One-on-one work helps this superintendent focus on his students--all 5,700 of them
It is not enough to visit the schools. It is not enough to walk the halls and wave. It is not enough to watch at the back of the classroom.
Tony Marchio, superintendent of the fast growing, 5,700-plus student district in Appoquinimink, Del., has plenty to do, but he still insists on working with students.
Well, he works with one student. He plays with the other.
The administrator is currently a mentor to two elementary school children. He spends an hour-and-a-half a week helping one with reading and the other with socialization. He started mentoring almost as soon as he arrived in the district some eight years ago. He did it to promote the district's elementary mentoring programs.
His choice has certainly garnered attention. There have been plenty of news stories about it, and he has received two awards for his commitment to mentoring.
There has been so much good press, his mentees can't help but get deft with handling journalists. It is one side benefit to working with the superintendent. The other is that when cafeteria food gets too icky or homework gets too hard, the mentees bend some powerful ears. Even if there is no more publicity, Marchio says mentoring is one activity that will never be booted from his schedule.
"It keeps me grounded," he says. "It puts the whole thing in perspective. You know, a lot can impact your decision-making process. This helps keep the focus on what is best for the children. Let the chips fall where they may. It helps me to be a more effective superintendent."
When Delaware Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff first heard about her colleague's activities, she did not bat an eye.
"I thought, 'Well, that's Tony,' " she says. "Tony could sit back in a district office, but he believes in getting to the grass-roots level."
Woodruff says Marchio's mentoring is a perfect example of how the administrator leads. "He doesn't say to people, 'Do as I say'; he is willing to be an example, one wonderful example."
Woodruff notes that Marchio is also quite committed to doing other forms of outreach within the district and in the community. Many superintendents, she says, do this during times of referendum, but Marchio keeps it up. "It is beyond PR," she says.
Marchio notes that any other effort would seem insincere to him and to others. "You can't just go out there when you want something," he says.
So Marchio not only finds time to mentor, he finds time to go to PTA meetings and football games, and to seek partnerships with businesses.
Twice a year, he conducts some 30 focus groups, comprised of various educational stakeholders. Recently, he met with a custodian, cook and secretary, as well as teachers, at Brick Mill Elementary School.
"Some really good ideas came out of that meeting," he says. One teacher told him that a staff development initiative in science was becoming a problem because sessions were being conducted too often during the school day. She told him one girl complained about her absences from the classroom.
Even if Marchio is unable to solve a particular problem, his listening helps. "If people are satisfied with their workplace and, more importantly, if they have a voice in it, then they will perform their job better," he says.
So, whether it is a student or an employee, Marchio says his leadership philosophy is to focus on individuals.
At Townsend Elementary School, about 90 mentors come in weekly to work with students. In the district's HOSTS mentoring program, which focuses on academics, every child in the program last year improved one grade level in reading.
"It is critical to get to know our students. Real gains in any system are made one student at a time," Marchio says.
Amy D'Orio is a contributing editor.