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Dr. Fredrik Oberkehr
03/06/2012 - By Paul Williams
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
Colts Necks New Superintendent Dr. Fredrik Oberkehr Education is his Mission
Former President John F. Kennedy once said, Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities. Educators have always been charged with the daunting task of finding, nurturing and evolving the innate aptitudes of their students. In recent years, educational institutions have acknowledged that developing each students greatest abilities through traditional instruction methods is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Some parts of the educational system have undergone paradigm shifts, to alter its methods from teaching as though every student is created equal to a newer practice of tailoring student-specific instruction. Here in Colts Neck, the former Superintendent of Schools, Ross Kasun, embraced the prospect of differentiating instruction to meet each students needs, and the superintendent replacing him, Dr. Fredrik Oberkehr, is also an advocate of advancing education beyond traditional models.
Oberkehr has experienced the challenges of the New Jersey education system at almost every level, having served as a primary and secondary teacher before pursuing a career in administrative roles in order to have a broader influence on teaching. He obtained his doctorate from Seton Hall in differentiated instruction and is excited to bring more than twenty years of experience to the district. Many times throughout our interview, Oberkehrs fervor about and knowledge of education was apparent as he excitedly expanded on topics involving how educators can better prepare students for the real world. When Oberkehr speaks about education, he evokes the memories of that one teacher weve all had who left a lasting impression on us. He believes that every educator should take personal interest in their students and show each one of them how to seize the unique opportunities that are placed before them.
LICN: How long have you been Superintendent in Colts Neck?
FO: Ive been here since December 1st and am mostly impressed with what Ive seen so far.
LICN: What about the district impresses you?
FO: Im thrilled that Colts Neck tries to help each student based on their ability level. Theyve made strides away from the teach to the middle mantra thats driven education. Now Im looking for a jumping off point. The Board of Education is just completing the strategic plan that was laid out by the previous superintendent.
A strategic plan is a guide for moving forward by setting yearly benchmarks and goals. Ive made my concerns known to the Board about our current one. Most companies have a catchphrase as a mission statement, but ours is four to five sentences long. I dont think theres a person in the district who can repeat it. I want to draw attention to what our statement is for and how it will drive us forward.
LICN: Why do you think its paramount that everyone is able to recite the statement?
FO: Its important that everyone understands were going in the same direction. I think if you were to do an analysis of all the mission and vision statements from around the country you will find a common mantra for every district, but its not really that way. Each district has unique opportunities and challenges. My feeling is theres a true point to having one, and it shouldnt be something to just put on a plaque or hang on a wall. Any time we are talking about our curricula, we should refer back to the statement.
LICN: How is the mission and vision statement formed?
FO: It should come internally. Id like to get the collaboration of the faculty and staff first, then involve the Board, and have some public discussion during a board meeting so we can show the parents our draft and see if they have any input.
LICN: What impresses you the most about the way that the teachers educate students here?
FO: Theyve embraced differentiated instruction. I think one reason that the Board selected me was because thats my field of expertise. Its what I did my dissertation on, and my doctorate at Seton Hall.
LICN: What is differentiated instruction?
FO: Its truly designing assignments that are appropriate to an ability level. If a teachers going to assign 20 questions, theyre not going to be the same for everybody. The questions might be different for kids who are more capable, and there might be another set for those who are kind of in the middle. That gives the teacher the opportunity to give more attention to kids who might be struggling. Thats the true meaning of differentiated instruction. A bigger piece of that should be engaging students in the lesson. If the teacher is doing more than a 10-15 minute modeling objective statement, and not engaging kids in the classroom, then were probably doing a disservice to the children.
LICN: Attention spans are going to start drifting at that point.
FO: We are in an age where kids have information coming at them at warp speed from different devices. You can find information from any number of sources so quickly that if youre not catching the kids attention in the first 10-15 minutes of a lesson, you almost miss the boat. I have seen bits and pieces of differentiated instruction involved in various parts of the district. Differentiated instruction isnt going on in every classroom every day, but its a long process. The experiences that the children have in the classrooms today are going be very different five years from now. Much like the mission statement, the curriculum has to be a working document. Were not just putting a mission statement up on the wall. Were not just writing a curriculum, approving it, and sticking it up on a shelf: now its really becoming a useful document for teachers and addressing the varying ability levels. And, you have to educate all teachers on the various aspects of differentiated instruction. You cant throw all of it at them at once if you want them to be successful.
