After an extensive nationwide search, the Hamilton Township Board of Education announced Feb. 6 it had selected its next superintendent. Turns out the school board didn’t have to go too far.
Its pick is 45-year old Scott Rocco, a Hamilton resident who serves currently as the superintendent of the Spotswood Public Schools in Middlesex County. SPS, like Hamilton, is a K-12 district.
Rocco has worked in education for 23 years. He started in the Hillsborough School District, first as a high school and middle school teacher, then progressing into administration. He also served as a middle school vice principal, elementary school principal and assistant superintendent for human resources in Hillsborough. After 19 years in Hillsborough, he took the job as Spotswood’s superintendent of schools in January 2013.
Rocco has also taught at The College of New Jersey—his alma mater—for 14 years. He holds a bachelor’s in secondary education and a master’s in educational administration from TCNJ. He earned his doctorate in educational leadership, management and policy from Seton Hall University in 2014.
A native of South Plainfield, Rocco has lived in Hamilton for 19 years, with his wife and children. The kids attend school in the Hamilton Township School District. Rocco has coached with HTRBA, and said he enjoys fishing, hiking and spending time with his family.
Rocco doesn’t start his role in Hamilton officially until May 8. But he called Hamilton Post editor Rob Anthes Feb. 15 to introduce himself to the community, as well as share his approach to education and his vision for the Hamilton Township School District.
Why did you and your wife decide to settle in Hamilton? What you have learned about the community living here?
We settled in Hamilton right after we got married. We liked Hamilton. We liked everything it had to offer. We thought there were lots of great community programs and activities and great parks. Just a great place to raise a family. There were a lot of opportunities for families to be involved, and activities from organized sports and different events our kids could participate in. It is well-organized, and a great place for kids and a family. So we settled here.
I went to The College of New Jersey, so I was in the general vicinity in Mercer County for a little while prior to that. I just enjoyed the area, enjoyed the parks, enjoyed the different areas in town that make it great to raise a family.
Why did you go into education?
I come from a family of educators. I’ve got four aunts and one uncle who were in education. Four of the five of them were all New Jersey educators. Growing up, around the holiday table, I always heard stories of being in education. I heard a lot of positives of what it was like to be in the schools. And that really sparked my interest. I remember one time as a kid going with my aunt to help set up her classroom, and, as a kid, that was fantastic.
I liked being in school. My parents were a big influence on me about getting a good education, about being involved in school. It was important to academically be successful but also to be involved, be in sports, be in extracurricular activities. Be sure you had the whole school experience.
It was a family thing, both from my parents and from my aunts and uncles.
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With that kind of upbringing and a long career in the field, you most likely have seen a lot of approaches to education. What is your educational philosophy?
Over the years, I’ve developed and refined it. There are two key components. The first is that every child in the school system deserves an excellent education. It’s our job as teachers, as educators, as community members, as parents to make sure our kids are getting that great education, so that when they graduate from one of our three high schools they’re ready and they’re going to be successful in the next stage of their life. For some, that’s going to be college. For some of our students, that’s going to be career. For some, it’s technical training. For others, it’s going to be military. Whatever that choice is, wherever our students feel that next step is as they enter adulthood, we should be preparing them for that step so that when they walk out with a diploma, they’re ready to go.
The second part is that it is all of our responsibility. It’s the teachers, the administrators, the faculty, the staff, the community coming together and working together as a community in our schools and around our schools creating an environment that allows our students to be successful. That’s about us cooperating with each other, collaborating with each other, working together as a community for the betterment of our children.
You’ve hit on something important with the first prong of your philosophy. Hamilton is a diverse town. It is diverse racially, culturally and economically. There are students who may not have the option to go to college, and others who can afford any college. Compounding this is that Hamilton is a very large town. How can you possibly serve every student well when there are so many students and such a large range of needs?
One of the ways you work to serve an entire community and work on the individual needs of students and families is to get out there and talk with the families, get out there and be visible in the schools, listen to the students, listen to the teachers, listen to the parents, and begin to develop that positive relationship so we understand that this one family or this one group of families is looking for this from our schools yet this other family or this other group of families is looking for something different. We need to provide a board spectrum of experiences and trainings so that those needs that are diverse are available to everybody. One size does not fit all. We need to work together.
You have the experience for this job, and you live in town and understand this town, which I think is particularly important to many residents. So you fit the role of Hamilton Township superintendent of schools. But why did the role suit you?
You only get to go home once. Hamilton is now my home, and the opportunity to come and work in my hometown and do the work that I’ve been doing the last 23 years in Hillsborough and Spotswood, I want to do that work. I want to work with the teachers in our school district. I’ve had such a positive experience with my own children in the schools, in working with the teachers and the administrators and the PTA. For me, it felt like the right choice to apply. I was lucky enough to be selected. I wanted to come home, and work in the community where I live. I think that’s important. I’ve always been dedicated to my job. I’ve always been involved in the communities where I’ve been an administrator and a teacher. But now I get to continue to be involved in my own home community.
Being superintendent in a town where you live and in a district where children attend school presents some distinct challenges. Are you prepared to deal with the extra weight that comes with this?
I hope I am. I understand that, and I recognize that. There are unique aspects of the job when you live in town, but it also provides you opportunities that you typically wouldn’t have if you didn’t live in town. Those would be benefits to working with people and knowing the town a little more and being present and having been involved with activities in town over the last 19 years. Those provide a benefit in the position that if you didn’t live in town, you typically wouldn’t have.
