During the summer, Robert Sokolowski ’12 Ed.D., the superintendent of the West Chester Area School District (WCASD), scheduled a series of listening sessions with parents of elementary school students within the district. He plans to expand the sessions and make them more community-oriented, so that he can meet with different groups of parents in locations that are convenient for them.
“Coming to a school is not exactly as inviting as it may be for one parent as it is for another parent,” he said. “I want to be able to connect with our parents in different parts of our community.”
He is covering a lot of ground, as the WCASD is the second largest in Chester County, enrolling more than 12,000 students within its 17 schools. The listening sessions are an important way for him to understand families and provide an opportunity for parents to feel heard.
“Communications can be like physics,” Sokolowski said. “There’s the reaction, and then there is the opposite reaction. There’s this push and pull.”
As a lifelong educator, Sokolowski has honed his leadership skills. Coming to the West Chester Area School District in 2004 as an assistant principal for B. Reed Henderson High School, Sokolowski was promoted to principal in 2008. He enrolled in Immaculata’s Ed.D. in educational leadership and became the director of secondary education after he completed his doctorate. Starting in 2015, he served as the assistant superintendent for WCASD before succeeding Dr. James Scanlon last fall.
Now, he is the person people go to for information or if they have a problem. He defined his leadership style as always being accessible.
“I receive a lot of emails and a lot of phone calls. I really take pride in making sure I get back to people. They may not have gotten the answers they were hoping for, but I always took pride in responding to make sure people have the information.”
In his role, Sokolowski needs to have the ability to actively listen, show compassion and respect and have a meaningful discussion, even if he doesn’t see eye-to-eye. He recognizes that the natural reaction to conflict is to get out of the situation as fast as possible. However, he has learned that if you rush or ignore a problem, the conflict is not going to go away. It is going to be prolonged, and it will be harder to come to a solution, said Sokolowski.
Since his promotion to superintendent last August. Sokolowski has faced his share of challenges, especially COVID-19 and the issues surrounding it. Last year, he and other Chester County superintendents met twice a week to talk things through and coordinate their responses. With all of the changing guidance, it was especially helpful for the team of superintendents to meet. This helped with developing consistent interpretation, communication and general problem-solving.
Sokolowski worked on a comprehensive plan that will guide WCASD for the next three years. One area that he wants to continually work toward is access and opportunity for students as part of the equity work that he began. For example, Sokolowski has worked extensively to provide access to higher level course for minority students. These efforts have not only expanded AP learning opportunities, it has also demonstrated increased levels of achievement for all students.
As an extension of that, the district is implementing a program that looks at strategies and pathways for students to become more involved in school. Knowing that students have passions in different areas, he would like to offer a wider range of activities, such as a chess club or an entrepreneurial club, to provide opportunities outside of class time. These activities will enhance the connection that students make with their school, teachers, staff and classmates. In keeping with his accessibility goal, Sokolowski is finding ways to offer as many of these activities as possible during the school day, so that more students can participate.
Innovative teaching and learning have been in the spotlight since COVID-19 forced schools to rethink how they operated. Sokolowski noted that there were many valuable instructional tools that the schools were able to use to enhance instruction and to also enhance communication between students and teachers, and between students. He wants to continue to leverage these tools.
“We need to understand that a lot of innovative teaching and learning is just about 21st century skills, and a lot of those things are soft skills,” he stated. These skills can include developing interpersonal relations and creativity, and effective communication and collaboration. In addition to technology, soft skills can also help ensure student success.
While earning his doctorate in educational leadership at Immaculata, Sokolowski refined his own soft skills and enhanced his technical expertise as well. His Law in Education course ended up being a valuable class that dealt with issues that superintendents routinely encounter. In today’s educational environment, understanding topics related to student discipline, freedom of speech and search procedures are beneficial to school officials. Sokolowski was able to apply what he was learning in this class, and all of his other classes, to his daily work at WCASD.
Students and parents within the West Chester Area School District should know that Sokolowski’s door is always open, and he is only an email or phone call away. He listens with an open mind and heart.