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EXCLUSIVE: A talk with Dr. Mary Czajkowski

“We treat public school education as a business and we begin with customer service.”
Dr. Mary Czajkowski.
Barnstable School Superintendent Dr. Mary Czajkowski.

Dr. Mary Czajkowski has served as Barnstable’s school superintendent for just over a year and a half. In that short time she has already confronted school competition on the Cape and stared it right back in the face.

At the time Czajkowski joined Barnstable the district had just seen an up-tick in the number of local students who chose to attend other districts under school choice. In Fiscal 2012, Barnstable school choice funding had fallen to a loss of $163,673 versus a modest profit of $21,385 the prior year. Many believed this school choice “shrinkage” was outfall from the 2008 reorganization of the district which closed several elementary buildings and re-configured the middle school grade levels.

One year later, after considerable work by Dr. Czajkowski and her team, the district’s school choice loss has dropped to $66,571 – a swing of some $97,000 in the right direction. This was accomplished by increasing the number of in-bound school choice students and despite eight more Barnstable students’ emigration to other districts.

Biggest District, Biggest Challenges

No Cape Cod school district has more to lose than Barnstable in the current “market” of school competition. Perhaps no other district is as vulnerable as our largest school district. Barnstable has lost 24.51% of its students since 2001, a drop of 1,697 students.

Barnstable’s losses include the same decline in population that all Cape districts have experienced along with the additional challenge of having one of the nation’s best charter high schools just down the street from their own high school. Additionally, Pope John Paul II Catholic High School opened on the old Barnstable High School campus just a few years back.

In addition to over 100 students who attend other districts under school choice, Barnstable also loses students to Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School. 46 Barnstable students applied for the charter middle school’s lottery this year.

Recent weeks have told the story of a group hoping to open a grade K-5 charter elementary school in the mid-Cape area.

Besides the demographic shift, the district recently received negative national publicity over the disciplining of a student at Hyannis West Elementary School’s after-care program.

The district also received harsh criticism from this news site over the de-facto segregation of Hyannis West Elementary School.

According to statistics provided to Cape Cod Today by Dr. Czajkowski, Barnstable has seen a 57% growth in “English learners” over the past five years. Barnstable’s enrollment of low income students has grown by 67% - from 1,142 students in 2008 to 1,909 today. 36.5% of Barnstable’s 5,227 students now fall into the low income classification.

Former athlete, practicing competitor

It was with great anticipation that we sat down recently for an exclusive interview with Superintendent Czajkowski who visited Cape Cod Today with her good friend Carol Woodbury, Dennis-Yarmouth superintendent of schools.

Mary is a dynamic, enthusiastic woman – a former athlete who, in her words, has “learned the benefits of competition and have applied these lessons to my life on a daily basis. Competition is something one should not fear – but rather embrace as an opportunity to push oneself to the next level.” The superintendent strikes us as driven and feisty, both observed in the most complimentary context.

Czajkowski sees competition as “healthy as long as everyone is playing by the same rules…” While citing her grievance that charter schools don’t play on an even field with traditional schools, Mary pledges, “I will compete no matter what the rules.”

This ideal is exemplified at many levels of her work as superintendent. Last year she brought nationally-recognized leadership program (National Institute for School Leaders) to help develop Barnstable’s “future aspiring teachers and administrators.” Last year 20 staff members participated in the 18-month leadership program and approximately 23 more have signed up to begin the program in May.

Superintendent makes "House Calls”

When Mary arrived at Barnstable in the summer of 2011, she set about getting to know the community and helping parents get to know her. One of those practices is what she calls “Superintendent House Calls”. “Similar to the olden days of ‘doctor house calls,' parents invited me (and their neighbors, friends) into their home for a potluck supper and we informally talked in their living room/kitchen about Barnstable Public Schools and how we work together (superintendent and parents) for the benefit of their child. Last year I conducted approximately 15 of these parent house calls.”

Czajkowski also visits various schools in the district to eat lunch with students, teachers and administrators. She wants the students to know who she is and to be accessible to the school community from top to bottom.

