When Dr. John E. Fredericksen arrived on the Lower Shore from the Upper Midwest six years ago, some people wondered if he fully realized what he was getting himself into.
Wicomico County’s school system had been through a rough phase, as budgets were adjusted in the wake of the county’s revenue cap and the economy impacted school spending. At the same time, several schools became due for renovation or replacement, and lots of people had different ideas about how to proceed.
A surge of teacher retirements was due to affect recruitment, as Wicomico was faced with trying to match next-door Worcester County, which both pays more and offers smaller class sizes.
Over his tenure, the superintendent of Wicomico County Public Schools has lead the school system in pursuing the Strategic Priorities of High Student Achievement, Safe Learning Environment, and Effective and Efficient Operations. He is known for his formal-yet-friendly style, and can often be sharing a meal and conversation with a group of students at any of the county’s school lunchrooms.
An accomplished musician, Frederickson was appointed to a second four-year term in 2012. He has more than four decades of experience in public education, serving as everything from a music teacher to a principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent.
Dr. Frederickson was interviewed at the office in the school board’s headquarters building on Long Avenue.
Q. You’re midway through your second term now, having served since 2008. How is it going?
A. It’s going very well.
Educationally, for students, we’re decreasing the achievement gap. We are maintaining and increasing our high-performing learners opportunities, we have implemented a new curriculum, a new testing system, a new teacher evaluation system.
We are one of only eight school systems in the state that received approval on the first go-around for our teacher-principal evaluation system.
Q. This is something new for the teachers?
A. It’s a monumental change from the old system, which was totally a professional assessment system by observation to a system where half of it is professional observation procedures and half is some form of student assessment in terms of student performance.
That is a sea change; that is a polarity change. And we were able to do that, and we were able to do that holding hands, talking and working through every detail, and it was approved. It wasn’t where we came up with something that was weak and watered down — it was something that was quality and it was approved.
Q. It seems like there’s a bit of a backlash against testing because there’s been so much testing pressure.
A. I’m positive there’s going to be a lawsuit. They had a pretty severe backlash two or three years ago. Some (teacher accountability proponents) filed a FOIA in New York — they wanted the list of all of the scores of all of the teachers. And for some reason or another, someone had made this listing up and said, “OK, this is the teacher who got the most positive points and this is the teacher who got the least.”
And then they went and harassed the daylights out of the teacher who got the least. This (happened to be) a teacher who was teaching ESOL (English as a Second Language) — students of other languages. This teacher was working with kids who don’t speak English, and (the critics) harassed the daylights out of her.
There were violations of privacy — her family was even getting (harassed). That’s not right.
My goal is to operate my shop so that we do what’s best for kids — that is, look at the law, look at the student-learning objectives for teachers — and that’s 50 percent for a teacher’s evaluation, but figure out how to work it, figure out how what we can make a valued measurement.
Q. Tell me about the school system’s Faith Partners.
A. Every school has at least one Faith Partner today. Six years ago, we had maybe a third or a fourth of our schools had some form of Faith Partner.
At Bennett Middle, they had I think 500 people show up on a Saturday and just busted their humps and transformed parts of it and said “we love you, we care about you’ to our kids. That’s exciting.
That faith-based partner was Oak Ridge Baptist Church, which is partner to Bennett Middle, Wicomico High and Glen Avenue Elementary. The Bennett Middle School Extreme Makeover project took place in June 2013.
A lot of people want to say: “They’ve driven God out of the public schools” and the like.
The fact is we have to be respectful to all of the people who come into our schools. It’s not like sometime in the past where everybody in the community was Lutheran or Baptist or Methodist or whatever it was.
Today we have multiple religions that have multiple perspectives and they’re supporting the same common themes: be respectful, don’t hurt people, learn, prepare for the future — and that’s exciting to see, it’s exciting to be a part of that.
One of the lucky things for me is that I get a bully pulpit and get to invite people to sit at this table and we talk about those kinds of issues.
Our Family Leadership Council, they have some good ideas and they don’t all agree when they sit down but they agree to disagree agreeably, and they help us shape the education we offer kids. It’s an exciting time to be superintendent.
Q. What makes a good teacher?
A. Passion. Passion for kids.
A teacher can be competent in their subject area, and I’ve had a lot of competent people over the years, but that is second to having that passion, having that drive that causes them to say: “I want to be with those kids. I want to help that kid. I want to help every kid.”
If they don’t have that passion, that love for kids, the kids will read it. The kids just aren’t going to do it.
There are some technical skills that will help do the job, but it’s the emotion that’s going to put that kid over the top. The kid reads the emotional drive of that teacher. They can tell if that teacher is sitting there thinking: “One more day until retirement … help me ….”
The kid reads that and the kid responds to that.
Q. Isn’t that a lot to ask of teachers?
A. You can’t have passion without competence. We’ve all seen that in various settings — the person who is going to help you out but you realize they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re all gung ho and they’re happy, but they have no clue.
The No. 1 thing is the drive — the passion and the determination that they’re going to do it, and they’re not going to stop until they do.
