Meet Dr. Jeff Melendez: Sherman School’s New Principal and Superintendent

img_7145_asThere’s no question about it, Dr. Jeff Melendez, the new Sherman School Superintendent-Principal, is qualified for the dual role. He brings with him an impressive 20-year career in education.

In his most recent position, Dr. Melendez was the principal at Waverly School in Eastchester, New York for eight years. He was also the assistant principal at Lewisboro Elementary School in South Salem, New York for four years.

For several years, Dr. Melendez continues to serve as an adjunct assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and College of New Rochelle.

In 1996, Dr. Melendez received his BSE at State University of New York at Cortland. He then earned his MA, Ed. M, and Ed. D at Teachers College, Columbia University, an Ivy League school. In addition, he serves on national committees and has earned several prestigious awards and certifications.

With these credentials, one can see why the Sherman Board of Education (BOE) chose him to be the district’s new leader. What’s noteworthy is why Dr. Melendez, who prefers to be called Jeff, chose the Sherman School.

In an interview with Jeff, he shared some of the reasons why he accepted the job offer. “Sherman is a great community, the faculty and staff are talented and dedicated, the parents are involved and supportive, and the children are great.”

However, what really sealed the deal for Jeff was when he read the BOE’s objective, which is “to make the Sherman School the best district in the country.” Jeff thought this was an excellent and admirable goal. After all, who wouldn’t want the school to be the best in the United States and not just the best in the county or state? This was the defining moment when Jeff knew he made the right decision. “I’m delighted to be working with people who have that type of vision,” he said.

Now that it’s one month into the 2016-2017 school year, Jeff has a better sense of what it’s like in his new leadership role. He especially loves the family atmosphere. He’s also enjoying having all of the elementary and middle school students in one building because “it provides opportunities for interactions between a diversity of ages. There’s such potential for mentorship and leadership opportunities between older and younger students.  Because Jeff was a former principal of a large Kindergarten and First Grade school with 520+ students, he appreciates that the Sherman School spans ten grades. He’s looking forward to “seeing longevity and continuity with the students.”

When asked how he allocates time in his dual role, Jeff said “I split my work, 60/60.”  He went on to explain that although he initially thought the combined position would pose a challenge, this has not been the case.  He said, “in fact, it’s a positive combination as it allows me to have a better understanding at both the student level and the board level. It’s powerful. Basically, my focus is on doing whatever is necessary to ensure that the students in Sherman are successful.”

He added, “my top agenda items for both Superintendent and Principal are to build trust and camaraderie with each constituency and to understand the strengths and needs of the Sherman School. My theory of leadership is to engender commitment rather than compliance.”

Although Jeff officially began working at the Sherman School on July 1, he was “unofficially” working behind the scenes as soon as he accepted the job offer in February. During the first three months he met individually with 80+ board members, group members, administrators, union leaders, community leaders, SPTO leaders, local superintendents, parents, and students, too, in order to “understand all sides and to see the big picture,” which gives him “a rich perspective.”

Jeff presented to the BOE a four phase strategic plan that was then shared with the community.  Over the next two years, they’ll answer (1) Where are we now? (2) Where do we want to be? (3) How will we get there? and (4) Are we there yet? Before the New Year, Jeff plans to send out validation surveys to encourage more individuals and groups to share their perspectives, thus completing the first phase of his plan.

“Once I feel I have a solid grasp of the strengths and needs of the school community, I plan to facilitate a process where we collaboratively develop a vision and mission for our school. In this phase, we’ll determine where we want to go, or what the future of the Sherman School will look like. In the third phase, we’ll develop a strategic plan to help us determine how we can achieve this goal. The plan will be concise, realistic, and distilled. The last question, ‘are we there yet?’ will be asked and answered in perpetuity.  We’ll need to look carefully at the progress we’re making toward our goals, be reflective and make adjustments as necessary.”

During Jeff’s “listening and learning” period, he’s assessing some of the community’s hot topics, and with input, he’s beginning to address them.

Regarding the K-Wing closure, if it’s not safe, then he thinks children should not be occupying the space. It’s that simple. “I’m working with the Board of Education and Board of Selectmen to thoroughly investigate the situation so we can determine the most appropriate course of future action.  Once we have the facts confirmed, decisions will be made regarding how to move forward in a way that’s beneficial for students at a cost that can be reasonably borne by taxpayers.”

As for the high sodium levels in the drinking water at the school, Jeff confirmed the water is non-toxic. However, there’s higher than acceptable concentrations of salt in the water. “We’re seeing a downward trend due to the absence of snow (and therefore salt) last winter.  I’m in the process of looking at options to address this situation on a permanent basis. However, these options may not be cost-effective.”

With the peanut tree-nut policy, Jeff conducted an audit of all the documents related to the allergy procedures and recommended slight changes. “I quickly realized there was some ambiguity.  My goal was to first fully understand the practices that had been in place and to clarify those procedures. Toward this end, and with input from the Board of Education, Administration, teachers, parents, Food Allergy Management Committee, school nurse, and medical health advisor, I developed a procedure that we believe is simple to understand, manageable; and most-importantly, ensures student safety.  I then communicated this procedure to staff and the entire parent community in a variety of ways.”

Regarding SBAC testing, he’s trying to fully understand what has contributed to such a low participation rate.  “As an educator, I can understand the importance of using standardized assessments to monitor student’s performance. This helps us to identify students who may require additional services and support. The SBAC is one tool, and we need several to fully appreciate a student’s strengths and needs.”

In an effort to improve communications, “we’re developing a survey to parents which will assess their needs for communications from the school and solicit their input regarding some of the methods we use to communicate.”  Jeff encourages anyone to go directly to the source to ask questions. If he or a teacher doesn’t know the answer then they’ll find out or point the person in the right direction.

When Jeff isn’t at the Sherman School he’s at home in Danbury enjoying time with his wife of 18 years, Camille, and their three children, ages 10, 12, and 14.

Article and photo are by Alicia Sakal. This feature was originally written for Town Tribune. Edited version: Meet Dr. Jeff Melendez: Sherman School’s New Principal and Superintendent

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