MONTVILLE, NJ - TAPintoMontville recently had the opportunity to meet with Doug Sanford, who has been principal at Montville Township High School for three and a half years, to discuss building initiatives and the PARCC assessments.  Interviews with the principals of the other Montville schools will follow in the coming weeks.

MTHS Principal Doug Sanford got his Bachelor of Science degree from Loyola University in Baltimore in 2000 and began his career teaching high school math at Loyola’s prep school, Loyola-Blakefield.  But his heart was in New Jersey, where he grew up, so he returned to the Garden State and began teaching at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City. 

Sanford pursued his Masters degree in Education Administration at St. Peter’s College, and became the summer school principal at St. Peter’s Prep.  He then took on a position at his hometown high school, Westfield High School, as assistant principal, where he worked for about three years.  He began pursuing his Doctorate degree at Seton Hall, but then life intervened – he married his wife, whom he had known since the ninth grade, his first daughter was born, and he changed jobs, taking on the principal position at Delaware Valley Regional High School in Hunterdon County.  Finishing his doctoral degree was put on hold, but “It’s something I want to get back to, because it’s a really exciting, invigorating environment,” says Sanford.  Sanford lives in Califon with his wife and two daughters.

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Sanford worked at Delaware Valley for several years, but found he missed working in a kindergarten through twelfth grade environment.

“Hunterdon County is rural,” says Sanford.  “The high schools are like islands.  It’s like being your own stand-alone school district.  Resources are tight, and there aren’t many colleagues to work with.  The schools I had worked at and attended weren’t just high schools, they were more robust than that.  So I sought to leave Delaware Valley, and a position opened up in Montville.  I was aware of the academic success of Montville and that it was K-12.  It had everything I was looking for.”  Sanford began as principal at MTHS in July of 2011.

Media Center Renovation

When asked what facilities initiatives are pending, Sanford lists the high school’s Media Center renovation.

“It’s been a conversation topic for a very long time.  The Parent-Teacher Council, Marching Band and Mustangs Association sponsored a tricky tray fundraiser, and $13,000 of the proceeds were set aside towards the renovation,” says Sanford.  In proceeding years, the Board of Education has set aside funds for the renovation, so the budget for the project is up to $1 million, according to Sanford.

The renovation committee, which began as “one or two parents, a couple of teachers, and one or two Board members,” has grown to about 30 members.  It now includes “ten or eleven students, more Board Members, the district’s technology manager, the facilities manager, Montville Township Library Director Alan Kleiman, the district’s business administrator, and district administration,” according to Sanford.  The committee has been doing research for three years about modern media centers at high schools and colleges, including sending teams of people to visit local institutions that have recently renovated their media centers.

“A tremendous amount of background knowledge has been generated,” says Sanford.

The committee learned it would need to hire a media center design firm, and SSP Architectural Group has been chosen to design the renovation.

“I’m very excited because we embrace the idea that the Media Center is the academic center and hub of the building,” states Sanford.  “Before, during, and after the school day it serves the needs of our students and staff, but on weekends, late afternoons, and evenings, it serves the needs of the community.  We are taking that into consideration as it’s designed.  We feel it could be better laid out to facilitate various programs.  When all is said and done, it will be a flexible space.”

When asked if the Media Center will be enlarged, Sanford demures.  “It can.  I’m not going to go into that too much.  It is likely that the Media Center proper will get bigger—not a ton, but a little.  We’re trying to get a little bit of square footage.

“Originally it was designed for 500 or so students, not 1,300 like now,” continues Sanford.  “Unfortunately it wasn’t put on the periphery of the school originally; that would have made it more flexible in terms of expanding the square footage.  We’re not moving it anywhere.  Each time we meet with the architectural firm we get a new set of design drawings to work through.  We’re always tweaking.”

“Meetings have been happening over the past month with SSP,” says Sanford, “and the timeline is to get through the design phase, get drawings finalized, and have a contractor on board and start construction in June of 2015, when the Media Center is less in demand.”

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Fried announced at the Februrary 3rd Board of Education meeting that the projected end date for the project is October of 2015.

Auditorium

Another facility initiative is the renovations to the auditorium.

“Substantial modifications are coming,” states Sanford.  “I doubt there will be any work done to the layout.  It will mostly be focused on technical aspects – improving the sound, the lighting, and the A/V equipment.  We have tried to embark on it this year but the auditorium is used not only by the high school but other schools for their productions.  So trying to carve out large chunks of time when the auditorium can be ‘down’ is very hard to accomplish during the school year.  And then toward the end of the school year, the awards ceremonies have to be held there.”

Science Research Program

An academic initiative at the high school is the Science Research Program, begun three years ago.  Students sign up and begin in their sophomore year for the three-year program.  There is an application process but any student can apply. 

“It’s a program created with SUNY [State University of New York] Albany.  It basically recreates a doctoral-level experience for students here at the high school.  But it’s not done in lieu of the normal course of studies, but in addition to it,” explains Sanford.