LICN: So how do you educate teachers about differentiated instruction who have been in the field a long time, and are comfortable teaching by traditional methods?
FO: Thats always going to be a challenge for everyone. I feel I can get nine out of ten teachers to buy in. I dont force it on them. Instead, I show them the benefits. There are three pieces you can differentiate: the content (curriculum), the product (students demonstration of the material) and the teaching process. I had a teacher who I once told that the easiest thing to differentiate is the product. If four or five kids want to do a skit and can demonstrate that theyve learned the material, why isnt that acceptable? Why does it have to be a pencil and paper? So the teacher told the kids they had a choice. They could do a Powerpoint, or a skit, or a written report. He came back and told me the kids were just so excited that they actually had a choice in the classroom! I think that speaks volumes to that approach. Its pretty rare that a teacher comes in the superintendents office and says, Hey I really liked that idea - it worked! To me, that meant the world. If we get to that point here, Ill be a thrilled man.
LICN: Is there anything else youd like to address or refine in the district?
FO: New Jersey is one of the 24 states that are part of the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). These asessments are supposed to be able to measure growth over a period of time, and Colts Neck already has a foot up on this. They are starting to look at assessment data so we can judge if a student is demonstrating growth over the course of a marking period or periods. I dont know that weve gotten to the point where we can use the data to evaluate our program and make changes, so thats another place that I can get involved in pretty quickly. But the whole idea of measuring growth to me is paramount. If a student with a 60 IQ shows growth from September to January, I think thats as important as if he passes some standardized assessment. If I take a look at a student and see growth and that the student has made progress, I think that program has been successful. At the end of the day, thats what its all about.
LICN: What attracted you to Colts Neck?
FO: Actually a friend of mine told me there was an opening here. Once I researched the district, it became very clear they were involved with differentiated instruction and I found out that they have a Director of Curriculum, Susan Ladd. That was important to me. Its nice to have some help and assistance when Im trying to draw an entire district in a specific direction. Susans been here for a number of years. So when we put our heads together Im sure were going to get it right. And Id be remiss is if I didnt mention the quality of life. I live eight minutes from here. I was happy in Rochelle Park, but if I had a week of board meetings and engagements it meant I wouldnt see my children from Sunday until Thursday. With my children Hannah, Leah and Matthew being 8, 7 and 5, respectively, that was hard. To be able to go home and have dinner with my family and come back here if theres something later on at night is really truly important.
LICN: How long have you been married?
FO: Sharon and I have been married for 10 years as of December 23rd (2011). Weve been living in Monmouth County for about 11 years, and weve lived in Matawan-Aberdeen for the last 10. Sharon was a kindergarten teacher when we met in South Plainfield. I cant say enough about my better half. Everything I am is because I have her support.
LICN: How is being the superintendent here different from being the superintendent in Rochelle Park?
FO: There we were a one-school district, K-8. Here we are K-8 with three schools and almost 1,200 students. In Rochelle my office was in the school and I got familiar with the teachers, administrators and programs very quickly. It was easy for me to jump in. It was a great experience because I got to hit the ground running in a smaller district. The thing thats a little frustrating to me is that Id like to do my job well and get right at it, but I have to temper that with some patience here since there are more buildings and staff.
LICN: Since Colts Neck is a sending district to a regional high school, how does that affect its curriculum?
FO: Ive learned that there has been a decent amount of articulation between Colts Neck and Freehold Regional high school. We feed off of their content supervisors and their information and expectations of students who are coming into the high school. That connection is terribly important. That wasnt something that attracted me here, but once I stepped in and saw the communication between the districts and that were able to take advantage of each others resources, I said life is pretty good.
LICN: You have an extensive background in education. Where did you work previously?
FO: I got my BA from Rutgers in math and became a teacher of mathematics in Elizabeth for about seven years. During that time I completed my Masters in educational administration at Jersey City State College, and got my Principal and Supervisor certificate. Then I went over to South Plainfield as the coordinator of mathematics and computer technology for K-12. After that I became a middle school principal for four years and an elementary school principal for four years. Then I became the assistant superintendent there, and I obtained my doctorate from Seton Hall.
