Carol Kelley addresses an audience during a June 3 special board meeting. (Michael Romain/Staff).

The Oak Park District 97 Board of Education has selected Dr. Carol Kelley as the district’s new superintendent. The board made the announcement during a special meeting held today, June 3. Kelley succeeds outgoing D97 superintendent Al Roberts, who announced his retirement in January. The board voted unanimously to authorize Kelley’s three-year contract, which stipulates a starting base salary of $199,500 and will take effect July 1.

Kelley, a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has been the superintendent of schools for K-8 Branchburg Township School District in New Jersey since 2012. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the district had an enrollment of about 1,700 students in the 2012-13 school year.

The board hired professional search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates (HYA) on January 27 to lead a national search process “informed by over 330 members of the community who offered feedback regarding the qualities and characteristics they believed should be found in our next superintendent,” board president James Gates said at tonight’s meeting.

According to Gates, Kelley was selected from among a pool of 48 candidates from 11 states — 33 males, 15 females, 21 superintendents, 10 assistant or associate superintendents, nine administrators in other capacities and 8 principals. Gates said 40 of the 48 had a doctorate, while the other eight candidates without a doctorate had at least a master’s degree. That pool was narrowed to six candidates, who were then interviewed before the candidate group was further narrowed down to three finalists.

To a person, board members, both present and former ones, were effusive with praise for Kelley. So was Roberts.

“I feel [Kelley] is a wonderful fit for the district and the community,” said Roberts. “She strikes me as an individual who will lead with integrity; one whose commitment to equity and excellence; and I think her collaborative approach will be appreciated by faculty, staff and administration. And I think her focus on students will be appreciated by all.”

“I am a little sad I don’t get to work with you,” said former board member Denise Sacks, whose term ended this year. Sacks, who did not seek reelection, was instrumental in the search process before her term ended.

“This is the third superintendent search I’ve been involved in,” said board member and former board president Robert Spatz, who noted that he was on a community interview team when former superintendent Constance Collins was hired in 2005 and was on the board when Roberts was hired in 2010.

“This was probably our strongest pool […] partly because we went with a closed search,” Spatz said, adding that officials from HYA said that if the board went with an open search, some candidates wouldn’t apply.

“The fact that you came out on top is a testament to your qualifications and your effort,” Spatz told Kelley.

Board member Rupa Datta said she was impressed by Kelley’s “experience as an instructional leader” and her “commitment to, and expertise with, really excellent teaching.” Datta also expressed her admiration for Kelley’s “attitude for data and information [as important] to decision-making” and said she was “hopeful about [Kelley’s] collaborative style.”

Kelley was an engineer before going into education. She earned a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of Virginia. She worked in engineering for Bell Atlantic and as a product manager for Johnson & Johnson before transitioning into the educational field.

She was a classroom teacher for seven years in New Jersey, in addition to serving at various points as a dean of students, an assistant principal, a mathematics supervisor, a principal and a director of curriculum/instruction.

Kelley returned to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue her Doctor of Education degree. Her dissertation was on how black parents could support their children’s mathematics education. She said closing the academic achievement gap separating white and minority students “is a huge passion of mine.”

“My dissertation is around the area of closing the achievement gap,” Kelley said, adding that she’s a member of the New Jersey Network of Superintendents, an organization “committed to closing the achievement gap.”

“I don’t think that there is any one individual that has all the answers [to closing the gap], but I’m definitely collaborative in nature [and] will work together with the board, my team, the community, to look at the data and to see how we can work together to address that issue,” she said.

Kelley, who noted that she was recruited by HYA, said that she was attracted to Oak Park because of its demographic diversity, the direction the district is taking in the area of curriculum and instruction, and the fact that D97, like Branchburg Township, is an elementary school district.

“The things that you’re doing in terms of the curriculum — the IB [International Baccalaureate] at the middle schools and the one-to-one initiative at the elementary schools — so many of the things [going on] here are aligned to my values as a leader,” she said.

Kelley and her husband Gary Kelley have two sons and reside in New Jersey. They’re expected to move to the Oak Park area within the coming months.

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