As part of our new mini-series highlighting Educators, our hosts speak with Superintendent, Dr. Michael Kuchar, about his approach to education – especially in light of COVID-19.
Dr. Michael Kuchar is the Superintendent of the South Bergen Jointure Commission, a New Jersey public school district whose mission is to dramatically increase the independence of individuals with extraordinary challenges.
With a combined twenty-five years of experience as a school district administrator, Dr. Kuchar has served as the Interim Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for the Bergenfield School District; the Superintendent of the Bergenfield Public School District for 11 years; the Bergenfield High School Principal; Bergenfield Director of Guidance/Testing; and the High School Principal at Dobbs Ferry in Westchester County, an International Baccalaureate School. He was an associate professor of education at Seton Hall University in the doctoral program of Education, Leadership, Management, and Policy and still serves as a doctoral mentor/lecturer.
He is the immediate past-president of the New Jersey Association of Superintendents (NJASA) and the Chair of the Middle States Association of Secondary Schools. In 2017, the College Board recognized his commitment to education with the Bernard P. Ireland Recognition Award. And in 2020, the NJASA recognized his administrative achievements with the 2020 Distinguished Service Award.
Dr. Kuchar holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Teaching from Fordham University, an Ed.M. in Counseling Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a B.A. from Seton Hall University.
Learn more about SBJC
“Nobody has the right to limit anyone’s potential. No one has the expertise of what anyone’s potential is. No one knows. So we have to assume potential’s unlimited for everybody and to support everybody, and to challenge people to grow, and support them in their growth.”
Erik : It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is
Erik : Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon. And I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call no barriers.
David : Today we explore the ways that COVID is impacting our schools across the nation by talking with Dr. Michael Kuchar, whose impressive resume includes a combined 25 years of experience as a school district administrator. He's the immediate past president of New Jersey Association of Superintendents and the chair of the Middle States Association of Secondary Schools. in 2017, the college board recognized Dr. Kuchar for his commitment to education with the Bernard P. Ireland Recognition Award. And in 2020, he was recognized with the 2020 Distinguished Service Award from the New Jersey Association of Superintendents. Currently, Dr. Kuchar is the superintendent of the South Bergen Jointure Commission, a New Jersey public school district, whose mission is to dramatically increase the independence of individuals with extraordinary challenges. Enjoy the conversation.
David : Well,
Erik : , I'm really excited to join you again today with Dr. Kuchar. This is going to be a really interesting conversation about something that's happening to many of us in our lives that relates to the schools and the school systems, and how they are responding in this month of September to a totally new dynamic that has never been seen before, perhaps in the history of the world. We're going to be doing a series of podcasts that focus on education and learning.
David : As I was thinking about this conversation and just about you and me,
Erik : , I mean just in our own lives, we run the gamut with our own kids. I've got a kid in elementary school and middle school. You've got a kid in high school and university. I mean, we are seeing, in our own lives this, just as many of our listeners are.
David : So I'm excited for the conversation today to get some insight that might help us as we're exploring this challenging time of going back to school. So welcome
Erik : , and welcome Dr. Kuchar.
Erik : I have a son. My son's a senior. He's in the other room right now. He was cooking a hamburger. I was like, "Dude, get out of the kitchen. I got to do a podcast."
David : I spent the morning teaching my kid math, so my eighth grade kid, I was helping out with math.
Erik : So this is an exciting month, launching the new school year. And so it's really perfect timing to talk to Dr. Kuchar. I can call you Mike, right?
Dr. Mike Kuchar : Please do.
Erik : Okay.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : Please do. You make me feel a little old calling me Dr. Kuchar.
Erik : Well, first of all, congratulations on your Distinguished Service Award that you got from the New Jersey Association of Administrators. That was really cool. I saw that video and you deserve it and your team deserve it. So nice recognition.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : Well, thank you. Thank you very much. But I just said, "Don't make me feel old." They get Distinguished Service Awards for longevity. So thanks for rubbing it in,
Erik : .
Erik : Well you have been at it 39 years. Isn't that right?
Dr. Mike Kuchar : Yes it is. Right on the money. This is my 39th year.
