Joseph Meloche, the superintendent of schools in this New Jersey township, was mulling a massive purchasing decision: laptops or tablets for thousands of students. What kind of technology would keep students focused? Can young children keep track of and take care of pricey hardware?
So Meloche turned to a familiar sounding board: the students themselves.
“Are middle school kids responsible enough” to handle these devices? he asked during a recent town hall at Henry C. Beck Middle School.
Their answers were all over the map. One girl said, yes, she had her own assigned iPad in her previous district. It held her textbooks and was easy to carry. Another girl, though, argued that the tablets students at Beck already share get defaced. Some are missing their keys, she said. Another student worried they could lose valuable learning time if the technology “glitched out.”
The town hall at Beck, held last fall, wasn’t just about potential new devices, though. In response to Meloche’s questions, students touched on everything from the late start time for lunch—nearly one o’clock in the afternoon for some, even though school starts before 8 a.m.—to the school’s aging lockers, which always seem to get stuck.
- Listen, Then Act: Ask students what is going well, what needs to be improved, and what they need to be successful. Then, act on what they tell you.
- Words Matter: Use your words to build, to create, to empower, to guide, and children will follow suit.
- Build Relationships: Go out and meet families in their homes, attend community events, spend time in the library speaking with families and neighbors, and cultivate relationships with alumni.
The listening sessions are a critical part of Meloche’s strategy to get the best out of his already high-flying suburban district by elevating the voices of its students in decisionmaking. Longtime educators, he said, can sometimes get tunnel vision and continue doing things the same way for decades.
“I believe that we need to make sure [students’] voice, their opinions, their thoughts are shared and that we actually listen to them,” Meloche said. “We forget that kids, this is their one time coming through high school. This is the one experience they have, and we need to ask them what they think.”
Meloche held similar town halls at each of the district’s three middle schools and three high schools this past fall. He’ll go back to every one of those schools at least two more times before the end of the school year as part of his push to get student perspective.
Meloche tells principals to send in a cross-section of students, not just the academic superstars. Most town halls have somewhere between a dozen and 20 students. At Beck, Meloche made sure every student in the room got a chance to share, asking quieter children what books they had read lately to draw them out.
Since Meloche took over as superintendent of the 11,000-student district more than two years ago, students have brought problems to the surface that school leaders didn’t see on their own. For instance, some English teachers spent weeks at the beginning of each school year discussing summer reading assignments, while others never even collected them. So the program got a makeover. One twist, at students’ request: High school students are now offered a choice of novels, with a different unifying theme for each grade.
Students have helped pinpoint solutions, too. The district recently started teaching biology in 9th grade, but students struggled more with the subject than expected. After talking to students, Meloche’s team realized the problem wasn’t just the challenging content. Students started the class having to catch up on basic procedures, like filling out a particular type of lab report. Cherry Hill began introducing those skills in 8th grade, so students would start freshman year prepared to concentrate on the course material.
“From the student town hall meetings came a review of the curriculum back at the district level and with the high schools and actual changes as to how [biology] is being implemented,” said Meloche, who noted that he may not have been able to understand the problem as well without talking to students. “All of the children are incredibly insightful.”
Students were even brought to the table to upgrade lackluster lunches. Meloche’s team set up a focus group with the district’s food-service providers and allowed children to taste test potential new menu items and weigh in on what they liked and didn’t.
That’s not to say that the district acts on every concern that students bring to the forefront. Some, like the schools’ early start time, require state action. And others—like allowing high school students to leave the school grounds at lunch time—just aren’t logistically feasible.
But even when the district can’t fix something or adopt a policy or approach suggested by students, Meloche believes it’s important for them to feel heard. And he thinks they can inadvertently reveal some insights about how they perceive their education. For instance, during the Beck town hall, one student prefaced a comment about her language arts class by telling Meloche she isn’t very good at math or science.
That got the superintendent’s attention.
“Why are kids not good at it yet? You’re not good at it because you haven’t had the connection of how do you engage,” he said in an interview later. He expects other students might feel similarly. “I guarantee she’s not the anomaly.”
The student’s remark, Meloche said, would prompt a follow-up request with the school’s new acting principal, Bernie O’Connor, who he once mentored, to take a deeper look at Beck’s math and science instruction at the student’s grade level.
“It’s not a punitive,” he said. “It’s not a negative. We have to always get better. Teaching is a lot of work. Educating kids is hard.”