I have teachers who have been preparing for the start of this school year for months.
A teacher has to be prepared to go the extra mile.
Kids have it hard. Maybe that child (the day before coming to school) had something bad happen. Maybe mom and dad split the night before. Maybe the car broke down. Maybe their house situation is not the way you would like it to be.
And this (school) is that place where they know that they’re cared about, that they’re loved, and they’re doing something important.
And the teacher has to be able to have the drive to say: “You know, Billy doesn’t really care (about a specific subject), but he really does care about guitars, or he really is interested in Nascar. So the teacher draws Billy’s attention to an article about Nascar in the (school) library or in the classroom.
That’s when the learning really occurs.
Q. Is teaching a profession or a calling?
A. I think it’s more of a calling. Goodness knows, more professions get more money!
I think it is a calling because, at the end of the day, most of them could make more money and have a more consistent life — and not have to deal with some of the other things — because every day as a teacher you’re going to make a decision that someone’s going to like and someone’s not going to like.
And when you walk down the aisle at the grocery store, and you come around the corner, and there’s the kid who didn’t get — whatever — didn’t get into this program or didn’t get the grade that they thought that they should, then you have to deal with that.
If is a calling, you just say yourself “that’s a part of what I do.”
For our teachers, their salaries are above what most people make in the community. But if they look at people with similar abilities and educational accomplishments (who aren’t teachers), they’re making less money. So it’s got to be a calling.
Q. You came here from Minnesota. Do students in the Upper Midwest share any of the same traits as kids on the Eastern Shore?
A. There’s a lot of things that are different, and a lot that are the same. The differences are subtle and not-so-subtle. But the similarities far outweigh the differences.
The community is highly engaged there, they run smaller school systems, the average school system in Minnesota is 800 kids, maybe a thousand (Wicomico is 14,500).
There are about 325 to 330 school districts in Minnesota. Here (in Maryland) a 15,000-student school system is in the middle, though large for the Eastern Shore, but wimpy when compared to the Baltimore area.
Schools there are town oriented and led.
There is a similar level of technology.
In Minnesota, the local Board of Education determines its funding, whereas here the County Council makes that determination, so there’s a constant (political) discussion that goes back and forth.
But at the end of the day, the families are still as interested in their kids. There’s a lot of pride there, just like here, when we can keep kids in the community, bring them back after college. They celebrate that there as we do here.
The similarities are greater than the differences.
Q. We recently interviewed Dr. Kel Nagel, a former school board president, and he was a bit critical of our lack of community support. Do you agree?
A. It was surprising to me in that it didn’t really set with me until I got into it and involved more that there really is no control over your local money by the local Board of Ed.
The money comes from the state and the feds and the county, and you can advocate and you can try to influence but at the end of the day, you don’t have it.
Were it not for the state, we would be in a world of hurt. We had two years where we lost $7 million — where we went backwards — and it wasn’t a situation where we covered inflation — we went backwards, and we have not made that up.
So, subsequently, we have given up components that we felt were very valuable to our kids — our reading coaches, our math coaches, and some other specialists that supported the teachers in the classroom.
We had to do that because the Board of Education and I strongly support keeping our classroom teachers corps intact, that is keeping the same number of teachers per thousand students — that’s how Maryland measures it, from when we started the budget cutting process six years ago until today.
So, when I arrived, the funding system was a bit confusing. We’ve worked with the County Council to get them to understand our issues, and with the community, to try to get them to give us the most they can afford.
And the state has been very helpful. When the chips were down, the state came through.
Q. What are the educational problems that are unique to Wicomico County schools?
A. Geographically, we’re spread out, so we have some inefficiencies, so we have to spend more money on transportation than we might otherwise.
I think we have some facility issues, we have some some older facilities, and when you’re dealing with an older facility, everything is more expensive and everything is a bigger project.
We have a challenge to try and get the curriculum and train up on it. In a lot of schools, if you have an extra dollar or two, you can bring your teachers in and say “we’ll pay you your stipends and we’re going to do 10 days of some extra training” on (as an example) the English curriculum or the whatever it is.
When you don’t have any money like that, you crunch it down to the minimum you can do. So we’ve got 10 days of staff development and training at the beginning and spread out through the year. That may seem like a lot, but any good organization should be doing between 2 (percent) and 3 percent of its budget and time in staff development activities.
Q. How are the parents?
A. There are challenges in having the parent (and) community engaged.
If you walk into a classroom, a typical classroom has five rows of desk. In our community, with free and reduced meals (as an indicator of students from needy households) the first three rows of kids you walk by are kids who cannot afford to pay for food, they qualify for free and reduced meals.
You cannot make very much money and still qualify.
When you have a child that’s living in that economic environment, there are things that make them school dependent, and if you have a large concentration of kids in that situation, it changes the atmosphere, that changes how you take care of business.
When you want to get together with their folks, the situation is changed. They just can’t come in today at 10 o’clock (for a parent-teacher meeting).
