Mark Marrone, 36, of Northfield, became principal of Mainland Regional High School on July 1, 2011, just as a $40 million renovation was being completed and just before four members of the school’s football team were killed in a Garden State Parkway crash.
Q: You had been principal for less than two months when a tragic car accident in August killed four students who were members of the school football team. Did you feel prepared for that?
A: I don’t know that you can ever be prepared for something of that magnitude or that nature. We thought out our choices and our responses and how we were going to bring students together, how we were going to speak about the accident, even to this day. Unfortunate as it was, it brought that identity of community back into the school. Yes, we had a tragedy, but that is not defining who we are. It was a moment for us to ... calibrate who we wanted to be, and from that we made this decision that we are a school that’s based on community, on school spirit. And we are in this together.
Q: Is there anything you wish you had done differently, or that you didn’t get a chance to do?
A: I haven’t caught my breath yet to really give an honest answer. I think this summer, when I finally sit down and look back and reflect on the year, I’ll probably have a ton of insight. But at this point it’s been a race, but it’s been a healthy race. We want to make Mainland Regional the best high school in New Jersey, and that is what we have gone toward since day one.
Q: You have talked a lot about the sense of community after the accident. How would you hope to maintain that going forward?
A: You have to be clear, you have to be direct, and it has to be the constant message over and over again that we are doing this together. Too often it can become about a policy or action or a person or a program, but all of those things equal the school, they equal the community as a whole. Every chance that we get we sell the school and sell the great things that we are doing here. Our schedule is inventive; our technology policy is inventive. All of those things make us a unique learning environment, and that is constantly the message that is being put out. There is no wall between us and the community. We are very clear: If you have a question, you are going to get an answer.
Q: You had a lot of mental health professionals here after the accident. Did you learn anything from that?
A: I think all high schools need to be about the full picture of the student. Too often we concentrate on academics or we concentrate on athletics, but the student not only socially, but emotionally also needs support. It may be given at home, but the school also has to be there for the ones that don’t get that support at home. And the counseling piece ... I think every high school should have it. It helped us in a way, unfortunately, from the accident, but it’s not something we put off to the side and do because of the accident. We’ve engaged in counseling all year.
Q: People think of counselors as the person who helps you decide about college.
A: Guidance counselors, child study team, case managers ... a lot of their job is the triage of situations that come in. It could be emotional, could be social, could be behavioral, but they are triaging that incident or occurrence and trying to figure out what assistance the student needs. I think they spend most of their job doing that. We should give guidance a shout out.
Q: Mainland just completed a $40 million renovation and has implemented some innovative ideas, such as the schoolwide lunch with cell phones allowed. How do you see the school evolving academically?
A: Academically, our schedule has that lunch component so students have time to work together in cooperative settings. And they can seek extra help from teachers at lunch, or work in labs. So academically our schedule change has offered students a lot more opportunity to really develop the relationships they need with one another and our teachers, versus having to stay after school or coming before school to do that.
Q: The public hears a lot about the stress of high school, competing to get into top colleges, or worrying about finding jobs. Then we also hear that high school isn’t rigorous enough and students aren’t prepared for college or careers. How do you respond?
A: I think we have to convince them to do what is in the best interest of themselves by giving back to the community. I find that the students who are balancing not only a foot in school but a foot into their community through academics, jobs and careers, are the ones that are getting into great colleges. Yes they take the AP (Advanced Placement) classes and they take the honors, but they also have a heavy hand or heavy foot really involved in the community, and I think that is really what is selling our students. We’ve surveyed colleges about what they are looking for. And they basically look at the level of courses (students) have taken, their grades, their SAT scores and really the involvement level. Class rank and GPA are not nearly as important as the overall well-rounded student.
Q: Is it hard to convince parents of that?
A: Sometimes it is difficult. We start looking at how AP is now the norm in a lot of high schools and start looking for a different advantage or a leg up in the interview process. The (students) we constantly see that are successful have stepped out of their comfort zone, are participating not for the sake of building a curriculum or resume but because they believe it is the right thing.
Q: Students who may not be thinking about college, how do you guide them?
A: That has really been one of the challenges, addressing the needs of all students, including our at-risk ones. We are having deep conversations about creating an Alternative High School, about at-risk students, whether it’s a pregnancy, the academic setting, or behavior, but really trying to meet the needs of those students. Some of that program is about work readiness and jobs and getting them out into the community so that sense of responsibility goes past the high school setting. I think once they have a value in what they are doing, that changes their behavior, their grades and their outlook on the future.
Q: What should we know about 21st century teenagers?
A: I think they are brilliant, the most entertaining people I have ever seen. The amount of technological (savvy) is unbelievable. They are just light years ahead. We can choose to be fearful of social networking, we can be fearful of cell phones or we can go in partnership with them and teach students how to use them responsibly, how to use those things to take advantage of the world that they live in so they can be successful. That’s the biggest difference, and again it goes back to how you feel not only about change but the world in which you live in and how you want to respond to it. We can’t not react.
