An educator’s path
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An educator’s path

Bergenfield man goes from music to cakes to teaching to supervising Englewood’s schools

Robert Kravitz, his wife, Sandrine, and their three children, Alex, Jeremy, and Leila.
Robert Kravitz, his wife, Sandrine, and their three children, Alex, Jeremy, and Leila.

Change is hard, we’re often told. Many people — most people — are uncomfortable with change, the common wisdom goes. They’re risk-averse. They like to stick with what they know.

All those stuck-in-a-rut people should meet Robert Kravitz, the newly named superintendent of the Englewood school system, who is set to begin his new job on October 1. He has never met a rut he has not turned into a well-ordered and successful roadside attraction and then left in search of the next challenge.

Before we look at Mr. Kravitz’s unlikely but inspirational career, though, we should point out one element that never has changed. Mr. Kravitz, 47, was born in Bergenfield, to a mother who grew up there and a father who has lived there since early in his marriage. Not only do Mr. Kravitz’s parents, Brenda and Al, still live in Bergenfield, so do he, his wife, and their three children.

His mother’s family’s local roots go way back. “My grandparents grew up in Jersey City. My great uncle Morris” — that was Morris Kantoff — “came to Bergenfield in 1939, and he was a founding member and major supporter of the Bergenfield Jewish Center,” a synagogue that merged out of existence years ago. “My mom graduated from Bergenfield High School in 1958.”

His parents’ marriage was mixed. “My dad is from Brooklyn, but my mom wouldn’t live across the bridge,” Mr. Kravitz said. “They started off in Fort Lee, and then moved back to Bergenfield.”

Mr. Kravitz and his sister, Jill Kravitz, who now lives in Englewood, went to Bergenfield High. “My parents had a great work ethic,” Mr. Kravitz said. “They gave me whatever I wanted, provided I did it to the fullest extent. I always had to work my tail off.

“I wanted to study drums, so my parents got me the greatest music teacher. And then, six months later, I wanted to stop, and they said no, I couldn’t. That was the greatest experience of my life.” It also was a worldview clearly visible in the work Mr. Kravitz has done since.

At Rutgers, Mr. Kravitz’s next stop, “I went in as a music and political science major and came out with a business degree,” he said. “When I got to music theory 3 and counterpoint, I said ‘This is not for me.’” He had planned on becoming an entertainment lawyer — that’s why the political science — “but instead I went into business.”

Specifically, into the bakery business.

Al and Brenda Kravitz owned a two-family house in Hackensack, an investment, “and in walked an Italian pastry chef,” Robert Kravitz said. The business relationship grew to include friendship, the Jewish family and its Italian tenant shared food, the pastries were delicious, and Mr. Kravitz discovered a talent for selling as he began marketing the baker’s work to restaurants. “We realized that this was a niche market,” he said. “My sister had an MBA from Rutgers, and she said that she’d do it with me.” His parents joined their children, and the family incorporated the business as K Enterprises in 1989.

“I continued to work with the pastry chef, but I realized I needed to know more, so I got a culinary arts degree from the Culinary Arts Institute at Hudson County Community College,” Mr. Kravitz said.

Had he been interested in baking before? “Not at all,” he said. “I hadn’t been interested at all in cooking, and my family never knew much about cakes or desserts. Now I love cooking. I cook at home almost every night. Baking, not so much anymore.”

The business grew. “We got an SBA loan, bought a building in Bergenfield, and we were doing $1.2 million in sales a year, and we became the Ben and Jerry’s wholesale distributor for New Jersey. I went back and got an MBA from St. Peter’s in Englewood Cliffs.”

At the peak of the business, Mr. Kravitz was selling cakes from a range of high-end bakeries, including World of Chantilly, the hugely successful kosher bakery in Brooklyn (when he sold those cakes to non-kosher restaurants, he didn’t mention their hechsher; the cakes sold themselves, he said) to restaurants including Sant Ambroeus on the Upper East Side, where their pastry-chef friend eventually went to work.

In 2002, he realized it was time to move on. “I wanted to have a family, we were working a lot of hours, and we agreed as a family that it was time. It was sad — but we had a buyer.”

For his next act, Mr. Kravitz began to teach in the Create Charter High School in Jersey, a now-defunct school in a tough neighborhood in Jersey City. It was not on its surface an intuitive move, but it made sense to him. “My wife, Sandrine, was a French teacher in Paramus High School. I figured I was selling information, sharing information, teaching chefs — I would walk into a restaurant and say ‘Take this slice of cake, take this syrup, we can go from the $1.63 it’s worth to charging $6, and that’s your profit.’ It’s all marketing — and it’s all teaching.

“So I taught business and entrepreneurship — which is my love — in high school.” He did not have teaching credentials, “but in New Jersey, if you have experience in the subject matter, you can start to teach and earn the credits within a year.

“So I became a teacher, and at the same time I pursued my master’s in education.”

After a year in Jersey City, which presented a challenging commute from Bergenfield, Mr. Kravitz moved to Fort Lee High School, where he taught accounting and computer applications in the school’s new academy of finance. He also became the yearbook adviser, “because I had a business background” — and for the first time ever the school made a profit on the yearbook. “It shined a light on Robert Kravitz,” Mr. Kravitz said. “Who is this guy who makes a profit on a yearbook? The district superintendent started to ask questions.”

In 2008, Mr. Kravitz was promoted to become vice principal of Fort Lee High School and director of its academy of finance. And that August, he moved to the borough’s failing School Number 3, an elementary school where only 66 percent of students passed state exams.

