If you thought being a public school superintendent is tough, try being a superintendent during a pandemic. In your first year. In a poor, underfunded school district with high administrative turnover.
That’s the situation Ashley Rizzo, who took over as Columbia Borough School District superintendent in January, finds herself in.
Columbia, Lancaster County’s smallest school district, has the second-highest percentage of low-income students in the county. School funding advocates say it’s chronically underfunded. And Rizzo, 36, the former principal at Wickersham Elementary School in the School District of Lancaster, represents Columbia’s eighth superintendent change in 15 years.
Despite the challenges in front of her at Columbia, Rizzo, in an interview with LNP | LancasterOnline Friday, said she’s already come to appreciate the small, urban school district and its community.
Here’s the conversation, which has been edited for length.
What led you to come to Columbia?
Columbia has what I’ve learned is a real strong foundation of community support. In working with the board of directors, they, along with the community, are extremely driven to make the best environment for children, for teaching, learning, living. And I feel very fortunate to have been selected for this position and to be a part of it.
Lancaster and Columbia are the two poorest school districts in the county. Was that an intentional choice you made? If so, where does that drive to serve underprivileged students come from?
Well, I mean, that should be the purpose of what everyone does, right? To help others and make tomorrow better than today. All children, regardless of county, township, municipality, really deserve the best. And regardless of socioeconomic status, we have the power as educators to create an environment that supports our students to be successful. And so that’s where that comes from.
The Columbia school board and former Superintendent Tom Strickler had a spotty relationship at times. Are you worried about that and the way the two parted ways?
Not at all. I have never had the pleasure of working with Mr. Strickler. But I have the utmost respect for him and anyone that signs up for the job to serve in this position and to benefit kids. I can say that our school board directors are extremely dedicated advocates for the students and the community.
Columbia has undergone eight leadership changes in the last 15 years. Does this concern you, and do you intent to stay long-term?
The most recent research I am familiar with noted the average tenure of an urban school superintendent is somewhere between two and three years. Serving the students, staff, and community of Columbia Borough to the best of my abilities is my goal ... short, mid, and long range.
What would you say are the biggest challenges facing the district?
Well, I’m still working through my entry plan, you know. I did share my entry plan with the board at the January board meeting. Phase one is listening and learning, focusing on that relationship building and understanding. And then phase two is really studying and analyzing our current systems, looking at our district goals, our data, the structure and the systems, and reporting out on my findings to identify current challenges and areas for growth and our strengths. And the phase three would be planning and communicating out those goals, identifying those priorities, updating everyone. Phase three would be in June.
How is it going so far? Starting your first superintendent job during a pandemic must be challenging.
It is a little challenging, you know, to schedule those meetings. Lots of Zooms. Actually it has provided some one-on-one opportunities, because we haven’t been able to meet in larger groups. I’m taking advantage of that to make some connections with people both within our organization and outside of our organization in the community. It’s been really great. I can’t speak highly enough about the community support and the investment that our community has in our students and our teachers and our staff and our schools. It’s definitely something very special.
As a first-time superintendent, what do you still have to learn about leadership and leading an entire school district?
It’s a growth position, and the demands, the opportunities, the obstacles are truly there. And we have to work through them to provide the best environment for our students in a constantly changing and evolving world. And I do believe as superintendent, it is my responsibility to never stop learning and growing to meet the needs of, to benefit, the school district and its students.