Retail Education

In our recent story on an interview with DY superintendent Carol Woodbury, we coined the term “retail education”. We envision successful practice of retail education as a top-to-bottom, district-wide commitment to excellent customer service and high customer satisfaction among the “consumers” of public education – the families that trust their children’s education to a local school district.

Mary Czajkowski exemplifies much of what we value in retail education. “I wholeheartedly agree with my colleague and friend Carol [Woodbury] – we treat it as a business and we begin with customer service. We communicate and publicize what we have to offer – our product is our students and families. We reach out and provide that personalized service, while continually reflecting upon how we can improve.”

Anyone who has worked in the tourism industry knows this type of self-awareness is the most difficult. It’s never pleasant to pick over the debris of a failed customer experience but every successful tourism business must examine the causes of and response to these situations if they want to survive and succeed in a competitive resort community.

On the topic of school choice, Mary is succinct: “I support choice for families and students as no student is alike and I don’t believe in ‘one size fits all.’ We need to work with families and students to ensure that the ‘needs of individual students’ are met no matter what the cost.”

How Barnstable Competes

“As the leader of a public school, I must continually ‘think outside of the box’ for ways to communicate what Barnstable Public School has to offer for programs and services. I have heard that some feel Barnstable is too big...how do I counter that? Our motto ‘Dream Big, Dream Barnstable.’”

“We offer some of the best programs in the Commonwealth----arts, Advanced Placement courses, multiple languages, music, drama, athletics---an outdoor learning classroom ‘The Astro Park’---and the testament to these programs---our students are accepted into some of the most prestigious colleges, art, music, Ivy League schools in the country...”

“Another reason Barnstable prides itself on its uniqueness...because of our size we are in rich in student diversity, which provides an environment that is more realistic to the real world and what students will encounter when they graduate.”

Dr. Czajkowski has invested in future leadership in the district through the aforementioned National Institute for School Leaders program. Barnstable’s town government has recently staked its future on “promoting from within” as evidenced by the current town administrator and his deputy. It is pleasing to see the school district following suit by devoting resources to leader development. Perhaps the superintendent is nurturing her own successor somewhere in the ranks of current staff.

Looming on the agenda is a realignment of the district’s K-3 buildings. As Mary told us, “I am more concerned regarding the re-districting of the K-3 buildings at this time. Hyannis West currently houses 2 district programs, which I feel should be distributed to other K-3 schools.

“While the opening of a new K-5 charter school may draw some Barnstable students, we are also experiencing a slight growth in our kindergarten population and I am unsure that this new K-5 charter would force us to close another elementary school. It would depend upon our numbers.”

“As I indicated I do believe that choice, charter and competition is healthy as long as we are all playing by the same rules. Since my arrival to Barnstable, I do think we are taking positive steps forward to communicate to the public, parents, students, and the community the many educational benefits Barnstable Public Schools has to offer.”

A Critical Two Years

The next two years are critical for Barnstable’s schools. With an elementary realignment on the agenda and some parents uncomfortable with the Barnstable United/Barnstable Intermediate configuration, the administration must remain vigilant to customer satisfaction. The next two years are all about retention, followed by advancement.

It is possible Barnstable could extinguish the proposed K-5 charter school if they handle a K-3 re-districting in a sensitive manner while making the changes necessary for more students to succeed.

However it is also possible that a highly politicized re-districting (for which Barnstable is somewhat notorious) could drive more families into school choice and charter choice mode.

Meanwhile, it’s only a matter of time until a second charter middle school forms – and the mid-Cape is the logical venue for that endeavor.

Just next door, the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District is a sleeping giant coming awake. As DY develops more skill in marketing itself and demonstrates results, their schools may become a more attractive alternative for disaffected Barnstable families.

Every Cape school district that’s hiring a superintendent this year should look carefully at the model Dr. Mary Czajkowski practiced when she joined Barnstable. Her “getting to know you” efforts in the community are a model for any “not from the Cape” school executives that are hired from this point forward. Parents, students, staff and taxpayers need to feel confident in local school leadership today more than ever.

No school district is at higher risk than Barnstable in the competition between Cape districts. The next two years will see either a stronger, more vibrant school community or will bear witness as Barnstable becomes the next carrion feast for better-marketed schools.

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