When the executive director post opened up at the New Jersey School Boards Association, three different people reached out to Dr. Timothy Purnell with the exact same message: Apply for the job.
Reflecting on his experiences as a teacher, building administrator, superintendent, nonprofit leader, professor, CEO of It’s Anonymous, and lifelong educator and learner, the 47-year-old Purnell decided to follow the advice of his colleagues.
As he went through the interview process, he became convinced it was the perfect opportunity. “Meeting with the search committee provided me with tremendous insight into the organization’s mission, vision and values,” he said. “I believe that the organization is at a critical point and needs a humanistic leader who can forge relationships and cultivate positive change for children.”
The NJSBA, in turn, landed a candidate with stellar credentials: In 2016, Purnell was honored as the National Superintendent of the Year by the National Association of School Superintendents – a year after the New Jersey Association of School Administrators named him its statewide Superintendent of the Year and RateMyProfessors.com named him the Highest Rated Professor.
“The NJSBA Executive Director Search Committee received scores of applications from throughout the country,” said NJSBA President Irene LeFebvre. “We were impressed with Dr. Purnell’s creativity, business acumen and commitment to the children of New Jersey. We’re confident that his enthusiasm, educational expertise and business experience will be an asset to local boards of education and serve the Association well.”
Growing up in a family of optometrists, Purnell has always been keenly interested in the human eye and how we process information and formulate assumptions based off perceived data. “My father and brother prescribe ocular remedies, and I have spent my years using multiple lens diagnostics to better understand stakeholder perspectives,” he said.
One of his favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein, who said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Purnell believes that “our collective decision is strengthened when we include all lenses – even when we include those with whom we disagree.” According to him, “Disagreement is important because it helps us ensure our decisions are inclusive and ultimately stronger.”
Purnell has the utmost respect for board members.
“What impresses me is their passion and their willingness to make a difference in the lives of children at the local level,” he said. “The past two years have been arguably the most difficult years in public school education – and our boards of education have remained relentlessly committed to doing what is best for kids.”
That respect carries over to NJSBA, which he has always seen as an advocate for children. “NJSBA has a solid reputation of advocacy and has provided outstanding services to its members,” he said.
That mission has been particularly challenging in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has given boards and schools – as well as NJSBA itself – the chance to rethink how to do things.
“The pandemic has forced many of our districts out of their comfort zone and opened new ways of thinking and operating,” he said. “It has also given us the opportunity to reflect on our educational pedagogy and, in my opinion, emphasized the importance of social interaction and connection. Virtual learning has opened limitless opportunities and potential, but cannot compare to facilitated, in-person group problem solving activities.”
Growing Up Purnell is a lifelong New Jersey resident and graduated from Montville High School. Coincidentally, he was in the same class as Sean Spiller, mayor of Montclair and president of the New Jersey Education Association.
Growing up, Bo Jackson, a professional football and baseball player, was Purnell’s favorite athlete – and if you visit NJSBA headquarters, you may observe Purnell sipping espresso from a Raiders mug. “But he wasn’t who I wanted to be in life,” he said of the talented star. “I wanted to be like my dad. He exuded a passion about making the world a better place. He was a man of integrity, humility and optimism.”
He took a big step toward following in his father’s footsteps – as well as his grandfather’s – when he went to study optometry at the University of Delaware. As a premed biology major, he had his eyes set on perhaps going to medical school.
But Purnell knew fairly early on that he was meant to take a different path. Calling his father, Dr. Robert E. Purnell, who served as mayor of Montville from 1991 to 1993 and on the township committee for more than 24 years, and breaking that news, however, was difficult.
“I agonized over calling him to let him know that I did not want to pursue his profession, a profession that had been passed down for generations and included my best friend, my brother,” he said.
His father’s response, however, took him by surprise.
“Why don’t you get into education?” he asked his son.
Purnell was taken aback. “I said, ‘Dad, I didn’t like my education.’”
And his father responded, “Exactly.”
The more Purnell thought about it, the more what his father said made sense. “I had a great education,” Purnell said. “Unfortunately, I was a victim of bullying and chose not to tell anyone.”
Reflecting on the phone call with his dad, Purnell said, “My father always taught my brother and I to be a positive vessel of change … that’s the way we were raised.”
