Schools chief in Delco is honored

Jim Capolupo was named superintendent of the year by the National Association of School Superintendents. He's pushed for better literacy and college readiness in Springfield schools. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Jim Capolupo was named superintendent of the year by the National Association of School Superintendents. He's pushed for better literacy and college readiness in Springfield schools. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 25, 2014

Last year, Jim Capolupo was thrilled simply to be one of five finalists competing for the title of national superintendent of the year. For the lifelong Eagles fan, it was like playing in the Super Bowl - even though he didn't get to experience the thrill of victory.

This year, however, the Springfield School District, Delaware County, chief was back in the game and took home his profession's equivalent of the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

"I thought it was, you get one shot," said Capolupo, 61, who was named the nation's top superintendent by the 500-member National Association of School Superintendents last week. "From what I now understand, you can have two."

The organization cited Capolupo's focus on literacy and college readiness, with Springfield guaranteeing that 100 percent of fourth graders who started with the district in kindergarten would be reading at grade level, and 100 percent of high school seniors would be ready to go a two- or four-year college.

The district has hit its mark, or come very close, every year since 2005.

The achievement, he said, along with the award-winning Literacy Center, which every kindergarten and first-grade student attends before moving to elementary school, has put Springfield and Capolupo on the national literacy map - and then some. He said he has spoken to education groups from every state, and met with legislators and a U.S. Department of Education official about the district's reading program.

All can read

"We've had a positive influence on schools far and wide," he said, noting that a reading teacher from Trinidad and Tobago who attended one of his conferences sent him a picture of one of her students wearing a T-shirt with the district's motto: "We believe every student can read."

"I was amazed," he said.

Yet the self-described "kid from Upper Darby" and former band teacher says he never wanted to be a superintendent.

Capolupo, a saxophone player, taught music in several area districts before landing his dream job as band director at his alma mater, Upper Darby High School.

"I thought, this is it. I was coming back," said Capolupo, who has three children who graduated from Conestoga High School. His wife, Joan, is an adjunct professor at Villanova University.

But the tug of administration called when he was offered the job of arts coordinator for the Colonial School District in Montgomery County. After a few more moves, he was hired in Springfield in 2000 as director of teaching and learning, the No. 2 spot.

When the superintendent retired, Capolupo said, he expected the school board to bring in "another head coach. I said, 'Why don't I become the head coach?' "

School board member Doug Carney said it was Capolupo who changed the district's culture from "good enough is OK to good enough is not OK."

"No matter who he's talking to, he says, 'Is it OK for your child not to read? If it's not OK for your child, it's not OK for any child here," said Tony Barber, Springfield's director of teaching and learning.

The strategies range from the least expensive to the more time-consuming and costly, such as students' working one on one with a specialist every day, said Carney. He called it the "Toyota mass customization mind-set."

The district has moved toward fewer federally mandated Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for special education students, he said.

"We got much more use out of our expensive resources because we're not tied up in IEP meetings," he said.

High school in focus

Jim Holton, a former assistant superintendent in the Radnor School District who hired Capolupo as a high school music teacher, said he was a good people person and manager - as well as a crackerjack musician. Holton's son was Capolupo's student and now plays with groups in Philadelphia.

Now that Springfield's elementary schools are on a winning streak, Capolupo said, he is turning his attention to the high school by transforming it into an academy-style school with students picking majors, and even offering free college classes on the school grounds.

The plan would give families a break on tuition, and local colleges a jump on recruiting students - or, as the Eagles season ticket-holder might say, a win-win.

"I think we can do something that can be of benefit to a lot of communities across America," he said. "What's wrong with this picture?"

610-313-8232 @kathyboccella

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