So there he was — he’d never been a principal before and he’d never worked in an elementary school before either — the brand new principal of a failing elementary school.

Why?

“I was the business guy. I liked high school, but I’d been a vice principal and I wanted to run my own school. It was a natural progression.”

To jump to the conclusion obviously waiting at the end of this part of the story, Mr. Kravitz turned the school around. Using his triangle theory — he believes not only in the conventional idea that parents, administrators, and teachers are necessary for a child’s success, but that the corners joining them must be reinforced to keep a child from slipping out an interstice unnoticed — he worked wonders.

Bob and Sandrine have moved through many career changes together.
Bob and Sandrine have moved through many career changes together.

The base, he said, is listening to parents, doing what they ask of the school, and making sure that they do their part as well. (He took the lessons he learned from his drum lessons and applied them.) “We found out that a lot of the innovative programs the school had the parents didn’t want,” he said. “The parents didn’t understand them, the teachers weren’t trained properly in them and didn’t like to use them — so they went out. Instead we returned to basics.”

He is not philosophically opposed to innovation in school, he added. It’s that each school is different; each school’s combination of demographics, socioeconomics, and cultural assumptions demands different approaches. That’s why it is so important to listen to each group of parents.

School Number 3 had a largely Japanese and Korean population. “They weren’t happy with the wordiness of math problems. They wanted rote mathematics because that’s what they were used to. So when we said we would teach rote mathematics” — they used flash cards — “the parents were happy, and so were the teachers, and the scores jumped.”

“The next year, the sixth grade, which last year had 66 percent of students pass, went to 90 percent,” he said. “Rote mathematics worked for that particular customer base of that school at that time.”

He also makes a point of knowing each child; of being outside when the buses pull in and the parents drop off their children; of greeting each adult as well as each child; of being both informal and straightforward.

Mr. Kravitz, it must be said, could be used to illustrate energy. His dark hair stands up on his head as if he is always rushing into the wind, and his eyes are round and wide behind big round glasses. When he greets children, that energy is turned onto them. It wakes them up.

As a result, in 2010 Fort Lee School Number 3 won the United States National Blue Ribbon award for excellence. Mr. Kravitz and some of his colleagues went to Washington to be honored. “The top one-tenth of the top one percent of schools in the United States win that award,” he said.

That year, Mr. Kravitz wrote a book, “Blue Ribbon Story,” discussing his educational philosophy.

In 2012, “I had the opportunity to become the superintendent of schools in Englewood Cliffs,” he continued. It was a different demographic — he had gone from “very low end in Jersey City to middle in Fort Lee to the high end. But the same principles apply. I had coffee hours with the parents, asking them what they’d like to see in the school.”

These parents want their children to learn a foreign language. As a result, the children are immersed, for three hours every day, in French, Italian, or Spanish. “We have 9-year-old kids fluent in those languages,” Mr. Kravitz said. “A parent told me that his kid spoke French to the waiter at the French restaurant in Epcot at Disney World, and another one said ‘Scuzi, Papa,’ to his father.” The program is funded in large part by grants, one from Montreal, another from the Italian government.

The school also is establishing an International Baccalaureate program; it expects to have its application approved in April, thus becoming the first such primary and middle-school program in the state.

“You have to work your way to it,” Mr. Kravitz said. “A lot of people have a fear of change, but once it happens it becomes a tidal wave.”

Now Mr. Kravitz is on to his next challenge. Englewood Cliffs’ public school system has two schools, divided by grade level, that run from kindergarten through eighth grade. Its budget is $11 million.

Englewood’s public school system — six schools, prekindergarten through 12th grade — has 35,000 students and a $71 million budget, Mr. Kravitz said. It traditionally has dealt with racial tensions — the city has wealthy parents who tend to send their children to private schools as well as far less well-off families whose children go to public schools, and the breakdown seems to go along racial as well as economic lines.

Mr. Kravitz is energized by the challenged. “I think it’s ripe to be a top-flight system,” he said. “I welcome everyone. There are distinct populations — there also is a distinct middle class — and we will work to accommodate them and give all the children of Englewood the best possible education.

“I will start by listening. It won’t be just me — it’s never just me. It’s always a team. If it’s top down it will never work. And if it’s just parents coming and shouting it won’t work.”

He talked again about the triangle, about how it is necessary for all adults — parents, teachers, and administrators — to build a structure sturdy enough to keep children safe and challenged and growing inside it. “It’s basic stuff,” he said. “We hold all of us, including parents, responsible.” He is not above embarrassing parents into working with their children. “I stand outside every morning — I’m the superintendent, and I still stand outside — and there is a guilt factor.

“There is a way to do it. I won’t be threatening. I’m not hostile. I won’t scream at you. There is a way to speak to people,” a way that helps ease them into realizing that they are partners in the effort of educating a child.

“I am into education,” he said. “I worry about kids. I have three kids. I care about kids. We will raise the bar for kids, and that’s it. We want them learning, and to be in a safe environment where they can grow intellectually, physically, and mentally. We will give them all the opportunities and help them take advantage of those opportunities.

“There is no reason why the stereotype of Englewood should continue to exist. Those were the old days. These are the new days.”

Mr. Kravitz’s own children are Alex, 12, Jeremy, 9, and Leila, 7. All of them go to public school in — wait for it! — Bergenfield. Mr. Kravitz is on the board of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, and the family is now preparing not only for Mr. Kravitz’s new job but for Alex’s rapidly approaching bar mitzvah.

We can be sure that Alex will be well-prepared for it, the enthusiasm will be cracklingly high, and that the desserts will be superb.

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