Purnell’s father, Dr. Robert E. Purnell, died May 26, 2022, at age 79 – shortly after learning his son would take over the ranks of NJSBA as executive director. “He was so proud of me, and I know he is smiling down on me,” Purnell said.
While Purnell did not become an optometrist, his brother, Dr. Robert S. Purnell, took over the optometry practice, Family Care Vision Center, which is the longest continuous medical office of any type in the state, founded by Dr. Franklin Seward in 1886.
Purnell still joined his father on medical trips throughout the world to provide free eye care and other medical care to those in need. “The lessons he taught … he gave us a playbook for life,” Purnell said.
He also earned his Bachelor of Arts and Sciences degree from the University of Delaware with a concentration in biology and a minor in genetics; a master’s degree in administration and supervision from Montclair State University and a doctorate in educational administration from Seton Hall University.
In addition to the lessons from his father, Purnell’s faith has shaped how he sees the world and his place in it. “I see myself as a servant to make the world a better place … to be loving and compassionate … not to judge others,” he said. “We should celebrate the diversity of life and thought. Everyone should be appreciated, valued and included.”
Purnell’s mother is still actively engaged as a leader in her community. His brother remains his best friend. “Faith, family and health are the most important things in life,” he said.
Finding His Mission Once out of college, Purnell applied to Berlex Laboratories as he’d minored in genetics. He also sent a resume to Montclair Public Schools.
An offer from Montclair came first, and he began his career teaching seventh- and eighth-grade science. “I loved the classroom,” he said, noting that he’s never left, having served as a professor at Montclair State University, where he continues to teach; as well as former adjunct positions at Centenary University, Seton Hall University, Georgian Court University and Fairleigh Dickinson University.
To this day, he relishes being in the classroom and serving as a leader in education.
“I believe that in some ways public education still suffers from a plague of inelasticity,” he said, referencing a keynote that he provided at the American Reading Co., which provides instructional materials and professional learning services to improve outcomes for teachers and students. “The pandemic forced us to rethink mental health and trauma, but we have a long way to go. We need the ability to be flexible in understanding that children come from a wide variety of scenarios at home,” he said.
Purnell looks back at his early days as a teacher with fondness and a bit of whimsy.
“I can imagine what my classroom would have looked like if I had all of the new technology tools of today … how students would draw stronger understandings and meanings from their learnings,” he said.
While technology was limited, he did not shy away from bringing the capabilities of the worldwide web into the classroom. He also created board games for children to learn – and wrote rap songs to help them master exam material. He even had students handwrite letters to themselves, which he delivered to their homes 15 years later. “I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Montclair community for its role in developing my leadership, passion for all students and love of community,” Purnell said.
He went on to become a superintendent, first of Harding Township Schools from 2008 to 2011 before moving to a larger district, Somerville Public Schools, where he served from 2011 to 2017.
It was a natural progression, he said.
“It started in the classroom,” Purnell said. “As a teacher, I wanted to create a safe space for all children, I held the same mission in my building as a principal – I became a district leader to continue to make a systemic impact for children.”
As the superintendent of Harding Township Schools, he became known for a roll-up-his-sleeves style. After school functions, you could find him gathering chairs with the school custodian. One time, the local newspaper ran a picture of him shoveling snow in front of the school with a caption jokingly referencing budget cuts.
At Somerville, one of his best-received initiatives was his formation of academies and a nontraditional high school. One of the earliest adopters of the model, students entered high school in a cohort model and traveled together to attain an associate degree prior to earning a high school diploma. Another cohort titled the Medical Sciences Academy featured an exclusive partnership with Robert Wood Johnson/Saint Barnabas Hospital, which had recently acquired Somerset Medical Center. “Students shadowed members of the allied health profession and completed their study as seniors with a thesis (so to speak) presentation in front of doctors,” Purnell said.
He also launched Digital Data Walls based on the work of John Hattie and had an official from Denmark visit to observe the program. “The idea,” he said, “was to have students create personalized learning goals for the following week on each Friday. We called it the blank canvas.” Regarding professional development, Purnell’s district was highlighted by the NJSBA for its work on a “three dimensional” professional development program. With it, teachers could share ideas with peers via video on a private channel. When he left the district, the platform included more than 25,000 minutes of lessons. NJSBA also spotlighted the district’s annual “Kindergarten Summit,” which brings together preschool providers from throughout the Somerville area with district teachers and administrators to discuss best practices, and share kindergarten ideas and expectations.
