Superintendent reflects on progress in North Brunswick, future of district

KEN DOWNEY JR./STAFF

NORTH BRUNSWICK – The completion of North Brunswick Township Middle School is a microcosm for the career of Dr. Brian Zychowski.

Building a new school – which was completed in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic after seven years of planning – requires those involved to be process-oriented as they seek the latest research while working toward best practices, and then taking those practices and operationalizing them, Zychowski said.

Much has been the same in Zychowski’s educational career, which led him to the North Brunswick School District at the end of the 2006-07 school year as superintendent of schools.

And which will also help the district move forward, as Zychowski retired effective June 30.

“I helped move the pieces to where they needed to go,” he said. “People see the building, but they don’t see the beauty of the work behind the scenes.”

Zychowski was the superintendent of the Clark Township school system when he was appointed to the position in North Brunswick on Feb. 15, 2007.

He began his career as a high school history teacher and was a longtime coach of boys and girls basketball, softball and soccer. He later became an athletic director, a vice principal and then a principal, according to previous articles in the Sentinel.

“What made me get into the field of education was that when I started as a coach, I was involved with the world of sports and I enjoyed working with children … and I felt it was a very noble profession, and I enjoyed the interaction. I thought that since I liked the athletic side so much, the educational side would be even more rewarding, and it has been,” he said at the time of his hiring.

Zychowski was also an adjunct professor at Monmouth University, teaching graduate level education administration leadership. He was the vice president of the New Jersey School Development Council, which is affiliated with the Graduate School of Rutgers University, and he sat on the executive board of directors for the Arts and Education Center, Matawan, which administers arts programs for students in Monmouth and Middlesex counties.

Zychowski was named Middlesex County Superintendent of the Year in 2019.

Some noteworthy accomplishments over the years in North Brunswick have been the successful realignment of the budget, securing state funding, instituting a significant energy savings program, expanding the schools, planning for a new school, incorporating full-day kindergarten, securing a grant for free pre-kindergarten, focusing on a future-ready path for all students, incorporating new technology into the curriculum, expanding social-emotional and mental health initiatives, installing solar panels on all roofs through the use of grants, replacing HVAC and lighting through the use of grants – and of course, surviving and thriving during the novel coronavirus pandemic while also opening the North Brunswick Township Middle School.

“Yesterday’s high school is today’s middle school,” Zychowski said, referring to how the Linwood Middle School transitioned from a grade six through eight school to grades five and six so the new middle school could prepare seventh- and eighth-graders for their high school career.

Curriculum, instruction, cognitive development, maturation development and social-emotional development are all key factors in education at the middle school level.

Janet Ciarrocca, the director of Curriculum, Instruction and Technology, rewrote the curriculum, focusing on “organization redesign to drive the curriculum and the standards to put our children in the best place they should be,” Zychowski said.

Offering different “academies” such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) or business, students can gravitate toward specialty areas while fulfilling their educational requirements.

And North Brunswick Township High School has a dual enrollment partnership with Middlesex College through which students can earn college credits while still in high school.

“We have a long-term vision to ensure every student has the opportunity to have an associate’s degree when they leave North Brunswick,” Zychowski said.

Zychowski said he hopes he is most remembered for creating systems and supporting creative thinking that allow for continuous improvement.

He said the curriculum, personnel, operations and policies of the district all showcase commitment to the community.

For example, during the COVID-19 shutdown, the school district was able to provide 1-to-1 Wi-Fi connectivity to students without an internet connection because months prior to March 2020, the district had received a grant to acquire T-Mobile hotspots.

Then, while school was closed, wellness teams were deployed to check on students.

Zychowski said these are examples of how district personnel always seek to meet the needs of all students, while also tying long-range goals into strategic systems thinking.

“It’s about having the right people in the right place,” he said.

Although North Brunswick’s school district was in some disarray of leadership prior to Zychowski’s arrival, the most recent superintendent said he believes he was able to leave the district in better shape than he found it, mostly because the staff members were already in place, but needed to be reorganized to showcase their expertise.

“I had to build trust, build that loyalty, build that connection,” he said.

That is why Zychowski believes Ciarrocca is the perfect person to replace him as interim superintendent: he believes the transition will be seamless as she takes over for the next year while officials decide on his successor.

“I feel we are in a great place with the right people who are always ready for the next level of work,” he said, continuously giving acknowledgement to his colleagues throughout the district.

Zychowski said his retirement came at this time because a superintendent’s position is all-consuming, making it difficult to plan for the next phase.

He said he gave 100% effort to the students and staff, but now wants to step back and concentrate on his personal goals.

He said he hopes to continue with an opportunity at a higher education level; he will not be far removed from his 12 years of teaching, his 23 years as superintendent, and his 15 years in North Brunswick.

“I learned there is strength in diversity. We have a different community now than we had two-and-a-half decades ago. … It is incumbent upon the superintendent to harness the strength and the needs,” Zychowski said of what he learned during his time of leadership in the Middlesex County district. “North Brunswick is unique as a school district. I learned to serve the needs of that community because I believe in wanting to prepare our students for their future, not our past.”

Zychowski said he never planned on being a superintendent; he wanted to be a teacher and a coach. He continued with graduate level courses to understand the next level of supervisory work and then someone who supported him offered him an opportunity at the age of 36.

Reflecting on his career, Zychowski said it was a combination of luck, serendipity, taking advantage of opportunities, hard work and good fortune.

“It’s not how I thought it would turn out. I thought (I would be) maybe a teacher, a coach, maybe an athletic director. I wanted to understand the craft. I took courses. I wanted to be in the full theoretics of the practice of teaching and learning. I wanted to make a difference for more students,” he said.

Likening his career to a motorcycle journey, Zychowski said he had a roadmap, but there were traffic jams and detours and rest stops, but they all led to the same destination – and his career is a continuous journey.

“I am grateful to North Brunswick. It has been an enormous honor to serve for almost 15 years,” Zychowski said. “It was a huge responsibility I took seriously because I wanted to meet the standards of what North Brunswick needed and wanted. All I have left to say is thank you to the community.”

Ciarrocca took the helm of the North Brunswick School District on July 1. The Sentinel will feature a profile about the new superintendent later this month.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@newspapermediagroup.com