Meloche spent time as a school leader himself before becoming superintendent. Meloche, 46, grew up in Cherry Hill. He came back in 2003 to be the principal of Kingston Elementary on Cherry Hill’s west side, where he’d once been a student and where his mother still taught kindergarten. He then became principal of his own former middle and high schools, following some of the same children throughout their K-12 careers.
Meloche also consults with the district’s alumni. He checks in regularly with a group of recent Cherry Hill graduates to find out how well their experiences in the district prepared them for life beyond high school.
Sean Bivins, a 2013 Cherry Hill alum who recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, said the district was strong academically. But Cherry Hill could have done a better job exposing him to skills he uses daily as an employee at the financial-services company Wells Fargo, such as collaborating with colleagues or using Microsoft Office. He thinks students could benefit from instruction on financial literacy, a skill he saw friends struggle with in college.
Bivins and other alumni have helped district leaders revise the school system’s mission statement, putting a greater focus on getting students ready for the world of work and life after high school.
School leaders in Cherry Hill have been following Meloche’s lead and make seeking student input a regular part of their practice. One high school principal has set up his own student “executive committee.” And Meloche has encouraged principals to shadow their students from time to time to get a fuller picture of what their experience is like on a typical school day. Their enthusiasm is a sign that the initiatives will endure even if Meloche were to leave.
“He does things through modeling,” said John J. Cafagna, the principal of John A. Carusi Middle School. He’s found that getting student input on changes “squelches issues in the classroom because now it’s their school.” If students have a role in shaping rules, procedures, and programs, they are more likely to buy in to them, he explained.
Chelsea Monahan, a former Cherry Hill student who now teaches 4th grade in the district, said Meloche’s direct connections to students and understanding of their needs isn’t new. It was a trait he cultivated when he was her principal at Cherry Hill West High School. When Monahan left Cherry Hill to play ice hockey at a high school in Canada, Meloche helped ensure that her credits transferred. Even more importantly, he called once a semester to get an update on her academically, and athletically. And he was in regular touch with her Canadian guidance counselor.
Now, as an educator herself, Monahan has learned from Meloche. She surveys her students once a month to see what they think is working well in her classroom and what could be going better.
“I think he definitely cares what the students think,” she said. “They know who he is, which is huge. They all know when Dr. Meloche is in the building.”
I believe we need to make sure [students’] voices, their opinions, their thoughts are shared and that we actually listen to them.
Meloche’s move to make student voice a central part of his school improvement strategy isn’t typical, said Gretchen Brion-Meisels, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“I think it’s unusual for superintendents to meet regularly with students in a way that’s structured and systemic and systematically incorporates their feedback into district policy,” said Brion-Meisels, who has studied the impact of elevating student voice but has not specifically examined the work in Cherry Hill. She said it’s more common on a classroom or school level, but rarely, if ever, has she seen it at the district level.
Giving students the opportunity to voice their opinion can be a “very positive thing” as long as the feedback is “not lip-service” and adults follow through, incorporating students’ ideas into the school or district’s mission, structure, and curriculum.
“He is just Cherry Hill,” said J. Barry Dickinson, the president of the school board that hired and oversees Meloche. “He knows virtually every single person in town. … His ever-presence in the buildings themselves is kind of extraordinary. He’s always talking to students.”
‘A Seat at the Table’
The emphasis on student voice builds on the work of Meloche’s predecessor, Maureen Reusche, now the superintendent in Haverford, Pa. She started the town halls, but Meloche expanded them to three times a year and includes more schools in the mix.
Meloche has also made a point of reaching out to the community. Cherry Hill, which is right outside Philadelphia, has long been mostly white, primarily serving the children of college-educated professionals. The area, though, is rapidly diversifying, with an influx of Asian and Hispanic families.
Meloche holds monthly Saturday morning “chat-n-chew” sessions for families and community members, often at district elementary schools. And he hosts an online “lunch with the superintendent” to talk about the district’s work or share information with community members. Earlier this year, Meloche and Cherry Hill’s chief of police conducted a session on school security and safety drills.
And he’s made home visits, targeting children and families who are new to the district or in foster care. He also makes a point of being visible in each of the schools and attending as many chorus concerts, school sporting events, and school plays as possible.
Meloche is always “making sure students have a seat at the table, whether it’s at a board of education meeting, a conversation regarding curriculum,” or a meeting to set short- and long-term goals, said Chuck Cahn, the mayor of Cherry Hill. “He just relates to so many people, especially kids. … He has a way of listening and bringing people together.”
Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2018 edition of Education Week