When Patrick McQueeney was asked to step in as interim superintendent of the Sparta schools, he rose to the occasion amid a pandemic and its lockdown.
And, in the middle of that maelstrom, he retained his position as assistant superintendent.
Undaunted, McQueeney and his staff began navigating the uncharted waters of Covid-19 restrictions and protocols. Now, as he looks forward to his next position as superintendent of the Wanaque School District, he’s reflecting on all the innovations wrought in the face of adversity.
“When I first took on the position of interim superintendent, it was overwhelming,” he said. “We were in the midst of a pandemic and had no idea how we were going to carry on, and on top of it all, plan a graduation for our seniors.”
Come summer, when planning for the fall, things got even more challenging.
“It was a daunting task over the summer to plan to lead back into the pandemic with cohorts, in school, out of school and never knowing when there would be positive tests that shut the whole thing down,” he said. “The two number-one tasks we had from the get-go was to keep the building safe and provide proper supervision for our students. All the while, and still now, there are constant changes in health and safety protocols.”
Grades kindergarten through fifth have been in school full time since November.
“It’s trickier with the middle and high school,” McQueeney said, “They are still hybrid, but as of April 28 we will move to five days in school but with a shortened day and the afternoon remote from home.”
At issue is a juxtaposition called “lunch.”
“Lunch is too long a period of time for kids to be clustered together and without masks so they can eat,” he said.
The school day will be from 7:30 to noon for high school and 7:40 to 12:20 for middle school. Sports will be held back at the school at the end of the school day.
Lemonade from lemons
Covid-19 demanded innovation. “We’ve done some amazing things because of the pandemic,” McQueeney said.
He worked with the head of the school’s Align Wellness Program, Dr. Jane Esposito, and guidance staff to allow clinicians and psychologists to see students in school.
“The program started as an alternative to suspension, and during the pandemic, we’ve been able to grow it to include students’ social and emotional needs as well as how to deal with situations that may arise in their lives,” he said. “There will be an adjustment for many students as they transition from being home all the time or half of the time to full in-school learning.”
In addition, the school curriculum was improved, and the orchestra pit completely overhauled.
Graduating seniors will be able to walk across the Sparta High School stage to receive their diplomas and, either right before or right after that, receive their associates degree in liberal arts from Sussex County Community College.
McQueeney was also driven by the need to increase and improve its certified substitute teacher pool.
“We are increased our daily substitute teacher rate,” he said. “It is our intention to attract certificated substitutes to assist in our reopening plans for the remainder of the school year.”
Now, as McQueeney embarks on his transition, he plans to apply the good things he’s learned in Sparta he starts in Wanaque on July 1.
“It was a challenge yet an honor to lead a top performing district such as Sparta during a pandemic,” he said. “I’m excited to take a lot of experiences from here and take them along with me. It’s a smaller district so it will allow me to get closer to the students.”
The search for a permanent superintendent started back in December. McQueeney was asked to apply, and he also put in applications with other districts, including Wanaque.
“My wife and I discussed what would be best for our family, and though we live in and love Sparta and its school district, there were just a few dynamics that weren’t going to work for us,” he said. “So I withdrew my application.”
As fate would have it, McQueeney received an offer from Wanaque the very next day.
He will return to being a just plain assistant superintendent on June 1. Matthew Beck, coming from being superintendent of the Fredon School District, will then become Sparta’s permanent superintendent.
Since McQueeney’s son will graduate from Sparta High School in June, McQueeney will oversee graduation and hand his son his diploma.
“Mr. McQueeney stepped into the lead role in Sparta Schools during the most difficult crisis in the history of public education,” Beck said. “He served admirably in the superintendent role while continuing his assistant superintendent duties. During that time he navigated uncharted territory while doing everything in his power to find the balance between keeping the students and staff of Sparta schools safe while offering as much in-person instruction as possible. I am sure the Sparta community has been thankful for his leadership during this time.”
Beck will be working collaboratively with the school board, administration, staff, and the school community.
“We will work to build upon the unrivaled historical success of the Sparta Township Public Schools,” he said. “The reputation of being one of the top school districts in the State of New Jersey is one that should be expected of the Sparta School District and one that the Sparta community deserves.”
“When I first took on the position of interim superintendent, it was overwhelming. We were in the midst of a pandemic and had no idea how we were going to carry on, and on top of it all, plan a graduation for our seniors.” Interim superintendent Patrick McQueeney