Profile: Joseph N. Meloche
A Gregarious Leader Promoting Voice
BY LIZ GRIFFIN/School Administrator, October 2018
IT WOULD BE hard to find another superintendent with a closer ear to students than Joseph Meloche, superintendent in Cherry Hill, N.J. Naturally talkative and outgoing, he relishes regular contact with parents and community members, but his commitment to student feedback is out of the ordinary.
“The most important thing we can do as school leaders is nurture student voice,” Meloche says. “Children are incredibly honest. We have to ask them what they think and listen to their answers. Then we have to act.”
His insights into the lives of children and families emanate from having grown up in Cherry Hill and serving as principal of the elementary, middle and high schools he once attended. He ascended to the district’s top spot in August 2015 after serving as director of curriculum and instruction and assistant superintendent.
To stay within earshot of 11,300 students at 19 schools takes coordination and commitment. Meloche schedules informal meetings 18 times a year with a cross-section of students and visits multiple schools each week. “Students need a trusted adult to voice their concerns to,” he says.
When gathered with students, some as young as 6th grade, Meloche prompts candid discussion through his probing questions. He has gained useful insights about what might be causing students to struggle with a new biology course. He has heard recommendations from middle schoolers that take-home technology devices be a privilege for 8th graders. He’s listened to the rationale from high school students about permitting off-campus lunches.
It’s all actionable intelligence to Meloche, who was honored as one of Education Week’s 2018 Leaders to Learn From. In the case of the struggling high school biology students, he had the district incorporate attention in 8th-grade science to more complex content and extra practice on writing lab reports. Student feedback also influenced technology purchasing decisions. But safety concerns prevailed over any consideration of open lunch periods.
Students with disabilities at Cherry Hill’s small alternative high school also found they have opportunities to lobby the superintendent. They have asked, “Why can’t we have a student council?” and “Why can’t we have service learning?” Now they vote for their own student government representatives and have the chance to be part of a major blood drive, voter registration and school garden.
Meloche maintains he’s as committed as ever to student voice in the wake of a tumultuous student protest last February over the suspension of an AP history teacher who had spoken out on safety shortcomings in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school shootings. The dispute landed the district on the front page of The New York Times.
“Civil discourse is an important life lesson,” says Meloche, who was unable to discuss the personnel matter but brought in a union representative to talk to students about the grievance process. He believes the discussions between adults and students are educational even when disagreeable.
In another publicized incident soon after, some students at one of the district’s high schools opted to join in an unsanctioned walkout in the aftermath of Parkland.
Two weeks later, Meloche allowed students at middle schools and high schools to participate in the March 14 National School Walkout.
“Even though students may look like adults because they are 6 foot 2 inches, they are developmentally 16- and 17-year-olds,” Meloche says. “Adults have to remember this.”
LIZ GRIFFIN is managing editor of School Administrator.
BIO STATS: JOE MELOCHE
superintendent, Cherry Hill School District, Cherry Hill, N.J.
assistant superintendent, Cherry Hill
Greatest influences on career:
My mother and father instilled an unbridled work ethic and a commitment for service.
Best professional day:
Great days share a common theme and experience — children expressing themselves in voices that reveal their personality and aspirations.
Books at bedside: Student Voice
by Russell J. Quaglia and Michael J. Corso; Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison; and Savage Inequalities
by Jonathan Kozol
On stage in a cafeteria full of parents and students to present achievement awards, I froze because I blanked on a teacher’s name. After an awkward pause, I said into the microphone, “I do not remember your name.” Laughter followed, and the teacher, whom I had known for years, graciously reminded me.
Why I’m an AASA member:
AASA has been a foundational group from which I can draw experience, wisdom and collegiality.