Cliff Chuang, Bedford’s new Superintendent of Schools, is an amalgam of Renaissance man and policy specialist, innovator, and collaborator.
The 49-year-old educator started his second month in the superintendent’s office last Tuesday, succeeding Philip Conrad, who retired.
Chuang’s parents immigrated from China in the 1960s to pursue educational opportunities; they met in Minnesota. His father was recruited to teach at Northern State University in Aberdeen, SD, where Chuang grew up.
“Being Chinese-American in a part of the country that is predominantly white did have its challenges, and that part of my upbringing gives me some empathy for those who feel like the other,” Chuang related. “Aberdeen is a small enough town where people get to know you but there can still be stereotypes that impact your experience.”
After high school, he followed his older brother to Harvard University. “When it came to college, I realized the world was broader than my experience. Here in the Boston area, there were more peers who had shared experiences and more diversity..”
Before he finished his undergraduate studies in 1996, Chuang enrolled in a teacher education program in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to prepare students for certification immediately after college. After student-teaching senior year at Boston’s John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, he joined the full-time faculty for four years, meanwhile earning a master’s degree from Boston College.
He spent another four years in the classroom at the Academy of the Pacific Rim, a charter school in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood where he also chaired the math department. There he first became involved with a range of policy issues – staff compensation, curriculum development, discipline code. “It gave me the opportunity to see what we could do with policy at a school level and whet my appetite for creating conditions for optimal learning.”
The 210-day academic year was “very intense,” with students in class from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. “For teachers, that meant 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with just five weeks in the summer,” he related. “I will always say that was the hardest job I ever had. You always had to be ‘on.’ If you are in this profession, you help each student figure it out, and never stop caring about outcomes.”
When he moved to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in 2004 as coordinator of charter school research and finance, he discovered “you can contribute even if you are not on the front line. There are other jobs that allow me to pursue my convictions about educational opportunity. I was doing what I felt I really aligned with, the way I was made.”
Chuang remained with DESE for the next 18 years save for a 22-month hiatus as director of the charter school office for the New York State Education Department. His most recent position was senior associate commissioner for educational options.
“The experience that I have gives me a unique ability to look at this local system with a broad range of data and a broad view of what happens across the country,” he observed. “I do believe that the state level policy experience allows me to bring perspective that will help inform the local conversations that will benefit the community.
“The other aspect is because I’ve been at the state level to set optimal conditions for districts, I have a motivation and excitement to do the work and actually implement, seeing through a lot of ideas,” he continued. “Now I am going to be directly responsible with collaborators to try to actualize the values and principles, including closing opportunity gaps, creating learning experiences that are authentic and meaningful, and preparing students for the 21st century, promoting true collaboration across various partners.
“This is an opportunity to actually apply a lot of what I have been promoting at the state level in an actual context and work hand in glove with the whole leadership team to bring it to life.”
When working on multi-faceted problems, he emphasized his preference to consider the strengths of all sides when seeking solutions. “My sense is it’s not either/or. You can have the best of both if you are thoughtful and strategic. We can get confined into false binaries; there are almost always valid concerns on both sides.”
He acknowledged that he has not worked as a school principal. “I have the utmost respect for principals. With all due respect to my colleagues, I think a principal’s job is harder – maybe assistant principal even more so. It does not replace the day-to-day experience of principals, so I have mentor support.
Chuang has spent the first few weeks getting to know the people in this enriching community.
“I’m talking with the Trails Committee about hosting a series of trail walks to get to know the neighborhoods. I want to understand the community geographically, in settings that may be less formal,” he said during an interview in his office, before heading to Lane School for the first of five ice cream socials this week.
Chuang said he wants “to lead with creativity.” As a serious violinist, his video invitation to the ice cream events began with a solo version of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer. “I thought that it was a good way to introduce myself to the community.”
He began with the instrument at age five, Suzuki method, and began playing with a local college orchestra before his feet reached the ground from his chair. He continued playing through college and even considered enrolling in a conservatory. “Then life takes over.”
As an accomplished violinist, Chuang has played “in all sorts of venues.” He anticipates that he will be playing here in Bedford, describing a recent stop at Leonard Music on The Great Road to find an instrument he can keep in the office.
The superintendent has transitioned to more popular and improvisational music, but “It’s a part of my life.” He continues to play at church, porchfests, farmers markets. “But I need to be very mindful of my time allocation.”
“I am trying to broaden our notion of educational success beyond academics to include athletics, the arts, social-emotional learning,” he said. “I am trying to emphasize the artistic aspects of how we express ourselves, how we learn, the kinds of skills we learn on the stage, the rehearsal room, the field or the court, not just the classroom.” Chuang, himself, enjoys playing tennis; he said he will dash over to the tennis courts for a quick volley with whoever is around.
“Kids learn in multiple ways in multiple spaces,” he continued. “We want to embrace diversity in multiple ways. There are more ways to express yourself. People come with multiple facets of their identities.”
“The talent here is just phenomenal,” he commented. “Every stakeholder I meet with has shown a commitment to this community, the quality of our schools, the students. It’s very exciting to think about all the collaborations that can emerge.” As part of collaborative planning, Chuang said, he is always asking, “Who else do I need to hear from? What else do I need to know?”
Chuang is developing a formal entry plan for presentation to the School Committee on Aug. 29. “I am getting feedback from the staff team and will outline the trajectory of my first year. The goal is to have completed that synthesis at the end of February, which will set the stage in spring and summer for the next district improvement plan.”
By that time, “I will personally know the stakeholders and learned more about the district and students.”
Chuang acknowledged that growing up, his parents, like other immigrants at the time, “wanted their kids to learn English as soon as possible.” (They also named him Cliff, which isn’t short for anything – they felt it reflected their new culture.)
“Now I realize you want to preserve your native tongue,” said Chuang, who signs his memoranda in English and Chinese characters. “And I do identify with he/him. That’s not a presenting issue for me, but it helps people understand you’re sensitive to others, to model that. These are small things, ways to signal that you want to be inclusive and expansive in how you communicate.”
He added, “In a local community, all of the kids are all of our responsibility – even if they don’t go to Bedford public schools. I feel a responsibility for every young person in Bedford or who is part of the system. You have to think holistically.”