By Steven Hoffman
During a career in education that spanned 37 years, Dr. Raymond Fischer adhered to this principle as a teacher, a principal, an assistant superintendent, and, for the last five years, as the superintendent of schools in Oxford.
“My mantra has always been students first and teachers second,” Fischer said during an interview on June 26. “Everybody else, including me, supports the students and teachers. Some of the decisions that you make as a superintendent are not easy, but the decisions I made were always based on what is best for students.”
As he prepares for retirement, Fischer's colleagues said that his relentlessly positive attitude and supportive approach created a good environment for learning where students did come first, which is why there was a special tone to the tributes that staff and students organized at the culmination of his 22 years in the district.
“Dr. Fischer's focus has always been on our students,” said Nicole Addis, the principal of the Hopewell Elementary School, who worked with the superintendent for the last 15 years. “Dr. Fischer would always take a moment, no matter how busy he was, to greet students, parents, and staff members with a smile. He would say that it was the relationships that he has made along the way with students, parents, and staff that are most special to him.”
Fischer admitted that as his days in the district dwindled it was hard not to be sentimental.
“The last few weeks have certainly been emotional,” he said.
Most people who decide on a career in education have that one teacher who inspires them to go in that direction. For Fischer, that person was Frank Ryan, an English teacher that he studied under for four straight years at Northeast Catholic High School.
“I think he provided the motivation for me,” Fischer said. “I really enjoyed English literature—all the English classes.”
He also had a natural gift for communicating with youngsters.
Fischer was born in Great Britain, but his family moved to the Kensington and Fort Richmond section of Philadelphia when he was eight years old. Consequently, he grew up as something of a city boy. During summers, he worked with youngsters in recreation programs where the kids enjoyed the open pools, arts, crafts, and competitive sports of all kinds. As a student at Millersville University, he started working with the Lancaster Recreation Commission, an association that continued for another 17 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in elementary education while at Millersville University.
His first job out of college was teaching grades five through eight in the Diocese of Harrisburg. It didn’t take supervisors long to discover that Fischer had a natural knack for leadership.
“I had good leadership skills in the classroom,” Fischer said. “Students would say so and parents would say so,” he explained.
He wasn’t even 30 years old when he became a building principal in 1982. He made it a point to be very accessible to students and teachers, and was visible throughout the building. This style of leadership worked for Fischer and he would continue it throughout his career.
Fischer was looking for opportunities as a building administrator when he got his introduction to the Oxford Area School District in 1991. Oxford had openings for the assistant principal position at what was then the Intermediate School and a principal position at the Jordan Bank Hopewell School, which was a K-2 building at the time. He interviewed for the assistant principal position first, but a member of the search committee thought he should be considered for the principal job at Jordan Bank. Fifty-two candidates applied for the position before Fischer was ultimately hired.
When the district opened the new Elk Ridge School in 1992, Fischer was tapped to be the principal of the fifth- and sixth-grade building.
“I felt that it was a compliment when they asked me to open a brand new school,” Fischer said, explaining that part of that job was to blend the staff members from the Nottingham School and the Penn’s Grove School who were working together for the first time in most cases.
“We created teams for grades five and six. It was a good opening and I think we came together as a unit,” he said.
John Barcus just completed his twenty-first year as a teacher in the Oxford Area School District at the conclusion of the 2012-13 school year. Barcus was interviewed by Fischer and hired as a full-time math and science teacher during that first year that Elk Ridge opened. He remembers that as the principal Fischer always provided encouragement to the staff.
“He is supportive and very positive,” Barcus said. “He would purposefully take the time to go into a classroom, always with a smile on his face, and just have this positive presence.”
Barcus said that Fischer was always willing to offer insights or answer questions. Usually, though, he just gave teachers a positive comment about their teaching or about the students.
Fischer said that he wanted each student to feel like they were important.
“When I was a building principal, I got to know all the students. It makes a connection between me and the students,” he said.
Barcus said that he always marveled at Fischer's ability to remember students' names.
“He knew the name of every student,” Barcus said.
Fischer added a master's in school administration from Temple University to his resume and then a doctorate in school leadership from Immaculata College, preparing himself for the next stage of his career. In 1994, he moved to the central office for the first time, becoming the assistant superintendent.
He also started getting involved in the Oxford community. Fischer was one of the founding board members of the Oxford Educational Foundation when it was started 19 years ago. The organization, which was the second of its kind in Chester County, supports the district by enlisting volunteers in the community to help mentor students and by providing funding for education programs.
Fischer served as Oxford's assistant superintendent for eight years until he decided that he wanted to run a school again. In the spring of 2001, he took a job as the principal of Hamilton Elementary School in the School District of Lancaster.
He returned to Oxford in January of 2002 when the principal’s position opened at Elk Ridge School.
Three years later, when his old position in the central office opened up, he once again became the assistant superintendent. His responsibilities included assisting in the hiring and overseeing the training of new teachers, initiating a comprehensive professional development program, working with building principals and faculty on school improvement plans, and guiding the establishment of the district’s first two strategic plans.
“He enjoyed his years bringing many staff members to the Oxford Area School District when he served as assistant superintendent for personnel,” Addis said.
Fischer was then promoted to superintendent of schools in August 2008.
As superintendent, Fischer was omnipresent, active in several different community organizations and spending a great deal of time in the schools.
“When he became superintendent, he still made the time to get into all the classrooms,” explained Barcus, who said that Fischer would probably be in his class about once a month. “That hands-on approach really set a positive, wonderful atmosphere for us.”
Addis agreed. “Over the years, you could find him at band concerts, graduations, parent nights, student sing-a-longs, sporting events, and visiting the schools and classrooms on a daily basis,” Addis said.
