Q&A: Lower Merion School District’s Superintendent
From New York substitute teacher to Main Line head honcho, Robert Copeland reveals what he has in store for the district.
This is a big school year for Robert Copeland—his first as superintendent of Lower Merion School District. Copeland spent the previous three years as superintendent of Neshaminy School District. Before that, he worked in New Jersey and New York, where he began his career as a substitute teacher.
MLT: How did you decide to become an educator?
RC: I was an assistant coach on a track team in New York, helping an athlete in the high jump. He’d miss twice, I’d give him some advice, and he’d make it the third time. He kept going higher and higher. The meet ended, and he was still competing. Eventually, he set a school record. He thanked me, and I thought that this was a good thing to do. You get to be directly involved in someone else’s achievement. The sense of satisfaction is enormous.
MLT: What was your favorite subject to teach?
RC: American history, especially the Civil War and post-Civil War eras. It was family against family, with a lot of drama. In some ways, we’re still arguing over issues that took place between 1861 and 1865.
MLT: Why do you want to be superintendent of Lower Merion?
RC: The strategic planning process is like none other I’ve seen. At a time when many districts are reducing public education to its lowest common denominator, Lower Merion has expanded it to its greatest height.
MLT: What’s the first thing you did on your first day at work?
RC: There are three major components that [I’ll] take a look at: the policies, the people and the practices. Then it’s learning how things are done in Lower Merion. I want to acquire a sense of the community that isn’t written down and codified.
MLT: Does Lower Merion have too much, too little or just enough standardized testing?
RC: There is a place for standardized tests. They can help us strengthen academics. But I’m worried about the political use of them. Applying standards across the state doesn’t seem like a good move. The length of the tests and the hours they take up are unnecessary. The political nature of testing has unfortunately taken away from what could’ve been a useful tool for assessment.
MLT: Do you plan to place more emphasis on STEM offerings?
RC: I think STEM is an important opportunity for everyone. The more complete name would be STEAM —science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics. I have a daughter who’s an artist, and I will always fight to support of the arts in schools.
MLT: Lower Merion currently has half-day kindergarten. Will that change?
RC: Early childhood education, particularly full-day kindergarten, really has a tremendous impact, especially for kids who are struggling. One of the concerns we have with Lower Merion is that we are constrained with space as well as budget.
MLT: What about the reputation of Lower Merion parents?
RC: A community where people are demanding is nothing to be afraid of. It’s to be lauded. It forces us—the professionals in the schools—to make deep and high aspirations.