Erik : Nice. So what has it been like starting the year? I bet it's been exciting and chaotic and probably very, very lots of energy output.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : Well, I don't ever want to use the word exciting because exciting has a positive tone to it. I think it's sacred work and we're doing very sacred work because we're doing work where people's lives are on the line. And so we approached the reopening of school with that sacred, sacred belief that we had an overriding guideline that we will develop plans to open school where no child and no adult would get sick. And we took it really seriously, like all schools are taking it serious.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : But as you know, I work with children with extraordinary abilities, unique challenges, and so they have a whole host of other issues that we work with in the schools. And when we approached this, our governor, on June 26th, he announced that we were going to go reopen the schools in September, and he gave us a road to recovery plan. And in it, he gave us 10 elements to open schools to ensure a safe opening. I asked my faculty, staff and parents for volunteers to work with us on this committee. So we had 10 committees and I had over a hundred volunteers.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : And so for the past six weeks, we approached the sacred work, dealing with the critical elements of the safe opening with the guiding principle, nobody gets sick. It's still ongoing. We're tweaking it each and every day. The challenges of the pandemic changes hour to hour, day to day, week to week. So it is never ever fully finished. And we're always engaged of how to be better, how to prepare.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : And we also added two elements to the process, to the governor's 10 critical elements. We added another of education, and the other one we added was outreach service, again, children with unique needs. So we had surveyed the parents, we've surveyed faculty and we realized our students were regressing. They were regressing, they weren't doing well. They needed the in-person service for them to grow, let alone, not to regress. So we put the planning together, and over 100 people, the past five, six weeks, and we're confident that September 8th, we'll be welcoming all the children in school all the time.
Erik : My son, [inaudible 00:00:07:31], I just mentioned, they have this model where he's going to go twice a week to school and do the rest of his courses online. They're going to split the school in half. So what is the model that you guys have created? Because I know you have kids with a lot of medical conditions that are vulnerable to COVID and so forth. And I imagine that's really challenging to figure out how to create a safe environment for them. And I heard this interview with this mom and she was saying, "My kid has special needs and virtual classes are really hard for him." And we talk about essential workers and she's like, "His speech therapists and occupational therapists and his physical therapists, these are essential as essential can be."
Dr. Mike Kuchar : I got to say my faculty and staff agree with that parent, agree with you. And we all are in agreement that it is essential. And so when we developed the plans, again, our team, we developed them with safety in mind. What do the hospital workers do? What do the first responders do? So we adopted the medical model. So while we might not be able to control our children with unique abilities, with their ability to wear a mask, what we can control is what our faculty and staff can do to keep themselves safe and to keep the children safe. So we'll be using full PPE for everybody. And we'll be using, besides the personal protection, we'll have barriers and shields. But because we're a school serving special needs, our class size is already low. So we'll be even able to social distance.
David : That's amazing.
Erik : Mike, so the South Bergen Jointure Commission, it took me first of all a couple of months just to say that properly, if I'm saying it properly. It's a little bit confusing. I mean, so your charter, your commission is you have a Board of Education. You have your own schools that serve kids with special needs. You also contract and serve other school districts around the state and so forth. How does it work? How do you govern? And how do you provide those services? And why do you exist? What was the history of you being there?
Dr. Mike Kuchar : So we were started in 1992 and we were really a model of shared service. 15 districts in Southern Bergen County, where there are over 75 school districts, 15 of them said, "Look, we all have similar needs. We're all too small to do it ourselves. Let's set up a jointure commission to service us as a shared service." So we've been doing special education transportation for 15 of the Bergen County school districts. And as we've been growing, we've been taking on other school districts as they need service. So as of today, we've been doing transportation for 50 of the 75 districts in the County. We've been doing outreach services for almost 40 of the districts in Bergen County. So we're a service organization and we're governed by 15 superintendents that make up the South Bergen Georgia Jointure Commission. It took me two years to figure that out.
Erik : And what went on before the '90s? Where were they? What happened to them? I know that when I was a kid, mainstreaming was the big buzzword.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : We've really come to learn, too, that regardless of the disability, children will do best in their neighborhood school, surrounded by their typical peers. And not only that, typical peers, we talk about today, equity, inclusion, diversity. We're robbing typical kids the experience of the uniquely abled kids with extraordinary abilities.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : So I think that again, and you know
Dave Shurna: and
Erik : , that our goal is to be in neighborhood schools and provide that expertise and support so that children can thrive in a typical classroom regardless of their classifications. And, again, is another step in the direction of living an independent life.