It’s hard to get up with parents, to find them — many of them are working two or three jobs and all of them are low-wage and none of them have benefits. They don’t have sick leave, they don’t have all of these tools that many of us in American society kind of think that everybody has.
We have great teachers.
If we we weren’t doing a good job, everyone would know. Salisbury University puts 700 student (teachers) in our buildings every day to watch our teachers in action. They will watch for a while, but then you see them (engaging) with students and participating. It helps and it’s a great success and our test scores prove it.
Q. You have the new Bennett Middle School coming on line, what’s after that?
A. We are very excited about that.
After Bennett Middle is West Salisbury Elementary. That’s going to be a very exciting project.
In between those two is the completion of the James M. Bennett High project, which will involve the removal of the current Bennett Middle building and redevelopment of the Bennett complex to serve the high school.
Q. Why was Bennett Middle such a difficult project to get approved?
A. The money. It’s a huge project. There are 140 to 150 construction workers out there right now.
When you live in a community where there’s a very strong interest in keeping taxes low, a project like this is a big chunk of change. A high percentage of our families do not have kids in school, so they do not see a direct benefit.
I think the political perspectives are to address those concerns and to serve their referential communities.
In my book, Bennett Middle is the next right thing to do. Most people haven’t studied the details, so they don’t know why it’s better to replace a building in a certain situation and repair a building in a certain situation. We have specialists who help make those determinations, but a lot of people still don’t understand.
Q. Where did you get your love of music and performing?
A. My whole family has been into music forever. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a piano tuner, my father and mother both played piano and sang, and I just — since I was a kid — liked to play guitar and play piano and play trombone or whatever.
I find that I need to learn something new every now and again, whether it’s wood carving or whatever.
So, the last few years I’ve taken up learning to play mandolin and banjo. I just enjoy it.
I like playing for people. We played for the NAACP (schools) kick-off last week — I just have a great time.
When I’m up there playing, all that other (work) stuff goes out of my head. I have plenty of things to focus on when playing with the band.
The Greeks studied creativity and their theory was that you need to study something very intensely. Then you need to put it aside for some time — maybe a day, maybe a week, whatever that period of time is is different for each person, depending on the issue, and then come back to it and you’ll have a better resolution to the problem.
And playing music forces me to do that.
Your mind breaks away and your subconscious has a chance to work on things. Music does that for me, and I hope I’m a better person because of it.
Q. What can people do in the community to help the school system?
A. They can do a little, or they can do a lot.
If they can only do a little, for example, just come to Delmarvacade (the annual bands competition, on Oct. 11). They pay their entry fee and the kids see one more face up in the stands.
It’s one night for two hours and the public gets to see some wonderful musicians and marching and all of that stuff.
They can do a lot by calling us and joining us as a mentor. We have 800 kids who are signed up who don’t have mentors. We have 600 or 700 hundred who do have mentors but we are woefully short there. That’s an hour (commitment) every week.
Become aware, become engaged — it would be great. Some people have taken it on as a mission. They benefit and so do our kids.
There are lots of points of engagement. If there’s just one more church out there that wants to become one of our Faith-based Partners, that would be terrific.
You’ll notice, I am not asking: Give us money. We’ll take that too, but being engaged is very valuable.
Q. Are we too soft on the weather here?
A. (Long pause.)
If you’d have asked me the night I interviewed here, back in the winter of 2008, I would have said yes.
That night there were some little crunchy snowflakes falling, nothing major. As part of my interview tour of the town, we rode by the Giant.
People were swarming the store, they’re parked on the far side of World Gym. People were stocking up. I thought it was crazy.
So, then, I would have said yes.
After having lived here now over six years, I would say no.
We are dealing with many legacy roads, a large portion of them are severely crowned, they’re narrower, many don’t have shoulders.
Our ditches are deep, very steep and usually filled with water. If a bus goes off the road into a ditch, the entire bus can end up with six wheels off the ground. So it doesn’t take much to screw things up.
The fog here is bad. We have a lot of it.
I’ve gotten a lot of razing from people at times, but every time I’ve replied that we have not changed the standards, we have not changed the people.
In fact, most of the people who go out and do the road checking are the same people who have been doing it for years, 10 years before I got here.
They call me at at 5 in the morning, by then I’ve been looking at the weather reports, we talk, and we usually agree pretty quickly — within 60 seconds — what the decision will be.
Q. It has been observed, humorously, that we never had so much miserable school-closing weather until you moved here. Did you bring the Minnesota winters with you?
A. I’ve read up on that. There were lots of bad winters here before I arrived!
Q. What do you like about living here?
A. A number of things. I love the fresh vegetables and fruit. This area has brought truck gardening to a high art. The sugar-baby watermelons they have now are great. The white corn — the sweet corn — I love it.
I haven’t figured out how to do chicken like people here do, but I have figured out how to do softshell crab.
I like riding bicycle (wondering if this should be motorcycle; we might have to check with him). I’m getting to play a little guitar in my church and I like that.
And I like the people. The people are nice. I really like the people.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at email@example.com