Reaching Higher NH’s new Executive Director, Dr. Karen M. Scolforo, is no stranger to the on-the-ground realities of education here in New Hampshire. For the past several years she served as president of Castleton University in Vermont, but she got her professional start in New Hampshire, and it was here that she witnessed the impact of education firsthand and across the age spectrum. Over the years, she ran her own licensed child care center in Merrimack, New Hampshire, taught at Mount Vernon Village School and Weare Middle School, and worked in the admissions departments of two New Hampshire colleges. While settling into her new role at Reaching Higher, Karen took a little time last week to share some of her experiences and insights and talk about her goals for helping our organization continue fulfilling its mission to New Hampshire students, families, and community members.
Let’s start with your own educational background. Where did you grow up and go to school, and were there experiences or people during those formative years that helped steer you towards a career in education?
I was born in Rhode Island and my family moved to an old farmhouse on the South Shore of Massachusetts when I was four years old. I attended public schools there. I was one of those kids who set up a classroom for her sisters, her dolls, or anyone who was willing to play along. I always loved learning, and one of my favorite “holidays” was back-to-school shopping for school supplies.
You’ve held a variety of roles in education over the years, from public school teacher in a small New Hampshire school district to president of a university in Vermont’s state college system. Looking back over your professional career so far, what are some of the common threads that run through it?
That’s easy: education. I believe that education has a way of changing lives. I know it changed mine. I am a first-generation college student. I knew I wanted to set an example for my children. Throughout my career, I have made a strong commitment to student success. I’ve worked with preschool, elementary, middle, secondary, and college-level students. As a New Hampshire elementary and middle school teacher, I appreciated our faculty’s shared commitment to student achievement, and the opportunities for students to engage in a variety of academic and extra-curricular options as part of their public education. Sometimes, young people can achieve things they didn’t realize they were capable of when they have access to educational opportunities. It is so rewarding to be a part of that personal transformation.
What attracted you to Reaching Higher and what about our organization excites you and ignites your passion?
I am passionate about the public education mission to serve the greater good. I believe that our public schools serve a critically important purpose: to prepare graduates for college and careers, and to ultimately become contributing members of society. Their successes are important to the future of our communities, our state, our nation, and the world. They are our future.
At Reaching Higher New Hampshire, we believe that every child deserves the opportunity to prepare for college, for immediate careers, and for the challenges of living in 21st century New Hampshire. Our work as a nonpartisan public education policy and community engagement resource for New Hampshire families, educators, and elected officials enhances understanding and accountability. I subscribe to the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and I know that our collaborative work on behalf of students will mean greater success for graduates. In my new role as Executive Director, I will draw on all of my experiences to serve Granite Staters.
You’ve mentioned that you have a particular fondness for New Hampshire. What is it that you love about this state, its schools and communities?
In so many ways, I planted my roots in New Hampshire. This is where I earned my bachelor’s degree (Go Ravens!) while running a licensed child care facility. This is where my children attended public schools, played sports, engaged in the arts, performed on stage, and made lifelong friends. This is where I taught middle and elementary school, and where I served as a freelance journalist for a handful of publications. I went on to earn two master’s degrees in New Hampshire as well. I love the New Hampshire culture, the healthy, active lifestyle–I love to ski, hike, and bike! I have found this amazing state to be welcoming, accepting, and challenging of its citizens to be and do more.
You’re coming here at a time when our state and our schools are facing some enormous challenges, particularly around funding. In what key ways do you think Reaching Higher can fulfill its mission to support public schools during this time?
Like so many things, meeting difficult challenges starts with an astute understanding. Reaching Higher New Hampshire offers analysis and explanation of potential legislation in ways that are meaningful to students and families, educators, and elected officials. When we have a clear sense of the facts, we make better decisions. We have made a commitment to community outreach and education. Through this work we are able to learn about the differing perspectives across the state. One thing we have seen is that disparities have been exacerbated by the global pandemic that we are all trying to navigate. Our work is more important than ever.
The topic of equity is on a lot of educators’ minds these days, as they’ve struggled to meet their obligations to all students during the pandemic, and as incidents around the country have highlighted the racial inequities present in our institutions. What role do you think our organization can play in ensuring all students have equal access to educational opportunities?
A great example of the role Reaching Higher New Hampshire plays in ensuring equal access to educational opportunities is the recent project The Whole Picture of Public Education in New Hampshire. This project shines a spotlight on family and community factors as they relate to student outcomes, such as family income, as well as the overall education attainment where students live and go to school. We are actively engaged in monitoring school funding research and conversations, with equity as a lens through which we understand some of the realities in our state.
Community engagement is a big part of our mission here. How do we ensure that our communities are informed and engaged when so many families are overwhelmed by financial hardships, health worries, and trying to balance their jobs with their children’s schooling amid continued school closures?
Reaching Higher recognizes the power of knowledge and experience, and we strive to provide the necessary resources to make sense of legislative initiatives. We work hard to bring communities together through common interests.
Our team connects with communities through focus groups, interviews, and surveys, and we are working hard to give students voices about their experiences and needs. We also host town hall meetings and community forums to engage the greater community.
Community members can subscribe to our newsletter, which offers an overview of timely educational trends, legislation, and conversations.
Is there anything else you want to share with our readers as you assume leadership of Reaching Higher?
Yes! I want our readers to know that I appreciate the real experiences of our diverse New Hampshire population as we evolve in an ever-changing world. Your perspectives are meaningful to us. I expect to learn every day, and to share what I learn in the best ways possible. Information catalyzes action. I love New Hampshire. This is my home, too. And, I am honored to support the great work at Reaching Higher New Hampshire.
(Sarah Earle is Reaching Higher NH’s Storyteller. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)