Erik : So a school might have some kids with autism or multiple disabilities or behavioral issues and they are unprepared, they're ill-equipped. And so that's where you guys come in, right? What kind of services? What's an example of something you might do to help a school out.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : So if schools are experiencing a child whose behavior is disruptive and so forth, there's a classification, and as awful as it sounds, it's emotional disability, ED. And so those students, they will send to us. And what we've been doing is we have behavior modification programs, counseling. We have behaviorists. And what we do is try to mitigate what causes the student to have outbursts, and we teach them skills to self-regulate. So our goal is teaching that child in no more than two to three years, the skills so they could be integrated back into mainstream schools.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : We hired a full time individual who is teaching our kids breathing and yoga and meditation. And we're learning that that has had a great deal to do with helping our students self-regulate to relax. And, again, there's a lot of technical skills and knowledge that we can bring forth to a school district, to students, to help the child get back to the individual school.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : We partnered with Rutgers University, had them do a study of our school and our programs. And it's pretty interesting when we have a pandemic and some of the issues of pandemic might naturally help with some of the ways we, as a district, had to grow. And what Rutgers, the Douglass Developmental, when they did our program evaluation, they said that we could do a better job with proximity and that we're hover too much for kids, I think COVID is going to help us.
Erik : There you go. You're going to be required not to hover.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : And then I think, though, it's hard because that's part of the issues. Helping doesn't mean do it for them or to infantilize. And so, again, how do we give them the time to really struggle? Which letting people have a little struggle is a gift, because through that struggle, they're going to gain that independence. And I think we're learning now, as an organization, how to give that space. That's one example.
Erik : And that's kind of a fundamental philosophy, it sounds like. Because I think I've heard you talk about that really before, this idea of giving kids a little bit of struggle and adversity in a safe community. Because, I mean, I know when I'm trying to learn something new, I feel like I want to bang my head against the wall. So it's how to relieve stress and how to deal with the social and emotional challenges of life as you're thrown into a new situation and you're scared. I mean, this seems like maybe a fundamental thing to learn to help kids succeed.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : I've talked to so many parents and I just realized we want to protect our kids. We want to help them. And we hover. We're hovering too much. How do we find that sweet spot to step back and allow them the independence to grow and to fall and get hurt, but not too hurt.
Erik : Right.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : It's a tough balance. And I think we're too much on the hovering end and it's a struggle. I, myself am a parent of a special needs child. And watching her growth, the more she was given independence, the greater the growth spurt. So here's a child that was in special needs, pull-out classes, who mom and dad pushed to be integrated in the mainstream. She not only finished her first year of college, she not only stayed and dorm that the college, she was just invited sophomore year into the Honors Program.
David : Oh my gosh, congratulations.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : Miraculous, of which she did it on her own through the independence and the structure and the difficulty of mom and dad backing off.
Erik : And how do you do that with your team and as a family, with your teachers? Because I know that love is blind. I look at my kids and I think I'd rather run full force into a brick wall than see them get hurt. It's so painful watching them struggle, but it's essential. So how do you teach that balance with your teachers? Because I imagine it's only human nature that they get fearful and they want to keep people safe and that lowers expectations.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : So when we look at what happens and we start visiting the agencies that take our kids after 21, where are they? What are they doing when we look at the end in sight? And, again, how do we educate our parents and engage them? Because many of them, it's going well. But when the child ages out at 21, what's next? There's the reality. So getting people to see that reality early on to build up to the end result, having the individual child, as they grow, express what are their dreams, hopes? What do they want to do with their lives? And work with them to achieve their goals. That's how we're doing it. Again, it's not easy. It's incremental, but we have a [inaudible 00:19:06] audacious goal. And that is that everyone will be independent.
David : We're in the midst of this unprecedented time. And you've got a real team that really knows what your kids need and want, and is ready to bring back this sort of the school to as much semblance of how it should be. But I'm sure you must have teachers who are also just personally afraid for their own health. I know we all interact with people who are on a spectrum of how comfortable they are just with the whole COVID thing. I've got my mom who's really worried and stays at home all the time. And I've got my dad who isn't, and I got my brother who is. And just when you look around folks, everyone responds to this differently. So how do you support 400 teachers and administrators who all probably have their own personal sort of feeling of safety insecurity? How do you, how do you manage that, Mike? It seems like a big challenge.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : It's a very difficult challenge because not everything is physical. It's emotional, psychological, it's spiritual, etc., etc. And it's a huge responsibility. But again, we created a plan for safety for all. We're doing everything to even deal with perceptions, even if it isn't safety, but if it makes people feel better, we're doing it. It goes though to essential work. And is it essential that students get these services? We believe it is. I'm not saying it for everybody. I'm being very specific that we know our children are not doing well virtually and they have extraordinary needs that will have them regress. And we know they're regressing based on parent input. We have a responsibility, much like the healthcare workers going to a hospital, the ambulance, the police, the firefighters, the people at our supermarkets checking us out. There are so many people that are taking the challenge. And what do they say? These people are heroes and they are heroes. And not everyone is being forced back to work. There are choices individuals can make.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : And again, I don't want to speak for anyone, but is that tough? It is tough. It's very tough. Everything's difficult. We're losing friends and loved ones to COVID. It's real. It's awful. And we're not going back out of convenience. We're going back out of necessity.
