Dr. Fredrick McDowell is the newly appointed Superintendent of Trenton Public Schools. A native of North Carolina, McDowell is from a family of educators dating back as far as the 1960s through the early 2000s. However, he candidly admits that it wasn’t until later in life that he understood the impact that education has on an individual’s day-to-day life.
He most recently served as the Deputy Chief Academic Support Officer for the School District of Philadelphia, which attends to 130,000 students. He started his educational career as a Career and Technical Education Teacher in Durham Public Schools and became Principal in the Boston Public Schools district. In 2013, he became a Denver Public Schools Instructional Superintendent. He is also a 7th Degree Black Belt Grandmaster in Tae Kwon-Do, responsible for the overall development and general training of martial arts instructors and their students.
In his short tenure as Trenton’s Superintendent of Schools, he already has embarked on a number of initiatives that are intended to help school leaders grow, and provide a supportive learning atmosphere for student success. In a recent interview, he discussed his vision for the future and why health is important to academic performance.
Why did you take on the role of Superintendent for the Trenton School District?
I always wanted to be a part of truly transformational change, not just in a school system, but of a community. In my opinion, the school district is not defined by who the superintendent is, but by the collection of leaders large and small who are all working together for the betterment of our children. I believe that my experiences and skill set can contribute to the overall success of Trenton.
What is your vision for the Trenton School District?
I would love for us to be at a place where our children can compete with any child educated within the state of New Jersey and, ultimately, within the 50 states in this country.
What is the biggest challenge facing the school system?
The current performance is not meeting the expectations families have for their children and therefore calls for a major intervention in Trenton. I believe we need to take a more holistic view and determine what systems are contributing to the lack of performance. The board agenda is very clear—to make decisions per the recommendations of the superintendent and the leadership team that are in the best interest of children. We have yet to make the academic progress necessary for all students to be college and career ready. As a District, we must do a better job of understanding the changes that are coming, and be flexible enough to course correct when it is determined that the strategy is not sufficient.
Why is the support of the entire community important?
We are preparing our children to enter the world of work and to be contributing members of society. Therefore, we must also partner with the business community, as well as the city to increase financial opportunities for individuals when they finish their education.
What’s the correlation between academics and health?
Healthy children initiatives should be a critical part of the planning process to eliminate barriers that are preventing children from being their very best. Being healthy is a core foundational lever needed for children to be successful inside and outside of the classroom. If a child is unhealthy, it doesn’t matter what kind of intervention program you put in or how much tutoring you offer.
What health challenges do children face in Trenton?
One of the time sensitive challenges we have in our district is access to healthy food. If we are putting bad fuel in our children’s bodies, they are not going to run as efficiently and effectively as possible. When you add lack of high-quality nutritional food, coupled with lack of physical activity, it creates a host of medical challenges that we see manifest negatively in our classrooms and ultimately become barriers to children being academically successful. If a child is hungry, it makes it very difficult to concentrate and for them to learn. If a child is not physically healthy, they don’t come to school with regular attendance which prevents them from being successful in the classroom.
How are you creating a healthy school environment for Trenton children?
First, we have already met with our nutritional services provider (Aramark) to reset expectations regarding not just student participation, but also food quality and content. As a result, they have introduced a lot of new and expanded levels of service for students and families this year.
Second, we are bringing together multiple groups to begin to review our health and wellness policies to determine what changes are needed.
Third, we are also implementing a Community Health Collaborative (CHC) at selected Trenton schools. The program is funded by Novo Nordisk and involves ten local nonprofits working together to help our students get healthy. Activities include classroom gardens, taste tests, and fun physical fitness programs.
We want a significant increase in student participation with healthy, nutritious food in our cafes in every building. If we know that students are consuming two to three healthy meals a day, that starts the ball rolling in the right direction. Our goal is twofold: to make sure we have a district-wide implementation of the health and wellness plan and begin to start tracking data regarding student attendance and achievement. Also, we want to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and provide opportunities for students to gain control over their weight and tackle childhood obesity.
How do you plan to engage parents in this health journey?
Ultimately, I believe parents want to make good choices and good decisions for their children if they make sense. We must do a better job of bringing our parents along in the health and wellness discussion if we expect parents to help co-construct the solutions in their homes. More importantly, we must stop talking “at” our parents and talk “to” our parents. And, it’s important that we are very clear about what we are asking parents to do and that they are treated as true partners.
What about teacher engagement?
We cannot separate the health and wellness of our staff from our students if we want this to take hold long term. When teachers and staff members are healthy, they also come to work more often. If a teacher finds something that is benefiting their lives, most will share that with their students because they want their students to benefit as well.