MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — A pandemic might have closed the South Orange–Maplewood School District’s school buildings in March, but Frank Sanchez has been walking the halls of Columbia High School since July 1. He’s allowed to, though — he just became the school’s new principal.
“I’ve been there every day getting to know the building and getting to know the facilities,” Sanchez said in a phone interview with the News-Record on July 19. “I’ve gotten to know the community and gotten to know the towns.”
Sanchez has spent the last few weeks on Zoom meetings with CHS teachers and staff to learn more about the school, and he’ll start the same thing with students next week. He doesn’t have a grand plan for Columbia, at least not yet.
“I’ve been talking to them and learning what makes them so special and unique, and figuring out what we can do to keep that going,” Sanchez said. “I don’t come with any predisposed plan. I want to find out what to do. When I started as a principal, I did the same thing, even though I’d been in that district for a decade.”
Sanchez comes to CHS from Mountain Lakes, where he was the principal of Mountain Lakes High School for two years and was the district’s director of curriculum for the seven years prior. He started his career as a social studies and history teacher, and he didn’t stop teaching in a classroom — even while he was in charge of the district’s curriculum — until he became the principal at MLHS. When he was the principal, he taught an online class.
“I always wanted to have a class every day,” Sanchez said. “When I started as a principal I was a little hesitant, because I didn’t want to lose that connection with the students. I was a little naive, because I didn’t realize you have a super-energized connection at that level. It’s the best part of the day.”
He’s been able to be inside CHS every day, but there’s no telling when all 2,000 students and the rest of the staff will be able to be there with him; ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions will limit the number of students that can be in a classroom together in the fall. On the district’s coronavirus task force, Sanchez wants to make sure that the hybrid of in-person and virtual learning will work.
“We know some of it has to be a hybrid,” he said. “So we have to make sure that we can fill in the gaps. If they’re supposed to be taking calculus next year, how do we know they’ll be ready for that? We have to meet them where they are and provide them with the education that they need.”
Mountain Lakes is a smaller district than South Orange–Maplewood, as is Springfield, where Sanchez also previously worked. According to Sanchez, his new home is one of the places his previous districts looked to as a model.
“I love how much the staff loves Columbia,” he said. “They said the school crackles with energy, and I can see that now even though the halls are empty. I worked in Springfield for nine years, and we were always looking to South Orange–Maplewood. To join that team and get a chance to lead it is exciting. There’s this history at Columbia that the staff has talked about, and I can feel that already. I can’t wait to enhance it.”