Dr. Monique Felder is certain there are many fun and exciting things to do in Hillsborough and other parts of Orange County. She’s confident she’ll get back to tending a garden and running regularly for exercise. But for now, the Superintendent of Orange County Schools is determined and focused on one thing: The children.
“My favorite part of my job is, and has always been, the children. If you’re having a bad day, you need to go visit a school,” said Dr. Felder.
Dr. Felder has visited many schools. The native New Yorker has led school systems in New York City, Maryland and Nashville. Felder found that in each system, often far larger than Orange County’s, there were similar challenges: children needing support; children who were not proficient in reading; low math scores; and, achievement gaps.
“I go to places I think I can make a difference for children,” Dr. Felder said. She was making a difference in Nashville.
“I was fortunate to be working with a group of motivated people who were on the same page as me,” she said. “In three short years we were able to make a huge impact, bringing achievement rates up to where we were outscoring the state average in literacy. We increased graduation rates and ACT scores. We decreased suspensions. That’s not something you do by yourself. You need a team, and the support of a board and educators.”
Dr. Felder has brought the same strategy and work ethic to her job in Orange County. She said she starts with a sort of barnstorming of information-gathering events and opportunities.
“I’m in a mode of trying to understand different perspectives in terms of what’s working and what’s not,” Dr. Felder said. “Where there are challenges and opportunities. I’m doing a lot of listening and learning. I like to hit the ground running. People haven’t been shy. With some I’ve needed to do outreach, in terms of just putting myself out there. Not digging in here at central office, but getting out and about. That’s why you might see me a lot, because it’s important that I’m out and about. It’s important that I’m available and accessible beyond just the forums that have been set up.”
Being a school superintendent is not for the faint of heart. A person has to be willing to listen to the frustrations of parents, teachers, students and other community members. It’s not often that a school superintendent keeps a high profile and holds a dozen public forums.
“Some people have raised their eyebrows, and been like, “Wow! You’re doing 12 (forums),” Felder said. “Yes, we want to come into every community. We’re willing to do more than that if we have to. If we don’t reach the masses through these listen-and-learns, I’m going to need help. Whatever it takes to reach the masses to get their input and get their perspectives and insight. They know this town better than I do. I really want to hear from everyone about what’s working, where the challenges are and what we can do to improve.
“I’m pretty transparent. I don’t believe in smoke and mirrors and not being forthright,” Dr. Felder said. “You can’t fix and address challenges if you’re not. I also believe that the school district is owned by the community. It takes all of us to move the needle in student achievement.”
While the challenges facing Orange County Schools are similar to those found in other school systems, Felder said the system has many assets that helped lure her away from Nashville.
“The people here are a tremendous asset. This is a great community that is very engaged. It is very much involved, and seeks other ways to be involved. And that’s good. That’s a good place to start. I just think that we can improve, from a district standpoint,” she said.
Dr. Felder said she has plans for how to leverage the willingness of the community.
“We’ve got all these ready hands wanting to know how they can help. All that’s great,” she said. “But we have to be clear on what our needs are and I do believe that more isn’t always better. We have to start small and be very focused on a few things and do those few things well. And then help our partners understand how they can assist. My experience in my 28 years in this field is that you have to engage those with willing hands and guide them to ways they can help.”
The superintendent is optimistic she can make changes, but she also knows it will take time. Again, she does not hide from a challenge.
“I think, certainly, the achievement gap here is an issue, as it is in other places. It’s a national problem, but it is as dire here as it is other places,” Felder said. “I think it can be overcome. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve been a part of those movements in those districts, so I know it can happen here. It’s a challenge, particularly around literacy. I had an opportunity to take a deeper dive into our data. I know the schools are working hard, I see it with my own eyes. When I walk into classrooms, I’m engaging with teachers and principals. I know what we’ve been endeavoring to do here at central office to support the schools. But our data is frightening when we think about the skills our students need to be successful in the 21st century and beyond. Right now, the need is with literacy data in particular, but the math is not that great either. But literacy cuts across all content areas. If students can’t read, write, listen, speak and think critically, how can they engage in this democracy?”
Dr. Felder takes a different approach to a child’s access to quality education.
“Effectively. I look at it as a civil right,” she said. “I’m not in the business of putting up a barrier to someone having opportunities that I have. We can’t ignore the fact that children have basic needs. If I’m coming to school and I’m hungry, or if I’m coming to school and I’m afraid, or if I’m coming to school and I may be homeless, or if I don’t know where I’m going to lay my head the next night, it’s very difficult for me to be engaged. How do we wrap our services around our students and their families to provide that social/emotional support?
“So the academics and the social/emotional go hand-in-hand. And as I’ve mentioned, I believe this is work that is not done in a vacuum. Increasing outcomes for children truly is the community’s work and the village’s work. We say, ‘Here are the challenges. Here’s how we can engage you. Here’s where you can help.’”
As for not having fun, Dr. Felder said it doesn’t mean she doesn’t enjoy her job.
“My top priority is making sure our children have what they need to succeed. That’s quite time consuming and quite rewarding. But I know there’s a lot of fun around. I’ve taken walks on trails. I try to do a walk every week. Typically on Sundays. This is a great area. I love the diversity. I look forward to being able to take greater advantage of the theaters, galleries and all the wonderful things this town has to offer. I’m just not there yet.”