When Bridget O’Connell shared about her life as a mother, runner and professor, she cringed when adding she grew up not far from Lafayette College.
“I didn’t go to Lafayette—that’s the important part there,” she said with a light laugh following a wide smile.
O’Connell received all three of her degrees from Lehigh: a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate. She ran track here. She met her husband here. She teaches here. At this point in her life, she scuba dives, travels and adores her four kids.
But she also thoroughly enjoys and is grateful for 11 years as a now award-winning superintendent. She is superintendent of the Palisades School District in Bucks County.
The School Superintendent’s Association (AASA), with coordination from the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), has awarded O’Connell as Pennsylvania’s Superintendent of the Year for 2022
These two organizations foster connections between professional educational leaders and help to best serve students and faculty development. AASA and PASA chose O’Connell out of the 500 superintendents in the state.
O’Connell sat down with The Brown and White to share about what got her to this esteemed point in her career.
Q: How would you say your degrees from Lehigh have impacted your career?
Bridget O’Connell: So, all my degrees have been from Lehigh—obviously, I love Lehigh! And I still teach here. I am an adjunct in the College of Education for a curriculum course. I feel like through that course, it’s a great opportunity to encourage folks to go into not just leadership but into superintendency as well when there are fewer folks going into the teaching profession. I’m concerned about that pipeline. So, anything I could do to encourage teachers to be leaders and continue to aspire to the principalship into district office and then to the superintendency, I do as often as I can.
Q: How would you define a superintendent?
BO: I would describe the superintendent as the CEO of the organization, responsible for educating all the students in the district, to start, but also a steward of taxpayer dollars. In many cases, the school district is the largest employer in the community so you have an HR function as well. You need to be very knowledgeable of school law, as that also impacts your job of course, and I would say a key communicator with the community, sharing what’s occurring in the district. (Another part is) working with the board in Pennsylvania—there are nine school board members that are elected to make decisions regarding taxing authority, so they raise taxes, they approve textbooks, they set policy—so (a superintendent is) facilitator of those meetings as well. You’re like the educational leader. At the other end, we make snow calls.
Q: How does this award affect your career if at all?
BO: In this position, I’ve also been asked to speak at state conferences on “Why superintendency?” and why it’s important to continue to aspire and pursue leadership positions. I did another presentation on community relations. So, I think with that designation as Superintendent of the Year I’m asked to present in more locations which is exciting. I think it is just an opportunity for more exposure as far as opportunities to meet with folks and also, on the national board, being able to participate in webinars with the U.S. Department of Education on what’s happening at the federal level and how we can support.
Q: We have seen the education system completely turned upside down from the pandemic. How did you adjust? What changed? What is consistent?
BO: We were able to remain open all last year from the beginning of the school year, so we never shut down. We were open five days a week. Wrestling, football, everything occurred last year, which was rare in the region. We’re a smaller school district, so we were able to space our kids six feet apart, but it was a nail-biter. Hard work. We haven’t been through something like that before. But I have a great team at Palisades, and we were just committed to making sure that our kids were able to be in class. We had about 75 percent of our students back in person at the beginning of the school year and created a whole cyber program for the 25 percent of our students that weren’t comfortable coming in. I felt like we were as a community really working together to make this happen. There was a lot of uncertainty from everyone with what the virus would do next and if our response to this virus was working, but I am really just thankful that we were able to be open all year.
Q: Do you have a specific memory as part of your superintendency career that you hold onto most?
BO: That board decision and all that needed to be discussed and worked through for the board to make that one decision (to keep school open during the COVID-19 pandemic.) Everything else would have changed. It was a really hard year, and our admin team was working tirelessly all the time to try to make this work and they did make it work. I learned so much about my team. It was great to hear people getting dogs, a new recipe that someone tried or engagements. We’ve worked together for a long time, but it was fun to hear things that we may not have known about each other before.
Q: Is there anything you want to tell current students with whom you can empathize? Or professors?
BO: I would certainly encourage anyone who is interested in education and loves working with young people to pursue a career in education in whatever capacity that may be. We certainly need qualified teachers.
Q: I asked how you would define superintendency, but how does it feel to you?
BO: It’s incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. I mean, I feel like it’s more than a job. That’s cheesy to say, too, but I feel I take my work really seriously because it impacts the lives of kids, and that to me is such an important role to play in society. Yes, it’s stressful, because there’s a lot of responsibility, but that doesn’t outweigh the joy I feel in the work that I do. I mean, I can’t say that every moment is joyful, but I think that’s important too. I feel for students to find something that they’re interested in. Try to find folks that are engaged in what they’re doing and good mentors that will encourage (you) — whether it’s engineering, or journalism, or education or whatever, connect with people that really enjoy what they’re doing.