Q: Are students naive about the reach of technology?
A: I would say freshmen ... the naivete is something you see a lot. We have a freshman seminar about ethical computing. Our juniors and seniors I see less of it. In the beginning (there were issues about) what was being said on Facebook, but as we’ve gone through the year we see less and less because I think students are more informed now about what they are putting out there.
Q: How does a high school principal set the tone for a school? What is the message you try to send about Mainland?
A: The message I keep reiterating numerous times this year is about community in the school and us becoming a responsible educational climate. I call it universal responsibility, that the way we all move together is by being responsible for one another. Communities don’t move forward by being independent, they move forward by having all of the pieces in that community interdependently working toward moving forward. I think a lot of schools fail because they look at single variables and try to use those to move forward. Where I think we have had success is having a common voice and the common vision. That’s what they hear me talking about here constantly.
Q: You have three towns that send students to Mainland. Is that more challenging?
A: I think we look at them as Mainland students. We don’t look at them as Linwood, Northfield or Somers Point. I think sometimes people believe, “Well, it’s Somers Point kids versus the Northfield kids versus Linwood” and that there is so much difference. But young adults are young adults. They may come from varied backgrounds, but you have to be a school, when people come through your doors, that accepts all. Placing that judgment or having a prejudice or bias prior is unfair. We are all high school students, we all come from different backgrounds, we all must understand one another and that is more important than anything else.
Q: You taught at EHT High School and ran the Atlantic County Alternative High School before coming to Mainland as assistant principal. What did you learn from those experiences that helped you prepare for heading Mainland?
A: At EHT there was a great deal of inventiveness. I ran a contemporary-issues class and we talked about really getting students involved in topics. That level of student involvement is something I really took away from EHT. I carried that to the alternative school because they are the most at-risk students, and the ultimate goal was to provide choice and opportunity for kids to make good decisions. We based (education) on that principle of involvement and that we are all in this together. That shared responsibility is part of the vision for Mainland, so when I came here my goal is to get people involved in the community and be responsive to one another regardless of where you come from.
Q: Are there programs or projects you had planned this year that were put on hold?
A: The alternative school discussion has gone on for a couple of years. There are a handful of things we haven’t fully implemented yet. But mark my words, we are going to implement a lot of very inventive stuff in this high school.
Q: Can you give us some hints?
A: We are looking at STEM electives, which is engineering within sciences and mathematics. The alternative school. We are looking into the possibility of raising funds for a turf field, more senior electives in English, an iPad initiative where students will be able to use iPads in the classroom. I think one of the things that Mainland is about and where we are going is the validation of web content. For students right now information is free, it’s at their fingertips. The question is, is it valid, is it worth using and then being able to apply that.
Q: Did the building renovations change the way you think and react?
A: I think the renovations did a number of things. It updated our systems. But ultimately there’s the sense of having a newer building, just the cleanliness, the way it looks. I think people walk in and it’s a very exciting place to be because you’ve got creative instructional practices, a creative schedule, a school that is trying to do inventive things and then you are looking at a building that matches that.
Q: What keeps you centered? Who do you go to for advice?
A: I’m very lucky to have other administrators around me ... that all have — I will say this very candidly — large egos but great hearts. And in those hearts we always try to put the best interest of the students first, and that is carried onto the teachers. I have a lot of teachers who I work with closely and I talk to and it is always about the students. It can’t be about anything else because it has to be about the students. My wife and my family, and I am lucky with whom I work and where I work. That’s the best way to say I stay centered.
Q: Are interpersonal skills important?
A: I think in this day and age you need to have somebody in leadership positions that can connect. And if you don’t, you should surround yourself with people that do and trust in them that we are going to move forward. But I really do believe that having a person who can articulate the vision is going to sell us further than anything else.
Q: What are your future goals?
A: I always wanted to be a principal of a large comprehensive high school. Honestly, I always wanted to be the principal of Mainland. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. My goal is to change education for the better. A lot of the research using data regarding student performance has always been at the heart of what I wanted to do. I want to see students be successful, but I also want to create the structures of an environment that breeds success. If Mark Marrone leaves next year, which he is not doing, but if he left in five years, 10 years, are the structures in place to ensure that Mainland continues to be successful, that it continues to be innovative, continues to be creative? I think that is what I look forward to, is putting structures in place that breed success.
Q: What do you see as the biggest impediment?
A: The biggest impediment is people’s feelings toward change. Change is not a comfortable prospect for many people. We can’t continue to do the same things as educators that we did 20 years ago. Students have changed, times have changed, the economy has changed, but it’s an evolution. And if we can become comfortable with change itself, some of these things we are struggling with become much easier.
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