LICN: So youve always had a passion for teaching and education?
FO: I actually thought I was going to be an actuary when I graduated college but the idea of being stuck behind a computer and crunching numbers all day really didnt sit well with me. I come from a family of ministers so our family values were always driven to help others. In Elizabeth, I wasnt sure whether teaching was really truly for me. I grew to love working around the children, but there was a disappointment there when I looked above. I wanted to become an administrator because I wasnt thrilled with what I saw happening in administration. Then when I became an administrator, I wasnt thrilled with what I saw going on with the superintendent. I felt that the more I progressed, the more of an impact I could have. And to be honest, the higher I have gone the sillier it has gotten, as far as legislation and regulations.
LICN: Do you feel you are still honoring the family tradition, so to speak, in your career path?
FO: The family question has always been why I didnt go to seminary and become a minister. I feel I have the best of both worlds. I cant really say I chose the career; it chose me. Once I got here, I knew it was the right thing for me. I think education is a noble profession, despite what the, what I call noise, out there says it is. I think Ive walked in my fathers footsteps, maybe not all the way to the end, but I hope that he is proud up there.
LICN: Is there anything specific that you can think of where the legislation and bureaucracies obstruct the districts goals?
FO: New Jersey has taken the wrong turn. Ill paraphrase Jim Collins, a professor at Stanford, from his book Good to Great: If you do something really well, your first priority should be finding ways to do that better. Education in New Jersey is some of the finest in the nation. We were number one in AP [Advanced Placement] results last year and the number one state of students who take the AP [test]. Were doing a lot of things right, so why arent we looking to do things better? With the amount of bureaucracies and time invested in legislation, we cant try to reinvent what districts do. We need to find ways to make what they do better. I think theyre not talking about the elephants in the room. There hasnt been any real legislation that that will help me with tenure. It costs at least $100,000 in legal fees to start tenure charges on a teacher, and it is a two to three year process, minimum. I have successfully been involved in two cases of tenure charges in South Plainfield, so I know how involved it is. I dont presume that the issues with what they call ineffective teachers are as dramatic as it is made out to be. However, every organization and institution has their weakest link and I dont think theres a district that is exempt from that fact.
Another big discussion in New Jersey right now is merit pay, which is nothing new. Research shows it goes back to 1920. Politicians complain that education hasnt made any changes in 100 years. So why would you try to go back to something that has been tried since 1920? I have seen districts that have put together well-documented, objective evaluation plans that took years to put together, only to abandon them because they wouldnt work.
Ive known other superintendents who have written letters to the governors office asking them to sit down and discuss the state of education with them. And, if you get a few of us in a room, I bet we could solve a lot of our problems fairly quickly. Instead of them just spinning their wheels during legislation we could accomplish a few things. The key to transformational leadership is getting people involved when you are making decisions. Yet, I havent seen one instance of any of the things that have been going on at the state level, or the department of education, that would lead me to believe that anyone knows anything about transformational leadership.
LICN: Have you ever been able to navigate through the muddy legislative process and achieve a goal?
FO: I think theres some discussion as to whether superintendents are even necessary. To that I would say, in Rochelle Park, we were in contract to send their students to Hackensack. We paid Hackensack the tuition for each student. We would agree on a tuition rate and two years later Hackensack would get their audit report and legally tell us we should have paid more for each child. We had to go back and pay them the difference for tuition from two years earlier. This kept rising. You cant factor the increases from two years ago into that years budget and it became difficult to meet the tuition increase with the 2 percent cap. So when I was there I negotiated a contract for a seven-year relationship with a set tuition rate with no raises. They forgave the previous tuition raise when we took it to the county superintendent. I saved the taxpayers of Rochelle Park at least $500,000 and thats not including the tuition raises that could have happened for years to come. But some say superintendents arent worth their buckfifty. For the most part, public schools do a great job. We dont need to scrap them and come up with vouchers and charter schools. We need to address where we can improve.
LICN: What drew you to primary education administration over secondary?
FO: It wasnt until I became an elementary principal that I said, Wow, this is where it all starts. If a child starts falling behind in first grade, and falls behind in second, its just a perpetual snowball that theres no stopping. If you can catch these kids in kindergarten and first grade, and start establishing interventions and getting them up to speed for those first three years, you just changed that childs entire educational career.
