Belleville’s schools chief named to prestigious nationwide Leaders to Learn From list


Tomko, standing, is seen here enthusiastically interacting with young Belleville students. Photo by Education Week

Richard Tomko, the superintendent of Belleville’s Public Schools, has been the recipient of many honors and accolades for his work in the education field. But perhaps none are as prestigious as the one he’s been bestowed in the last week.

Tomko was announced as one of the 2023 Leaders to Learn From by Education Week, a 37-week-a-year newspaper and online journal that covers educational matters.

The 11th-annual Leaders To Learn From special issue highlights the work of eight district leaders from around the country who have deployed innovative solutions to fix some of the most pressing challenges facing K-12 schools in this critical period in history.

Tomko was chosen from among more than 300 nominees nationwide submitted by readers, journalists, school administrator groups and experts in the K-12 field. He joins other recipients spanning coast to coast, from Boston; to Jonesboro, Georgia; to Well, Texas; to Bakersfield, California; to New York City; to Phoenix; and to Manassas, Virginia.

“As our schools navigate a time of significant change and uncertainty, I am deeply impressed with the resilience and innovation of our 2023 Leaders To Learn From,” Education Week President & CEO Michele Givens said. “Their unwavering dedication to providing a quality education to every student will have a lasting impact for generations to come.”

“We are honored to shine a spotlight on the exemplary work of these leaders,” Alyson Klein, a project editor for Leaders To Learn From, said. “We hope that their example will inspire and empower educators around the country to make a difference for the students in their communities.”

Tomko was honored for his leadership in the expansion of programs in early-childhood development and special populations in the Belleville schools — a district of nearly 5,000 students — and his ability to enhance programs and facilities through building partnerships with stakeholders.

Within two years of Tomko’s tenure, the district went from failing the state’s districtwide comprehensive accountability system (NJQSAC) with one of the lowest scores in New Jersey to being named among the state’s high-performing districts, even doubling its scores in financial management and instruction.

Since his arrival in Belleville in 2015, Tomko and his team have also increased full-time general education preschool enrollment from 8% to 87% for the current school year; expanded the district’s life-skills program; created several academies and vocational programs for students; and established COPE (Community Outreach Program in Education) to grow relationships between non-profit service organizations and the school community.

Most recently, as reported in The Observer, he was behind the addition of sustainable energy solar and wind projects and a teaching greenhouse, which were added to extend learning opportunities for Belleville’s students, and an indoor training facility was designed to support the physical and mental wellness of students, faculty and families.

Now all of this is happening, perhaps by fate, because when he was an undergraduate student at Seton Hall University, Tomko was studying pre-med. He told Education Week one summer, he got a job as a substitute teacher — and it changed the entire trajectory of his career.

“I was initially like, ‘Oh, it’s extra money,’ … but I’d never wanted be a teacher,” Tomko told Education Week. “Then I got into that classroom, the first or second day, and just fell in love with it. It’s so powerful to have someone in front of you that you know is the future of this community, and when you show them something they didn’t know, it’s such a powerful tool.”

From there, Tomko himself a life-long learner, earned a master’s degree and doctorate in Educational Leadership. His first foray into running a school district was in Elmwood Park, where he was superintendent from 2010 to 2015. Then, seven years ago, he was among 50 applicants for the Belleville superintendent’s position — and it appears the Belleville Board of Education is well aware — it made the perfect decision to  hire him.

“The board and I congratulate Dr. Tomko on this incredible achievement and the national recognition we have received as a district,” Belleville Board of Education President Luis Muñiz said. “None of this would be possible without the time and dedication realized by Dr. Tomko, our faculty, staff and administration.”

As part of the Leaders to Learn from recognition, Tomko will participate in the Education Week Leadership Symposium later this year in Washington, D.C., where he will share district ideas and innovations with fellow honorees and peers from across the country.

During his 24 years as a school administrator, Tomko has received numerous awards and citations for his commitment to students and the communities in which he serves. He is currently an appointed member to the School Ethics Commission and the Governor’s Task Force on Teacher Shortages.

When asked about leading through the pandemic and beyond, Tomko’s focus narrows in on the resiliency of children and their desire to tackle life’s challenges through different pathways.

“How do we get kids back to normal? Well, you can’t do that through educational reinforcement alone,” Tomko said. “You  have to create big, new opportunities — not the same opportunities.”

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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, an organization he has served since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on social media channels such as YouTube, Facebook, and X, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to Kearny to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.