“I tried to get in each school every day,” Fischer said. “That’s how I approached each day.”
His first stop each day was usually with kindergarten students.
“I wanted the students to have some recognition of the superintendent,” he said. “I would read to them or have lunch with them. Because it’s kindergarten, a lot of parents were still dropping the students off so at the same time I could connect with parents, too.”
As superintendent, he helped implement a full-day kindergarten program and before-and-after school tutoring programs that would provide extra assistance to students who needed it.
Fischer was the superintendent of Oxford during a time when education funding was being reduced and districts had to make their resources go as far as possible. He was able to bring in more than $10 million in grants and gifts to the district. Half of a $1 million gift the district received is being used on technology upgrades. The funding was also used for art academies, music academies, and to boost the collections of the school district's media centers. Fischer said that instilling a love of reading in students is one of the best ways to insure their long-term academic success.
Nothing matters more to a student’s progress, Fischer said, than the man or woman who is charged with teaching the students.
“The most important resource that we have is the teacher that you put in front of the classroom,” he said.
Consequently, Fischer has always been an advocate for teachers.
“I've tried to give them as much professional development as possible,” Fischer said. “I wanted them at the top of their game for the benefit of students.”
For much of the last two decades Fischer has played a hand in hiring many of the teachers and principals.
He said that the characteristics that he looks for in a teacher is someone who understands teaching and the content that they are delivering, while also having a deep interest in children. Teachers must also be able to work as part of a team.
Fischer said that one of things that he is most proud of is the staff that has been assembled.
“The staff is hard-working. I witnessed that every day,” Fischer said. “They have a very caring attitude for students and that goes a long way.”
He's also proud of the strides that the district has made in academic achievement. Oxford improved overall state assessment scores by 40 percent, and the percentage of graduating seniors increased from 73.6 percent in 2002 to 91 percent in 2012. In 2008, the district posted the eighth-highest increase in student achievement in Pennsylvania. In addition, SAT scores have risen in the past five years with verbal scores jumping from 475 to 500, math from 471 to 511, and writing from 457 to 473.
Fischer said that standardized testing gives teachers benchmarks that can be a barometer to how well students are learning the material but, like a lot of educators, is concerns that too much of an emphasis is now being placed on standardized assessments.
“We try not to over-emphasize assessments,” he said. “We want to educate our students to be well-rounded. Research shows that music and the arts are very important. We look at the whole child here. We want to give students a well-balanced education so that they can lead productive lives.”
Fischer said that one of his favorite times each year is graduation day because he formed a personal connection with so many students along the way that it's nice to see them reach an important milestone.
He said that many students ask him to write recommendations for college or to make a telephone call on their behalf. He likes knowing that he played a small part in their success as students prepare for college, start their careers, or join the military.
“There is some personal satisfaction with all of that,” he said.
When asked what he won't miss about the job, Fischer comes up with two things: Getting up early on a winter morning to make a decision about what Mother Nature has in store for the area and the seemingly endless evening meetings which, while necessary and often productive, still wears down even the most energetic administrator after awhile.
“You commit to some long days as a superintendent,” Fischer said. “We knew that when we said yes to the position.”
Although he’s looking forward to retirement, Fischer is hardly leaving behind education or the community that he has grown to love.
“After 37 years, I don’t want to stop everything,” he said.
In May, he was tapped to serve in the newly created executive director position for the Oxford Educational Foundation.
“It will allow me to continue what I’m doing,” Fischer said. “It’s a part-time position that will keep me working with the community and I look forward to that.” He explained that part of the new job will be to seek additional grant opportunities. He will also attempt to bring in more volunteers and mentors to the organization. The organization would also like to be able to generate more scholarship money for students.
Jim McLeod, the chairman of the board for the Oxford Educational Foundation, said that the organization has been looking for ways to expand the services and financial support that it offers and Fischer is uniquely qualified to assist with that.
“He has always been responsive to the needs of students,” McLeod said. “We went through a five or six-month process and we felt that Ray was the best choice for us. He has this saying, when things go well, that it is another reason to be 'Oxford Proud.' This is another reason to be 'Oxford Proud.'”
Addis said that she was glad to hear that Fischer would continue to be active in the school community.
“He is a caring and compassionate individual,” she said. “Perhaps his greatest quality is his passion for students and education. We look forward to working with him in the capacity as executive director at the Oxford Educational Foundation.”
Fischer will also continue to be involved in the non-profit organizations like the Oxford Rotary and the YMCA. He might also do some work with the Oxford Public Library and the fund-raising campaign that is underway for a planned expansion.
“I still want to remain engaged in the community. It’s a community that I love. It’s a very special place,” Fischer said.
He has also been teaching a doctoral course at Immaculata University where he works with professional educators who want to be building administrators. He may continue this work and could
even be open to taking on a principal position for a short period of time.
But mostly, Fischer said, his time will be spent enjoying life with his wife, Nancy, who spent 32 years teaching in the Penn Manor School District. The couple owns a small farm in southern Lancaster County called the Marigold Farm. It was named after Marigold Manor, which is where Fischer lived as a young child in Great Britain.
“My wife, Nancy, has been a strong supporter of my work and I certainly couldn't have done this work without her,” he said. “We're looking forward to spending more time together.”
Fischer said that he and his wife plan to continue ballroom dancing lessons, travel to Great Britain, Italy, or maybe Paris and, most importantly, spend more time with granddaughter Ava.
When asked how he would like his time at Oxford to be remembered, Fischer, as always, focused on the students first.
“I would hope that parents would say that I took good care of their children and helped provide them with the best education possible,” he said.