Erik : That's beautiful because it brings a mission-oriented approach. You're in a hospital or you're, as you said, a fireman person or a police person, that this is the mission. It's essential. And so it's filling that such an essential need. I like that. It makes it really kind of stark and black and white that you're here for a purpose.
David : I think, Mike, that the word used at the beginning of our conversation that this is sacred work. And I think in the conversations we have on this podcast, and this is coming out here, that idea of even in the midst of great challenge, and this is one of the greatest we faced as a world, especially in education too, having sacred work can be a driver for happiness and fulfillment and getting through the challenge. What a gift to have the sacred work, no matter how hard it is, because it can really be a source of fulfillment and it matters, what you're doing is so important.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : Right.
Erik : And Mike, how do you assess potential? Because you have kids who have every challenge under the sun. They have lots of different levels of abilities and different kinds of abilities and kids with, as we talked, about behavioral challenges and multiple disabilities and autism. How do you assess what their potential is? How do you assess success? You've mentioned the word independence. That's different for different kids. How do you judge it and how do you make it happen?
Dr. Mike Kuchar : I don't. I don't at all. Because nobody has the right to limit anyone's potential. No one has the expertise of what anyone's potential is. No one knows. So we have to assume potential's unlimited for everybody and to support everybody as fully as they can and to challenge people to grow and support them in their growth. But I believe strongly, strongly,
Erik : , that we shouldn't limit anybody's potential and that anybody, we can't even, I believe, ascertain like an algorithm of, if we do this many discreet trials and this many hours of physical therapy, they're going to grow at this rate. I believe there's nothing that is black and white, that we just have to give everyone opportunity and support and skills. And we that have to assess and know where their baseline is and give the skills to their areas of growth. But, again, their outcome, I think, is unlimited.
Erik : If those kids had brick walls in front of them, then it's hard to reach that potential. So I think you guys work, I mean, you don't just work with the students, but you work with the community. You're building partnerships. And isn't that a part of the model is that you have to work with the community so that people accept people with different abilities, so they don't become isolated and kind of keep confronting those brick walls in society, in relationships, in friendships, all that kind of stuff?
Dr. Mike Kuchar : Absolutely. And then how do we create win/win? By raising awareness with the greater community at large and see the skills and abilities of our students and not looking at their disability, look at their ability.
Erik : As you transition these students out, what are some examples of success stories? What do you see them out there in the world doing?
Dr. Mike Kuchar : We're building programs that give our students skills that's of interest to them and that they can apply in the real world. And that's why anyone here on the podcast, if you have opportunities you think would fit our kids, please contact us, get in touch. We'd love to hear your thoughts. We'd love to work with you. We'd love to explore. And I think that's another piece of this that people do get involved and they do share.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : I just was contacted by NEXT for AUTISM, their newly appointed CEO, I've known over the years, a former New Jersey superintendent. And he's like, "Mike, I saw this information. And our organization would love to support things that you do. We're looking for these opportunities." So I think, too, that we need to work together with the community at large, utilize our resources, and really help kids that have not had the opportunities.
David : Mike, I'm curious, you said in this conversation that the parents, your teachers, are in agreement that you serve a population that really isn't going to do well in a virtual school environment. They need to be together. And I can imagine we have lots of parents from all over the nation listening, who may be in a similar situation where they have kids that just, they know this is going to set them back. And they're in a district that isn't going back to in-person. They're in a place where they're being forced to do at-home. So what is your advice to parents who might have kids who are inherently just going to really struggle based on the fact that they can't be getting all the services that they would typically get? How should they approach this time in this situation, in order to help their kids succeed in whatever ways they can?
Dr. Mike Kuchar : Our kids have outbursts and this comes from the Rutgers Program Evaluation. The two biggest reasons our kids are having outbursts are one, they're being told to stop doing something that they like doing. Or two, they're being told to do something they don't want to do. That talks about the need for structure, for organization, for discipline, for boundaries. And I think that those are difficult for us parents to consistently provide. But I think if we can provide that, even when there is in-person school, that's going to help all our kids, regardless of their classifications.
