Making the Switch- With Ron Sofo
December 13, 2013
With 18 months under his belt as City Charter High School’s principal and CEO, Ron Sofo reflects on his decision to move away from public school administration to run a thriving charter high school.
When Ron Sofo decided that he no longer wanted to be just a “random molecule” in his community’s public school system, he took a leap of faith and decided to step down from his superintendent’s role at Freedom Area School District and take a position as the CEO and principal of City Charter High School. This happened in June of 2012 and Sofo has had zero regrets about his decision to take part in Pennsylvania’s thriving charter school movement.
The move didn’t go unnoticed. “Presented with school choice, Beaver County’s most persistent voice for charter school funding reform chose a job with a charter school,” wrote Timesonline.com in April 2012 under the headline “Sofo moving to Pittsburgh charter school.” In that article, Sofo was quoted as saying, “I still have a passion for public education. I think I have 10 years’ work life left in me … I’ll still be working at a cutting-edge public school … I want to have an impact on public school policy … If I position myself in Pittsburgh, and I can keep this school moving ahead, I can have some influence. It made sense to me.”
And it still makes sense, according to Sofo, who says his move into the charter school arena can be traced back to a long-time desire to start a STEM high school at the district where he worked previously. “I learned about City High back in 2003 and then brought teams of teachers to visit the school because we wanted to open our own charter school,” says Sofo. “Being situated at the nexus of Beaver, Butler, and Allegheny counties – areas that wanted to create the STEM high school – our district made the most sense from a geographic and programming standpoint.”
In Search of Best Practices
In Sofo’s mind, having a best practice charter school in his district translated into a sister school for that district’s high school. “We could have a great high school for the residents of Freedom Area School District and then a charter school for everybody else,” Sofo explains. “I saw the charter school idea as a way to pilot and experiment with best practice and to be a reform tool for my own high school.”
But something funny happened on the way to that vision: Sofo was asked to join City Charter High School’s board. “Why would you want a public superintendent on your charter school board?” Sofo immediately asked, and was told that a practicing administrator would round out the existing board perfectly. “Neither of the charter school founders were administrators and didn’t come from that kind of background,” he says, “particularly in terms of a central office versus the ‘individual school building’ category that charter schools fall into.”
After serving on the charter high school’s board for a couple of years, Sofo was called on again in 2012 by the institution’s leaders – this time to replace its retiring co-founder, CEO, and principal, Richard Wertheimer. “At first they asked me to sit on the selection committee for the new principal and CEO,” Sofo says, “but then they surprised me by asking me if I’d consider the job myself.”
The more Sofo considered the offer, the more he realized that immersing himself in an environment centered on best-practices education and experiences was exactly what he needed. “The American high school is out-of-tune and needs to be redesigned for the 21st Century,” says Sofo, whose long-term goal is to impact educational policy and governance on a larger scale. “I want to help make that happen while working at a high-quality charter school that’s both fulfilling for me as a person and as an educator.”
Drop Everything and Pay Attention
The move from superintendent of a large district to the principal of a 600-student charter high school was both challenging and rewarding for Sofo, who immediately found himself presiding not only over the institution as a whole, but also over the entire ninth grade. “Three other administrators and I serve as the grade-level principals,” Sofo explains, “so I’ll be looping with the ninth graders until they graduate, and then I’ll move back to the incoming ninth graders.”
Sofo says the volume of day-to-day interactions with City Charter High School’s ninth grade students and faculty members took some getting used to. “I deal with the daily stories, drama, and chronology of being a freshman in high school,” says Sofo, whose time management skills were tested almost immediately upon taking over the position.
“It was a real eye opener for me,” he says, “As a superintendent, you can control your schedule well but as a principal when a student gets removed from class, if there is a problem at the gym, or an issue on the school bus, you have to drop everything and pay attention.”
It also didn’t take long for Sofo to get a firsthand look at the funding struggles facing the state’s charter schools. As a public school district superintendent, for example, Sofo says he could either approach the board of directors to raise taxes or control costs (by reducing the number of teachers or physical buildings, for example) to generate revenues and balance the annual budget.
In a charter school, on the other hand, the main source of revenue is the number of students that come through your door. “That number is controlled by the size of your building and the quality of your product,” says Sofo. “There aren’t a lot of other major ways to generate money other than creating an alumni group or a targeted campaign.”
A final point of differentiation between his past and current roles, says Sofo, is the way in which the school’s board of directors is selected and positioned. “When I was in the public school district I dealt with an elected board and here we have an appointed board,” says Sofo. “We select members based on the skill sets that they bring to the table and we also make sure we have a parent who can give his or her perspective on issues. That’s pretty different from what I was used to.”
Continuous Learning Loop
Sofo, who has his eye on creating stronger relationships with community organizations and businesses in an effort to better prepare students for the 21st Century work world, says relationships and teamwork are the key to success at City Charter High School. With about 18 months under his belt as the institution’s principal and CEO, Sofo is enjoying the energy and motivation levels that literally ooze from the school’s staff members, faculty, students, and parents.
“We’re all highly motivated and always looking to improve the way we do things,” says Sofo. “About 85 to 90 percent of our continuous learning process – for both students and staff – is completed through a teaming/peer process that runs from 9th through 12th grade. It’s a pretty incredible environment.”