LICN: What types of ancillary programs does Colts Neck offer?
FO: We have the ALEKS computer-based program, which is part of the instructional courses that are offered. It allows kids who are more capable and a little more independent to spend time with this program, to get even past algebra one and maybe introduce them to geometry. For the most part our K-5 ancillary programs, whether they are basic skills or gifted and talented, are pull-out. And, of course, we have our special education department which does a wonderful job. I was a four-year letter winner at Rutgers for swimming, so maintaining our intramural and athletic programs is something Id love to see. Its been one of the first things on the chopping block with all the budgetary constraints, but we do have some programs intact.
LICN: Do you have any inkling as to what programs might be in danger for next years budget?
FO: First off, I dont know whoever came up with the brainchild of annual budgets. Id much rather use multi-year ones. Right now I cannot tell you what our budget will look like for 2013 because were just starting to stick some numbers into it. My goal will be to do my very best to maintain all programs. If we have to cut, were going to try to find cuts in things that wont directly affect instructional programs, such as in administration, supplies, etc. I never want to directly compromise what happens in the classroom.
LICN: How does Colts Neck incorporate technology in the classroom?
FO: From my understanding, our technology budget has been reduced over the last three years. And thats a tough thing because there are so many avenues and resources for teachers to take advantage of, but if you dont have enough computers in every classroom or the proper bandwidth, it starts to detract from how technology can impact instruction. But its not as though those reductions have been detrimental. Our middle school report cards have gone online and were looking to do that for the whole district. We e-mail our board meeting agendas and give Powerpoint presentations. Im all about the green aspect, and technology is very helpful in that regard. Im going to try to turn that aspect of the budget around.
LICN: Since its tied into being green, are there grants that you can apply for to receive funds for technology?
FO: Ive been successful in obtaining competitive grants in the past, which is not an easy thing to do since theyre over 60 pages long and they are very competitive. But just about every grant that I have looked at in the recent years, if you dont have 40 percent of free and reduced lunch, youre not even eligible to apply. There are smaller grants, and the PTO has funded some grants within the district, but Colts Neck certainly doesnt fall into that 40 percent mark for the larger grants. Thats the benchmark they mostly use, and thats a shame.
LICN: Does the state have any mandates on what districts must have as far as technology?
FO: All of the PARCC assessments are going to be online soon, as well as the NJ ASK. Is it good to do it all online? Absolutely. The students will take the NJ ASK in April and May. We wont even get the results until August. By then schedules, placements, and assessments have all been done. If its online, we can get the results almost instantaneously. So if we get the results in April or May, we have the time to evaluate what has happened and maybe make some changes and implement them for the next school year.
LICN: What do you miss most about teaching?
FO: When I retire, I will go back to the classroom. I wish every teacher had the opportunity to be an administrator. I know that I would be a very different teacher than when I started. Back then, all I knew was that the teacher talked at you, gave you an assignment, and that was it. Id like to share some of the things that Ive learned into a classroom again because it would be a heck of a lot of fun.
LICN: How has education evolved since you were a teacher?
FO: Twenty years ago, were competing with kids around the block. Ten years ago, were competing with the ones across town. Now, were competing with the kids across the state, the country, and the world. These days it doesnt take much more to be successful than an idea and a website. Look at [Mark] Zuckerberg. Hes a billionaire. Did he manufacture anything? Did he have a plant? Have to worry about construction costs? Building costs? No, not really! I think that the kids today dont understand the opportunities that are out there, and education needs to do a better job of making them aware of the possibilities that are in front of them. We have to keep students competitive with the world. Our country still has some of the best universities and educational institutions out there. Are there tons of things we can fix? Absolutely. But we are one of the best in education, be it public or higher.
LICN: What do you like the most about being a superintendent?
FO: I truly like being involved in all assets: Finance, instruction and curriculum, special ed, dealing with the board of education, the parents, the teachers, the kids, transportation, custodial services....I enjoy having a hand in all of the aspects that go into the school district.
LICN: What do you like to do for recreation?
FO: When I get the chance, I like playing golf and spending time with the kids. I love to take them out to amusement parks. Im a bit of a neat freak so I like to work around the house when I have the time.
LICN: Thank you for your time today, Dr. Oberkehr, it was a pleasure to meet and speak with you.
FO: Thank you.
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