Chester County Leadership: Dr. Jim Scanlon

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Dr. Jim Scanlon, the Superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in a family with five other siblings, moving around to a number of different locations throughout his childhood before settling in Bucks County, his father’s career in education, and what triggered his interest in the same field.

Dr. Scanlon also discussed the influences on his career, his positions of Assistant Superintendent at Neshaminy, Superintendent at Quakertown, and Superintendent at West Chester, and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead for the West Chester Area School District.

Where were you born, where did you grow up, Jim?

I was the third of six children and grew up in Baldwin-Whitehall, which is in the South Hills area of Pittsburgh. We moved to Doylestown, Bucks County, when I was seven and I graduated from Central Bucks East. But we always went to Pittsburgh to visit my grandparents and I’m a lifelong Steeler’s fan.

What did your parents do for a living?

My father was a teacher, a principal, and an assistant superintendent. After completing his Ph.D., he started a nonprofit group called Research for Better Schools, which is still in operation. He was also a provost at Temple University. He served as Secretary of Education for Pennsylvania under Governor Dick Thornburgh. And, he participated in some of the research that got Sesame Street off the ground. My mom stayed home to raise us. When we were old enough to be in school, she worked at a bank.

What memories do you have growing up in all of those areas?

3rd grade

Having six kids in a family creates a lot of memories! We had to entertain ourselves because my mother didn’t have time to watch any one kid in particular. There was a lot of freedom that kids today don’t have. And of course, very limited screen time. My parents were very involved in our lives. My father traveled a lot for work so my mom was at the helm during the week.

Over the course of sixteen years, all six of us were in the band, choir, or some other activity. When my youngest sister graduated from high school and performed in her final spring concert, my parents gave the choir teacher a big bouquet of flowers. They were celebrating all of us getting through school as well as not having to go to those concerts anymore!

We were lucky enough to have a pool. My parents had tried to take us all to the beach and the day was so challenging with our umbrella blowing away and sand blowing into the cake my mom had baked that we packed up and came home and my father had a pool installed.

Did you play any sports growing up?

I played a little bit of basketball my freshman year. I was also on the high school golf team.

What were you really good at in high school?

I was good at math. That probably came from my father. Ironically, I went to college and became a middle school English teacher. I always felt like I needed help with writing, so I find that ironic.

What jobs did you have growing up?

I cut grass and shoveled driveways growing up, trying to make a buck. My first real paying job was working for my neighbor, who ran a janitorial company. I would clean an electronics factory after school and on weekends. It was kind of nice – everyone was gone, and I would clean while listening to music. I also worked at Dairy Queen, and in the pro shop at a golf course.

What life lessons did you take from that job?

Definitely time management. The sooner I got done, the sooner I got out of there and could get back to doing homework or out with friends. It was a good lesson for time management and honoring my commitments.

High school graduation with his father. Circa 1977.

What kind of music were you listening to back then?

I love the music of the late 1970s and 1980s. The Eagles “One of these Nights” album was the first album I bought (at sixteen years old.) I liked Jackson Browne and later a lot of 80’s music. I graduated high school in 1977, so that time period was great for what is now classic rock.

Where did you attend college?

The University of Pittsburgh for my undergraduate degree. I had a lot of relatives in Pittsburgh, including my grandmother. I remember telling her that I would go to college out there and visit her on weekends. She died in my senior year in high school, so I never got the chance to do that.

In hindsight, was Pitt a good choice? 

It was a very good choice. I met a lot of people at Pittsburgh who I am still very close with today. I started as an Economics major and changed to Education, with a minor in English, after my sophomore year.

What caused you to change your major?

During my sophomore year I was volunteering at a YMCA for a Saturday program called “Swim and Gym.” I was working with mentally challenged students ages 12 to 21. There was an activity that the counselors were doing with the kids that I found very demeaning and limiting. I thought that there was really limited knowledge as to what those kids can really do and what they’re capable of. It was through that experience that I decided I wanted to try to make a difference for kids, and I transferred to the School of Education.

I think I made $10,000 in my first year of teaching in 1982. I sold Cutco knives as a summer job in 1983 to supplement my income – going door-to-door. I ended up making $14,000 that summer in commission selling knives and only $11,000 teaching. Cutco asked me to move to Cincinnati to open an office for them because I was so doing so well. I turned down the offer because I really wanted to stick with education – plus Cincinnati was big Steelers rival!

