The biggest reward for Richard Fry was watching Big Spring School District students grow up in pursuit of lifelong learning.
An educator with 35 years of experience, Fry spent almost half his career leading the very same district he graduated from in 1982.
He will retire as superintendent on June 30, turning the page on 16 years of change for the community he calls home.
“It has become more apparent to me that public education, when done well, is the great equalizer,” Fry said. “It opens doors. I want to continue to contribute to that, just in a different way by supporting specific groups of students that have unique challenges.”
On Aug. 2, Fry starts his new job as director of engagement and success for the private company that manages regional locations of River Rock Academy and New Story, schools that specialize in alternative education and the teaching of autistic children.
“I still have a lot to offer,” said Fry, who is 57 and lives on a family farm in North Newton Township that dates back to the late 1700s. “It was just time at Big Spring to move to the next chapter. I needed to do something in education that was a bit different.”
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Serving Big Spring was the capstone of a career that began with graduation from the local high school in 1982. Four years later, in 1986, Fry earned a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education from Lock Haven University.
Many of his early years were spent as a teacher and administrator in Prince William County in northern Virginia. During that time, he earned his master’s degree from the University of Richmond. Fry returned to Pennsylvania in 1995 to work two years as director of athletics and student affairs for the East Pennsboro Area School District.
From 1997 to 1999, Fry was an assistant principal at Lamberton Middle School in Carlisle before becoming principal of West Creek Hills Elementary School in East Pennsboro from 1999 to 2004. During that time, Fry received his credentials to serve as a superintendent.
He was assistant superintendent at East Pennsboro for a year before the Big Spring School Board appointed him superintendent in April 2005. In 2017, Fry earned his doctorate.
Not only was Big Spring his childhood home, it was the school district that graduated all four of his children. For Fry, one life lesson defines for him everything that is crucial in a quality education.
“It comes down to relationships with the community, with kids, with legislators and colleagues at the local, regional, state and national level,” Fry said. “Relationships now are every bit as important as they were 35 years ago.”
When Fry started his career, public education was built around a traditional factory-warehouse model where students move through a 13-year cycle from kindergarten to graduation. “Here is the curriculum. This is how we teach it. We move on from there,” Fry said. “That’s not the case anymore. We have seen an evolution.”
Gradually, education has moved to a more personalized approach that focuses on preparing each student to be a nimble lifelong learner who can adjust to the prospect of double-digit career changes in an economy of constant flux.
“They have to love learning because they are going to continue to learn, make a change, relearn, make a change, relearn,” Fry said. “They will be in an economy driven by lifelong learners.”
Some measures have discouraged progress. No Child Left Behind put so much stock on accountability through testing that it pigeonholed some students, making it harder for them to engage in learning and to pursue their passions, Fry said. Part of the problem was No Child Left Behind was driven by legislators far removed from the education process, he said.
“It had all the right intentions, but a ton of unintended consequences,” Fry said. “Everything was derived from a test. Our students are so much more than a test score. Education is not one size fits all. We are starting to move beyond it and reflect on the whole child.”
Four years into his tenure as superintendent, Big Spring switched to full-day kindergarten in support of providing young learners the building blocks of literacy. Five years in, Fry pushed the need to go beyond the ZIP code and learn best practices from districts nationwide.
“You have to be comfortable enough to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, we are not where we need to be. We can do better,’” Fry said. “Feedback is a gift that has been very beneficial for Big Spring.”
For one initiative, Big Spring used grant money to send a team of representatives to the Boone County school district in Kentucky. There, they learned about the practice of dispositional hiring that has been a useful tool in teacher recruitment and retention.
Under this practice, administrators not only interview job candidates about their qualifications in classroom management and teaching methods, they look at how each person can support a growth mindset of professional collaboration.
“We try to figure out what makes folks tick, what do they value,” Fry said. “We try to gauge if they are a good fit at Big Spring.”
With changes in teaching came advancements in technology, especially in the last 15 to 20 years. The outbreak of COVID-19 in mid-March 2020 put school districts to the test in their ability to pivot from traditional classroom instruction to remote learning.
“Technology doesn’t replace the teacher. It would never replace the teacher,” Fry said. “But it can certainly help to support the learning.”
The challenge is how to keep up with the times and provide students access to relevant, real-world technology. Along with that, the job of superintendent has to change to be proactive enough to engage families with factual information using social media platforms.
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