950 to 1,320 and there is a general feeling in the community that the school is a pace-setter, not only in Brandywine but in the state. He credits faculty, students and a disproportionate number of involved parents who, he said, "buy into the Concord way."

While school administrators frequently complain that generating parental involvement borders on being a hopeless endeavor, Holodick said that many Concord events attracted enough people to fill the parking lots. "It can be done," he said.

Key to doing that, he explained, is communication with as much personal contact as possible. "It takes more than just a newsletter going home," he said. It comes down to returning telephone calls and responding to e-mail promptly. "Even if you don't have the answer right away you can tell them that. And then you make sure you follow up," he said. He's going to require teachers and administrators, including himself, exhibit "a sense of urgency in providing good customer service."

The district also will keep in close touch with businesses and private organizations throughout the community with an emphasis on mutual support. "You don't wait until it's time for a referendum to do that," he said.

Holodick said his first priority will be assuring safety. "Students have to feel safe and be safe coming to school, in school and going home. I'll make sure that they do."

After that, he added, it is important that all students "feel that they're a part of the school" through personal involvement and a sense that they are being treated with equity.

Responding to questions and comments at the meetings, Holodick demonstrated a sharper degree of candor than is usual in such circumstances.

He denied, for instance, the possibility of closing the so-called 'achievement gap'. Instead he will target which he called "the opportunity gap" which he acknowledged still exists in Brandywine. The former refers to the difference in academic performance of students depending on their economic, racial or social environments. Although here will always be differences in abilities, "some students in our district don't have the opportunities others have," he said. "Teachers come out [of college] knowing what to teach, but I don't think they all know how to teach a diverse group of kids."

He also acknowledged a twin danger in closing the statistical gap in academic performance: Lowering the upper level while raising the lower, and squeezing those in the middle. He said there has to be a continual effort to provide necessary services and support so that all students are able to reach their potential.

He said he will focus on a combination of curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities to motivate students whether they are headed for high education, technical or vocational training, the military or other vocations. He added that he is strong on personal mentoring.

"We're quick to brag about our S[tudent] A[chievement] T[est] scores and the kids who are accepted into Ivy League colleges, but we also have to be proud when they achieve [other] goals," he said.

"There are still too many kids graduating from our high schools that don't have choices. ... If [a child] enters kindergarten slightly behind the others, they better not graduate far behind other students.  That's our responsibility," he said.

Holodick said a using a variety of data is necessary to monitor student achievement. "We can't rely on state assessment [test scores] only. We have to employ formal and informal was of determining whether we're getting the job done," he said.

"I'm a huge proponent of inclusion [of students with special needs] in regular-ed classrooms where appropriate," he said, adding that he recognizes that children other than those formally determined to require special education have needs that have to be addressed.

He cautioned against an overemphasis on keeping pace with the latest programs. "What works [well] some place else may not work here. We have to choose what's best for us," he said. And, he added, there has to be time to determine if a program is effective. "We take what is new and and hot now and, after a few years, we make another change," he said, adding that, during his administration, "you won't see as many changes as you have in the past."

An area that needs added emphasis is encouraging student involvement in service and volunteerism. "There are things we could require students to do to give back to the community," he said.

Holodick said he is "not opposed to parochial or private schools -- or even charter schools." With regard to charters, he said his main concern is with those having "an entrance exam that is selective in nature [which]  could lead to a certain type of children going there."

While respecting parents' right to choose non-public education for valid reasons, he said the district must take every opportunity to respond to "parents [who] are choosing one of those options because they think they can't get the same quality of education in a public school."

"We lose a lot of kids to other schools because of false information or some reputations that don't exist," he said. The district, he added, "is going to be very aggressive" about countering that. "As a public school parent you need to speak up and squash these false comments," he said.

Holodick said that, if the school board approves his appointment, he is gong to be "a superintendent that is visible, willing to make mistakes by taking risks, willing to admit mistakes and working closely with people who want to get the job done."

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