Did you like teaching? 

I loved it. It was great working with children and seeing them grow. I worked to try to challenge my students and help each of them reach their potential.

Where did your knack for teaching come from?

I think my father was a good teacher. He was also a hard worker. He emphasized with all of us that it’s important to work hard and do the right thing.

When did you realize that you had leadership ability? 

I’ve always like to organize things and get things done. Going back to my first few jobs, I liked to be productive and see the end product. But I also like to have a positive impact and make a positive difference. I think we all have the responsibility – to do some good in the world.

Who were the people who propelled your career and got you where you are today?

My father certainly had an impact and some influence on my career path. I always admired the work he did, and I used to call him for advice. He was very supportive.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had numerous mentors and colleagues who have helped me along the way. And truly the staff in each of the school districts where I’ve worked have been incredible. The work that teachers do on a daily basis is amazing.

My wife, Beth, is a communications consultant and a former journalist. She and I work very closely on a lot of things. I’m a better communicator because of her. She’s also been my rock.

Who else influenced your career?

A Superintendent in Central Bucks School District named Bob Winters mentored me when I was a principal there. Going into the interview for the position I remembered my father saying, ‘stick to your philosophy and what you believe in, and it won’t matter who’s asking the questions.’

During the interview, Bob Winters said they looking for someone to “come in and clean house.” I thought that’s not really how I work – I try to work collaboratively. I told him I didn’t necessarily believe in that philosophy and that I wanted to work with teachers to help them to improve. I assumed that was not the answer he was looking for, but I got a call the next day with a job offer. I accepted. The next time I saw the superintendent I thanked him for giving me the opportunity but I also asked him about the question during the interview about ‘cleaning house.’

He told me that in interviews he sometimes asks questions like that, just to see how the interviewee would answer. That was a life and career lesson for me. I still use the practice today when I interview people.

How did you get to West Chester?

My first Superintendent position was in Quakertown (for almost eight years.) I was then superintendent in the Brandywine School District in North Wilmington, DE. When the position opened in West Chester I was eager to learn more about it. The district has a great reputation. Ten years later I’m still in the position and am truly excited to go to work every day.

You’ve been a Superintendent for twenty-one years now? That’s a big responsibility to take on at such a young age. Did you have to grow into the role, or was it a natural fit?

These are very challenging jobs because they encompass so many different areas and because you’re responsible for the education and welfare of children. While education and safety are certainly our focus, there are so many other things that a superintendent must deal with, as well – finances, government, facilities, human relations, etc. I am continually learning. I feel like I have an aptitude for this, but there is growth every single day.

You’ve been in West Chester for 10 years now. What challenges and opportunities are you excited about?

My wife and I have a 9 and an 11-year-old, and work-life balance in a demanding and time consuming position is always one of the challenges. I spend a lot of time with other people’s kids, so I want always to be mindful of spending time with my own. They are both in the West Chester School District, and I think that’s been a tremendous asset for me because it keeps things very real and relatable for me and allows me to see it all through the lens of a parent, and not just as an administrator.

Social media presents enormous challenges. Kids struggle with it, and it spills over into our schools. We end up spending a tremendous amount of time policing it.

There are wonderful opportunities every day – to have an individual impact on each student and each class. We work as a team on a daily basis to build strong relationships with our students to accomplish that.

Is the West Chester community supportive of education?

All three of the communities where I’ve been superintendent have been very supportive. This community is extremely strong and generous. I believe in communicating thoroughly and being very transparent. I do think that helps with community support because we are very open and honest about our challenges and decisions.

How is the school district helping to prepare students for life after high school?  

The business community tells us that students today are lacking essential communication skills known as “soft skills.”  I believe technology is partially responsible for that as many people have lost the fine art of knowing how to speak to each other. We need to have our students take writing, speaking, and technical classes to prepare them. We are working with the chambers of commerce and other businesses to teach our students skills they would not necessarily gain in a typical classroom setting. Our students are also taking internships with local businesses and I believe they are benefiting greatly from these off-campus experiences.

Also, we offer dual enrollment classes at West Chester University so our students can receive college credit along with their high school credits and begin to learn what school is like in a college setting.

Finally, Jim, what is the best piece of advice you ever received?

My father told me to be a good listener, and make the decisions in the best interest of students. He told me that people may not always agree with what I do, but as long as it’s in the best interest of the kids, I’ll sleep well at night.

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