Former students are now top district administrators
By Venise Grossmann
It’s the eighties. A young boy nicknamed Gizmo walks down the West Deptford Middle School hallway, playfully teasing his friend, a pretty blonde named Kristin. Despite the passage of time—thirty years, the two remain close friends. Ironically, they still tease each other in the hall. Only now they are top administrators in the district.
Although he still maintains a playful demeanor, “Gizmo” is now Dr. Brian Gismondi, the principal of West Deptford High School, and Kristin O’Neil, still a pretty blonde, is now the Chief Academic Officer for the district.
Gismondi was only three weeks older, but he was a year ahead of O’Neil. Their Middle School friendship continued when they entered West Deptford High School since they both became active in the music program.
In addition to taking part in the school musical, choir, and Marching Band, Gismondi was also a member of the All South Jersey Choir. In fact, while a student, his goal was to return to the high school to teach music and direct the band.
While O’Neil enjoyed participating in Marching Band and had a lead role in the school musical, she also took part in the sports program as a wrestling statistician, a field hockey player, and as a cheerleader. As a senior, she gained recognition for her beauty and poise, earning the title of Miss West Deptford, the first in the township.
O’Neil also aspired to become a teacher, which didn’t surprise her teachers since she excelled in academics, was in the National Honor Society, and was Student Council President.
Gismondi described himself as being a “psycho” in the yearbook. “My friends thought I was funny, carefree, outgoing and hyper,” said Gismondi. O’Neil, on the other hand, thought of herself as being friendly but fairly quiet. “And I was a rule follower,” she says.
As Student Council President, O’Neil’s legacy was assisting with the concept of the Eagle on the front of the building. Classmate Rick Keuler acquired the funds as a result of a Pearl shampoo contest, and the two worked with the administration and an artist to design the eagle.
After school, Gismondi an O’Neil worked at part-time jobs in the community. When Red Eagle Produce first opened in Woodbury Heights, O’Neil was one of the first employees they hired. She also worked at the Greenfield’s Swim Club snack bar. Gismondi worked at the Roy Rogers where the McDonald’s is now located on Red Bank Avenue and Route 45. He also worked as a server at the former Chi Chi’s in Deptford.
Gismondi graduated in 1990; O’Neil, in 1991. Both enrolled in Rowan University, known at the time as Glassboro State. O’Neil was the last freshman class under the former name. Both became education majors. O’Neil majored in elementary education and sociology, and Gismondi matriculated in the music education program. Their friendship ensued. During their collegiate days, they attended sorority and fraternity activities together.
After graduation, O’Neil continued her graduate studies part-time at Rowan University, earning a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. Gismondi transferred to Wilmington College to earn an equivalent degree. Their paths crossed again at Widener University where they both enrolled in doctoral programs and earned degrees.
Their first professional jobs were even at the same school—Delsea High School. Gismondi taught music and was the Assistant Marching Band Director, and O’Neil coached the cheerleading squads. In 2004, their career paths led them to West Deptford.
O’Neil and Gismondi worked their way through the ranks before becoming administrators. Main Road Elementary School in Franklinville hired Gismondi as a principal. He later became Assistant Principal of Discipline and Attendance at West Deptford Middle School. Three years later, the West Deptford Board of Education hired Gismondi as the principal of Red Bank Elementary, and then as the Middle School principal. He has served as High School Principal since 2010.
Gismondi’s goal has been to promote cutting edge educational initiatives. As an elementary principal, he introduced the concept of looping, a practice that allows students to keep the same teacher for two years. He also introduced parent teacher conferences in the third and fourth grade. In the Middle School, he led the laptop 1:1 initiative that began in 5th grade. Each year the program expanded and another grade was supplied with computers. This year the whole high school was outfitted with laptop computers for the first time. Now every child in the district has a laptop.
O’Neil’s path to back to West Deptford was slightly different. She began working as an elementary teacher in Marlton, then as a school principal in Sewell School in Mantua Township before becoming principal at Green-Fields Elementary. In her current position of Chief Academic Officer, she works directly under Kevin Kitchenman, the Superintendent of the district.
Some of her accolades include securing a grant for EE4NJ, awarded to only ten schools in New Jersey. In addition to her district duties, she serves on the Board of Directors for New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, works on a review committee for Rutgers Report for teacher evaluations, and attends conferences through the New Jersey Department of Education.
One might think that these two co-workers get enough of each other at school, but they also make time to socialize together. In fact, Gismondi is a godparent to two of O’Neil’s children.
“Our partnership works because we trust each other,” says O’Neil. “Brian always gives me honest feedback, and I appreciate that.”
Despite the support they both offer each other, they face many daily challenges. Not only must they follow state mandates in regards to teacher evaluations, but national mandates in regards to Common Core Standards. “It’s always a challenge to implement new initiatives with reduced funding,” says O’Neil, “but that’s something that every district faces.” Gismondi is also concerned with finding money to fund extracurricular activities and to provide school safety.
Technology in the schools is also continually evolving. For instance, the district’s one-to-one laptop initiative was a huge undertaking. “It’s a great opportunity for the students, but it requires teacher training and support since instructional strategies change,” says O’Neil. The teachers now utilize online forums such as Moodle and Edmodo, which has an interface that’s similar to Facebook.
Promoting technology use in the classroom is only one part of the equation. “We want our student to develop other Twenty-First Century strategies such as cooperative learning and communication skills,” says Gismondi. “They need the life skills that will prepare them for any career.”
O’Neil is also teaching these skills to the future generation of educators at Rutgers University. She’s a professor at the Camden branch and teaches a course called “Contemporary Issues in Education.”
While both are proud of the recent efforts of the district, they are continually setting new goals. “We want to deliver the highest level of education possible,” says O’Neil.
The immediate goals of the district are to increase participation in PSAT and SAT tests by the end of junior year, increase the number of students taking and exceeding a score of a 3 on AP tests, and increase proficiency and advanced proficiency of the 3rd grade students in the area of language arts. They also plan to increase the high school graduation rate and increase enrollment/acceptance of high school seniors in a four-year college program.
In the future, Gismondi would like to see the district offer more online classes and additional curriculum offerings. It would be a financial benefit to the parents in the community if students were able to earn more college credits while in high school. “I’d like to see the best of both worlds—a virtual high school inside a traditional high school,” says Gismondi.
In order to achieve these initiatives, Gismondi and O’Neil are training the teachers in Classroom Instruction that Works, a book that provides research-based strategies for increasing student achievement and differentiated instruction, which encourages teachers to offer different assessments for students with diverse learning styles and abilities.
The administrators have a genuine concern for the success of West Deptford Schools. “We both have a vested interest in the quality of the education,” says O’Neil. “Our own children attend classes here.”
Venise Grossmann is a teacher at West Deptford High School. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.