Students are taught how to utilize scholarly articles for research purposes.  They are encouraged to find a mentor in higher education or in the private sector, and conduct research. 

“The connections the kids are forming are quite impressive,” says Sanford.

Another goal is to have the students participate in well recognized science competitions, for example the New Jersey Junior Science & Humanities Symposium (NJJSHS) at Rutgers, or the Siemens competition.

Read about presentations some MTHS Science Research Program students made to the Board of Education last October HERE.

Humanities Research Program

The Humanities Research Program is an initiative within the high school in which students learn about Social Studies and English topics in a different way.  Now in its second year, the program involves students conducting research on an era or event in a way that interests them.  For example, instead of memorizing dates and events regarding the Great Depression, a student might conduct a project regarding “how the automobile industry was impacted by the Great Depression” if they are interested in automobiles. 

“In my study of automobiles and how they relate to the Great Depression, I’m going to inherently come across those content-driven facts, but the fact that I’m interested in automobiles, that’s the hook,” explains Sanford.  “We’re interested in more than reading, memorizing, and being able to recite the information back.  We want the students to be able to conduct their own research.”

Assessments are different in these classes, also.  “We want to make sure you can synthesize the content and skills and demonstrate them.  So the assessment can be a [research] paper, a poster/presentation similar to a symposium, to students making their own movies.  It’s a progressive way of engaging the students and assessing their learning.”

While currently only a handful of classes are taught in this manner, states Sanford, “Teachers of other courses are seeing what’s happening and incorporating facets of the program into their own classroom, even if it’s a more traditional class.  It’s spreading on its own beyond those walls.”

School Climate and Culture

When asked about the challenges the high school faces, Sanford says, “I’m always interested in this school being a positive experience for every student. I want them to enjoy the relationships they form with their classmates, their teachers, all the adults in the building. That’s something we’re paying a lot of attention to.  It’s something we’re constantly trying to address. It’s not necessarily a challenge.”

At the beginning of the school year, the school hosted an assembly which launched the Rachel’s Challenge program (Read more about the character ed and acts of kindness program HERE).  “It was not meant to be a one-time presentation and then go on and pretend it never happened,” states Sanford.  “It’s going to continue.  Our students formed a club called Friends of Rachel, and they continue those initiatives.

“The intent of this group is not to do monumental things.  The belief is that the impact on the overall climate and culture and relationships happens every day, with small acts of kindness that continually happen.  The faculty is embracing this as well.  Each month a faculty department will host breakfast for the others.  The students are planning a dinner which they’ll invite parents to.  They want to welcome new students in a specific way.  This is just a quick list from an enormous list of activities. “

“I’m also very excited to partner with the Youth Empowerment Alliance (YEA) (See more information about this program HERE) to establish new school climate programs or strengthen existing programs,” says Sanford.

PARCC

“Second, and I don’t know if I would call it a challenge, but I would be very shocked if every principal didn’t mention that we have a large assessment coming up [the PARCC assessment, a new state initiative],” says Sanford.

“I don’t like to be reactionary, so I’m not going to judge the merits of the assessment until we live through it and get some data back.  I’m interested to see how this experience goes, for the school, and for the students.

“At face value it seems like a larger time commitment than HSPA [High School Proficiency Assessment] was in the past.  Only 11th graders participated in the HSPA assessment, or about 25% of the school.  But three grade levels will participate in PARCC testing (9, 10, and 11).  It’s very different.

“I think, of all the grade levels, we’ll potentially see the largest change in the 9th and 10th graders because in the past, they didn’t have to take standardized tests until 11th grade.  PARCC will be a shift for us in how many students we’re testing.  That’s a big adjustment for us.  On any given day we’ll have 900 to 1,000 students testing at the same time,” continues Sanford.

“Parents should have their kids get a good night’s sleep, and eat a good breakfast,” advises Sanford.  “English and math classes are going to do practice questions but there won’t be a grand test-prep where the school will be put on hold [and conduct practice testing].  That’s not the intent of the test.

“We are not interested in familiarizing students with the content, but this will be a different testing experience.  They’ll be doing it on a computer. So that’s what we want to give them a chance to become familiar with, but I don’t think parents could take any steps to help them with that.

“Parents shouldn’t be nervous.  There’s nothing to be nervous about.  Everyone’s going to do just fine.”

Next Superintendent

When asked what qualities Sanford would like to see in the next superintendent, Sanford replied, “I’m nothing but pleased with the working relationship I have with Dr. Fried, and the manner in which he is the superintendent in this district.

“The qualities I name are those I see in him:  he is an incredibly collaborative superintendent.  He values the opinion of everyone.  I think he has a talent for making you feel like you are a member of the decision-making process.

“He has the ability to highlight the strengths of the people he works with – students, parents, teachers, administrators.  It’s as if he has the ability to ascertain what their strengths are through his experience with them or conversations or whatever and put them to good use.  It’s easy to focus on a person’s weaknesses, but bring a different set of strengths together and you can have a powerful team, a valuable group when it comes to decisions.”