David : That makes sense. Well, Mike, I'd love to finish with, you just briefly mentioned earlier, your daughter. I'd love to hear, just on a personal level, how she's doing in the university. And if she's heading back in light of COVID. What's happening on that personal front for you and your family?
Dr. Mike Kuchar : So we've had a little battles lately and the battles are because she decided last year at orientation that even though we live close to the college, she'd like to live there. And I didn't even think she'd be able to sleep overnight on orientation without wanting to come home. So we acquiesced, my wife and I, and she not only stayed at college last year, she was there almost five, six nights a week, and she loved it. So her campus is opening up. She wanted to go back and I'm like, "Look, hon, you had a great first year." She made Dean's list. And she also was invited into the Honors Program of the college. And so we're like, "Let's not press our lock. Let's go back into the dorms in January and let's go virtual as the college is." So she's doing incredibly well.
David : Great to hear.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : And as you know, she has been my inspiration for everything I do. And what my wife and I did for her, I now want my position to make sure the children of South Bergen Jointure Commission, they have that same opportunity.
Erik : Wow. So you're fully in, you have this personal connection and you have your professional connection. And so the two must really play off of each other in informative ways.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : Oh, it's been life changing and my daughter has been my hero. And I don't want to single her out. I have four children and I could talk equally as well of the three others. But what Jackie has done on her own and what she's overcome, inspired my older daughter, who finished her doctorate and dedicated her dissertation...
Erik : To her sister, I imagine.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : Yep.
Erik : That's awesome. They feel it in the heart. That's a good leader.
David : It's incredible.
Erik : And so as a leader, if you could get rid of all the constraints around financial stuff and time and all the barriers out there, what's your full-on dream for these students that you lead and your faculty? What's your full-on outlandish dream?
Dr. Mike Kuchar : My outlandish dream is happening. I have an incredible faculty and staff that are far more insightful than I am, far smarter than I am, are doing magical things with the kids we're serving. So we're well on our path to helping each kid lead independent lives. So it all is good.
David : Amazing.
Erik : Awesome.
David : What an amazing treat to be able to hear your story and to be able to have the honor to work with you and your team as partners with you. We are so thrilled that things are continuing to progress, and you're living out that dream and helping others in the process. So thank you, Mike. Thank you for joining us. It's been a wonderful conversation.
Dr. Mike Kuchar : No, thank you guys. Always good being in your company. It was good speaking with you.
David : Well,
Erik : , another terrific conversation. What stood out for you today in the discussion?
Erik : Well, one thing Mike said, I don't want to butcher it because he said it so well, but I mean, he's like you can look at all the metrics and all the assessment tools and you still can't assess people's potential. It's like a magical kind of thing that you just have to be this guide and you have to know how to be a guide and not be the barrier. And then these magical results can happen. And man, that is just, I had never heard it expressed in that way before. I would have thought an administrator would talk about all kinds of various precise assessment tools and this ticker tape and pop out the potential and the outcomes. But no, he's saying it's kind of almost like a mystery, almost it's a sacred thing that they're part of.
Erik : So that really strikes me. And also how delicate is to build your team, because, as we said, you have to have this incredible array of skills to be able to guide people and help them achieve their potential. And it's not all science, it's art.
David : And you pulled out something that stood out for me, too, was there's this idea, again, that not many administrators, I think, would describe it the way that he described in terms of their response to the crisis and how they're dealing with their students. Well, his very first comment was this is sacred work. It is work that needs to be done. We have a huge responsibility. And I think that idea of finding something in your life that is so sacred that you know it has to happen, that's really a gift to have that in your own life. And it can be a driving force in times of great crisis to have that sacred thing you're aspiring for.
Erik : To know you are so important, you cannot let this community down. That's a powerful motivator.
David : It really is. Cool. Well, as always, our listeners can find any of the specific things referenced in today's conversation in our show notes. There'll be links to anything called out. If you want to go and learn more about the South Bergen Jointure Commission or any of the things that were mentioned today, check out our show notes. And if you enjoyed the conversation, we will be having several others in the month of September that are focused around education and our response to how you're dealing with COVID as it pertains to kids and universities and the future of education. So please share this with others if you enjoyed it. And we look forward to the next conversation. Thank you.
Erik : Cool. Thanks. No Barriers.
The production team behind this podcast includes Senior Producer, Pauline Schaffer, Executive Producer, Diedrich Jong, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman, graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Megan Lee and Carly Sandsmark. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.