Dr. Carol Birnbohm: Homegrown Leader

Carol Birnbohm first displayed her innate leadership abilities on Memorial Day, 1988, on a softball field in Marlton, New Jersey — although she didn’t realize it at the time.

Dr. Carol Birnbohm stands in front of her desk in her office.

Now Dr. Carol Birnbohm, she is superintendent of schools in the Lenape Regional High School District and 2019 New Jersey Region III Superintendent of the Year. But on that day 31 years ago, which she remembers as “excruciatingly hot,” she was a 17-year-old trying to encourage her teammates on the Cherokee High School softball team.

“We didn’t normally practice on a holiday, but we had a playoff game the next day,” she says. “And even though the stakes were high, most of us were probably thinking about our friends at the shore or the pool, barbecuing and having fun. Everyone seemed to be just going through the motions.”

That’s when the senior shortstop and three-year starter felt compelled to speak up. “I wanted to change the attitudes of some, including my own,” she says. So she gathered her teammates and made a short speech. 

“I recall the moment, but not what I said. I knew we all wanted to win our upcoming playoff game, but we certainly weren’t practicing like a championship team. I picked up my enthusiasm and my attitude and just reminded my teammates what we had been working for all season.”

Carol celebrates with her team in 1988
Carol (left) celebrates her team’s 1988 state championship.

The pep talk worked — the Cherokee Chiefs went on to win the Group IV New Jersey softball championship.

It speaks to Carol Birnbohm’s selfless approach to life that she didn’t realize what an impact her brief monologue achieved, or that it was a defining moment for her. Months later, after she had enrolled in Trenton State University (now the College of New Jersey), her lacrosse coach showed her a magazine article that quoted the Cherokee softball coach, Mike Medrick.

“He said I provided him and our team a much-needed pep talk going into the playoffs,” says Dr. Birnbohm. “That’s when I realized that my attitude and my words mattered, and I first identified myself as a leader.”

Her leadership qualities blossomed in college. She became co-captain of Trenton State’s two-time NCAA Division III national championship lacrosse team, even though she had never played the sport in high school, where she was busy with field hockey, basketball and softball. And once again, sports provided a life lesson.

“Grit and a great work ethic are in the DNA of every successful leader,” says Dr. Birnbohm. “And, as I learned from my college lacrosse coach, so is integrity. After we won the National Championship, my coach discovered that we had an ineligible player. Without hesitation, she reported it. I’m sure it was hard, but doing what is right is the only thing to do when you’re a leader. I carry this lesson with me whenever I’m faced with a tough decision.”

After graduating with a degree in Mathematics in May of 1992, Birnbohm became a homegirl — in the best sense of that word. She returned to her alma mater and threw herself into all aspects of Cherokee High life, teaching math and serving as head coach of girls’ varsity lacrosse and varsity swimming, and as assistant coach in field hockey. (In 1998, the Newark Star-Ledger named her New Jersey Lacrosse Coach of the Year). She also served on the Human Relations Committee.

In 1998, she returned to college to work on her Master’s in Education at Rowan University. She earned that degree in May of 2000, but wasn’t able to walk at graduation — for a very good reason: she was on two months’ bed rest with her twins, Jenna and Kaitlyn, who were born in July of that year. Both are now students at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island. Dr. Birnbohm also has a son, Dylan, 14, an eighth-grader in Southampton Middle School.

 In 2001, she moved into administration, becoming assistant principal at Cherokee and also supervisor of mathematics and guidance.

Her career has continued on an ascending arc ever since her first day as a math teacher, culminating in her appointment as superintendent of schools in the Lenape Regional High School District in 2012.

One key to her success was earning an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership in 2010 from Wilmington University, which she chose in part, she says, because of the cohort style of the program. “You were grouped as cohorts, face-to-face, so I knew every Wednesday night I had to drive to Delaware, but I was going to be with a group of 25 like-minded people, and we were going to be able to dialogue and learn from each other as well as from the professor. I know the trend is to online courses, but I really felt it was important to go to a university that was going to help build collegiality.”