Having children in the schools, you’re probably aware of the needs and issues of the Hamilton Township School District. One of the most recent items is the referendum to provide funds needed to repair the school buildings. Have you seen that referendum proposal? Do you have an idea how you’d like to proceed?
I’m getting caught up with the referendum as we speak. [On Feb. 14], I spent the whole day meeting with staff over at Park Avenue [in the district offices]. I’m starting to get up to speed on the referendum beyond what was put out by the board previously. Now I’m getting into the nitty-gritty of things.
In Spotswood last year, we had a $9.3M referendum that passed with the community’s support. My approach will be to work with the community, work with the PTAs, work with the administration and the faculty to get the word out about what those items are on the referendum and why those items are on there. My understanding is that the vast majority, if not every one of those items, is a safety issue or something that is needed for our buildings to make sure they are safe and healthy buildings. I’ll be working with my staff and with the building administration to start informing the community. I know the board will be, in the near future, determining when that vote will be, and when that’s determined, we will start to have meetings in the community and send out material to get people informed about it. That will be an important priority coming up.
In January, the Hamilton Post published an interview with interim superintendent Thomas Ficarra regarding the referendum. Since that edition, we have received a number of letters and online comments from people who feel maxed out, who feel no tax increase would ever be acceptable to them. Hamilton is a town where a large percentage of taxpayers do not have children in the school district. Many people are living on tight budgets. How do you sway the people who feel like they’ve already done their due and don’t want to pay more?
The first thing to do is to explain why these repairs are necessary. Those of us who own homes, as those homes age, there are certain things that you do to ensure those homes stay in shape and that you can live in those houses. It includes roofs and window issues and all kinds of things related to that. Taking care of our schools is important to not only our students, to make sure they have a safe, healthy environment, but it’s important to our community, too, because our community members do use our schools, and we want our schools to be in good shape because it is an indication of how well our town is doing. It’s trying to explain to people that these are not frivolous things we’re proposing. These are things that, if this was your home, you’d want to do to make sure they’re usable.
At the same time, there is some concern from community members that not enough is being done in the district to improve academic achievement. Do you have any ideas or any areas you plan to address in order to improve student achievement in the district?
The first thing I want to do is work with the director of curriculum and instruction and the subject area supervisors to address where we are curriculum-wise and what have we revised in our curriculum K-12, what types of assessments are we using to determine how we adjust instruction. Until I get that information, it would be hard for me—or not appropriate for me—to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go in this direction.’ Maybe we are going in a particular direction that is working. But I need to get information before I direct us one way or another.
In Hamilton in recent years, a large community has sprung up on social media that is active in and vocal about the school district. There are several groups, for example, on Facebook where people go to discuss issues facing the district. Have you experienced this in Spotswood? How do you plan to work with this vibrant online community in Hamilton? And what is your approach to the spread of information in the internet age?
I’m a supporter of the use of social media, the positive use of social media. In Spotswood, the district has a Facebook account, the district has a Twitter account. The purpose of those accounts is to put out to the community things you would not normally to get an opportunity to see that are happening in our schools. Great things happen in our schools every single day. We want to be able to show the community the work that our students are doing, the work that our teachers are doing, the events that are happening that are engaging our whole community. We will use those accounts to do that.
The regular groups that are formed are an opportunity for the community to talk and dialogue about things. These social media accounts from the schools is providing information and not as much engaging in that dialogue. I prefer to have that dialogue with parents and community members face-to-face, at events and at activities.
But our accounts will let parents have a window into our world through social media. We’ll be setting those accounts up, and getting that information out there, and allowing the community to see some of the really great things that are happening with our kids and our teachers in the district.
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That communicative approach is something Hamilton has lacked. In the past, residents have heard plenty about the latest disagreement at a Board of Education meeting, but what’s happening every day in the schools gets lost in the shuffle. I would think it would be important to the district to share that day-to-day stuff with the community.
It is. It’s great stuff. Giving a window into what the world is like for our kids will help our parents and our community see the things that are happening in our schools. I’m a proponent of it. I’ve used it here with a lot of success. Probably the most successful thing I’ve ever put out is when I closed school through Twitter and Facebook first before the announcement went out on our phone system. (laughs) People find use in it.
On the subject of transparency, there had been a long tradition in Hamilton of video recording school board meetings. A year ago, the decision was made to stop recording the entirety of meetings. Some items are still recorded, but it used to be that the whole meeting would be recorded and posted online and on TV for the public to view. This was especially important to community members who did not have the ability to attend meetings. Do you have a position one way or the other on video recording school board meetings?
No, and I wouldn’t want to get into that at this point because I just don’t know enough about the issue to really give a good opinion. I think I’d be doing both sides a disservice by weighing in on it at this point.
Have I missed anything that you think residents should know?
Between now and the end of the school year, we will be scheduling some meet and greets and some activities to get parents and the community out so I can get a chance to meet them. We will be coming out with a schedule probably [in March]. Some will be in the evenings. We will also try to do some Saturdays since we understand that parents are very busy during the week. I will also be present at events and activities around the district leading up to me entering the district. I’ve been at a couple of events already, and I was in-district all day [Feb. 14] meeting with staff. I’m looking forward to starting. I’m very excited about starting in Hamilton.