Point Pleasant Beach schools offer students a wide range of academic and extracurricular programs that should be beyond the small district’s capacity, Superintendent William T. Smith boasts. But a drive to prepare graduates for life after high school and maintain enrollment has brought a wealth of dual-enrollment, Advanced Placement and STEM courses to students in the two-building school system on the Jersey Shore.
“We try to offer a very wide breadth of programming—extracurricular and academic—that outmatches our size,” says Smith, who after seven years leading the Point Pleasant Beach School District was named New Jersey’s 2023 Superintendent of the Year.
What Smith is most excited about right now is the expansion of what his district calls “Gull Flight School”—which is not an aeronautics program. Rather, it gives students a chance to soar academically with more than 40 dual-enrollment courses in conjunction with nearby Ocean County College, Smith explains.
“We’re seeing more and more students get so many credits in high school, they’re entering college with a full year under their belts,” he continues. “And our parents and community members are now understanding how much of a tuition savings that is.”
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The expansion of Gull Flight School is a natural outgrowth of one of the district’s most distinctive achievements. Point Pleasant Beach schools often have among the highest percentage of students taking AP classes in New Jersey. “Sometimes it’s hard for little schools to stand out because we can’t do as much,” Smith explains. “Our conversations are about access, and equity through access and how do you get all students to work at the level they’re capable of—and we believe in that work and we’ve made great strides.”
The other big initiative that has Smith fired up is Point Pleasant Beach schools’ “gamified” staff wellness program. The district offers free yoga and gym workouts and dozens of other events and activities in which teachers and other staff can win rewards. “Our tagline is ‘A healthy staff room is a healthy classroom,'” Smith says. “We believe that by attending to the social-emotional needs of our staff members, we get better performance out of everybody.”
How Point Pleasant Beach schools tackle challenges
Keeping Smith up at night is enrollment in his district. The community sustained heavy damage in Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and many older houses have been demolished and replaced by more expensive homes. This has made it harder for young families to settle in Point Pleasant Beach. The district has about 100 tuition-paying students, and its wide range of projects is a key selling point.
For instance, Smith and the school board found a way to maintain AP language programs even though only a handful of students were enrolled in the courses. Computer science and engineering classes were added when the district converted the high school media center into an “innovation collaboratory.” And when students asked for business classes for two years, the district launched a business program.
“We build what needs to be built,” Smith says. “We try to be responsive to what the needs are and we try to read the tea leaves for what’s going to position our students best for their post-secondary outcomes and dreams.”
One key to all these efforts is maintaining a strong working relationship with the school board and its president, in particular. That means Smith and his team try to be transparent when explaining the rationale behind their decisions to board members. It’s also important to remain flexible in adapting to the styles of communication and leadership of each school board member. Finally, establishing boundaries between the roles of district staff and elected officials also fosters productive working relationships.
“It’s not always rainbows and unicorns, but it’s an open line of communication,” Smith concludes. “If you continually remind everyone we have to be doing what’s in the best interest of kids—that’s what’s going to drive our programming, that’s where our budget’s going to go, that’s what every move is about—it helps you keep some of the ancillary challenges at bay.”