As she had hoped, Dr. Birnbohm was able to develop close bonds with her classmates as well as her professors. She especially remembers Dr. Lillian Lowery, former Delaware Secretary of Education and an adjunct at WilmU at the time.

“As an aspiring superintendent, I often enjoyed the courses that were instructed by practitioners, and Dr. Lowery’s level of experience was unmatched,” says Dr. Birnbohm. “I was able to learn many important skills not taught in the literature from her experiences as the superintendent of the Christina (Delaware) School District.”

Dr. Lowery, now vice president and COO of Student and Teacher Assessment at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, remembers Dr. Birnbohm as a leader in the class.

“Carol came to every class — after a full day of work — energized and excited about the experiences that her students and teachers were having each week. As she presented her qualitative and quantitative research findings in support of required class projects, she demonstrated a natural ability to build coalitions and beneficial partnerships in ways that compelled her peers to
seek her advice, participation, and expertise.”

Dr. Lowery’s assessment was confirmed in 2010, when, at graduation ceremonies, Dr. Birnbohm received the Audrey K. Doberstein Award for Leadership “and dedication to the philosophy and mission of Wilmington University.”

Two years after receiving her doctorate, she was named superintendent of the Lenape High School District, and in 2017, she was recognized as a “Superintendent to Watch” by the National School Public Relations Association.

In leading a school district with 6,840 students in grades 9–12 in four high schools, Dr. Birnbohm draws heavily on her athletic experience, meaning that teamwork has been a watchword in her administration. The virtual opposite of a narcissist, she is quick to credit all members of her team for the district’s success.

“Throughout my life, I’ve thrived as part of a team, which guides my leadership today,” she says. “I know that to move more than 1,000 employees in the same direction is impossible if I go at it alone. Just as others have helped me find my voice, today as superintendent, I draw from my experiences to guide, nudge and encourage my team members to take risks and find their own voice so we can continue to do great things for our kids.”

Harking back to that Memorial Day speech of three decades ago, she adds, “I continue to choose my words carefully because words have power. Strong leaders must be strong communicators.”

That includes communicating with the community her district serves. Some school superintendents across the country have rocky relationships with the taxpayers who are paying the bills, and school board meetings can devolve into contentious affairs. Not at Lenape, where Dr. Birnbohm and her team have sought to bond with the community. Last year, they conducted four three-hour meetings in the district to learn the community’s perspective on their schools and what they expected “three to five years out.”

“I was overwhelmed by the number of parents and students and staff who came to those events,” says Dr. Birnbohm. “We had close to 400 attend those evening meetings and over a thousand people completed our survey. It was inspiring, motivational.”

As for funding, she says: “Our community knows that we’re very fiscally responsible. We get what we need, not always what we want. If we have wants, we seek grants, partnerships, donations.”

That approach seems to work. The district was able to introduce an engineering and math program donated by a local company, and added two turf fields — at Shawnee and Cherokee High Schools — donated by community members.

The district provides education offerings to meet the learning goals of students with special  needs, including a Transition Services Pro-gram that aids in the development of life-long job skills with help from about 60 area businesses. Each district high school offers more than 60 clubs and 25-plus athletic programs aimed at a broad range of student talents and interests.

Dr. Birnbohm also notes the district’s participation in the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place For Hate program. The pro-tolerance, pro-diversity initiative offers students an opportunity to lead programs for peers and faculty, and to engage with such events as Martin Luther King Jr. Day through assemblies and hands-on activities. It trickles down to eight municipalities, with posters focusing on Lenape District students that urge students to stand up for others.

Fully aware now of the impact of her words, Dr. Birnbohm characteristically deflected praise when she was named New Jersey Region III Superintendent of the Year in October 2018. “It’s been a humbling experience in that I encounter such great leadership every day,” she said. “I have learned so much from my peers in the region and beyond through the years.”