Over the years, Purnell has received a plethora of recognitions, “thanks to my team,” he said. In 2014, he was inducted into the Montville Township High School Hall of Fame, received a National District of Distinction Award and was selected to attend President Barack Obama’s ConnectED Initiative at the White House. In 2016, he received an ASCD Emerging Leader recognition. In 2017, he received the Spirit of Somerset County Award and, in 2019, the Many are One Award from Seton Hall University.
Purnell was introduced to Stephen Covey’s work through a colleague, Dr. Lorise Goeke. As a result, he introduced wildly important goals – or WIGs – to Somerville. After being named the National Superintendent of the Year, he explained to NJSBA at the time, “What happens with leaders is that when urgency and importance clash, urgency always wins. We tend to get bogged down in crises. But when you are focused on a WIG, it becomes a singular focus for what you want to achieve by the end of the school year.”
Purnell championed community engagement and started a Twitter hashtag – #allintheVille – where members of the Somerville community could connect and keep up to date on what was going on in the district. “This was when hashtags were a new thing,” he said. “The community bought in to the mission of the schools, and every year we had a celebration titled the Super’s Bowl. It was a community investment day where teachers played each other in flag football, the marching band played at halftime, and local celebrities and politicians did the coin flip. We also included activities and games for students and a movie on the turf field for the families to end the evening.”
Purnell chuckled about how he would provide broadcasting entertainment with his director of special services, the late Luke McGrath, while his business administrator, Bryan Boyce, and director of 21st century education, Melissa McEntee, would handle refereeing. “Schools need inclusive community leaders – especially as we reemerge from the pandemic,” he said.
Purnell credits his Somerville board members and other team members from throughout his career for creating a risk-taking environment. “Board Presidents Al Kerestes, Linda Olson and Norman Chin wanted me to take calculated risks to benefit the children of Somerville,” he said. “By establishing that atmosphere, I was able to, in turn, encourage my leaders to do the same in their respective buildings. They fostered a similar environment with their teachers. The result was an explosion of creativity and innovation.”
Boards need to elicit this environment to trickle down to the classrooms, he said, adding that the opposite could elicit an opposing result. “When superintendents are in fear of their position or of making wrong decisions, this can ultimately trickle down to create anxiety in classrooms. An example would be a tremendous emphasis on test scores,” he said, referencing the work of his good friend, Dr. Chris Tienken, a professor at Seton Hall University.
No matter where he has worked, Purnell has remained steadfast in his mission: to ensure all students feel comfortable and accepted. Somerville, thanks to the partnership of former board member Dr. Melissa Sadin, became one of the first districts that was completely “trauma-informed.”
“Dr. Sadin was passionate about trauma-informed care and assisted us in revamping all our policies and procedures to ensure that all students were embraced and supported in the school system,” Purnell said. “We had non-Child Study Team school psychologists in every building and launched a nontraditional high school for children who did not fit into the traditional school model.”
The program titled MAPS (Motivation for Academic and Personal Success), he said, “was wildly successful thanks to the efforts of a stellar team of leaders, teachers and support staff.” The program featured a later start time, inspirational learning space and students navigating the curriculum at their own pace. “Students were not grouped by date of manufacture,” Purnell said, citing work from Sir Ken Robinson.
He recalled an incident where a student was hit by a vehicle on his walk to school. “Our principal, Scott Hade, drove him to the emergency room and the student, after receiving proper medical care, insisted on being back in school that day. This was a student who was absent over 100 times the previous year in our traditional program,” he said. “Now that is the true measure of a successful program!”
“Our programs,” Purnell added, “did not feature a sole focus on colleges. While important, we spent just as much time discussing careers, knowing that many of our students may choose that pathway as an option.” Purnell’s strategic plan focused on providing students various “pathways to learning.”
In addition to serving as superintendent in Harding and Somerville, Purnell was a middle school principal, elementary vice principal and science teacher. Throughout his career, he’s focused on being an advocate of change and a voice for youth.
Purnell has held many leadership positions in his various roles. He served as the president of the Somerset County Association of School Administrators, where he found many like-minded colleagues. He referenced a Cal Ripken quote, “Expose your weaknesses and ask questions.” He stated that he reformatted the county meetings to begin with a situation or legal dilemma that superintendents were currently facing.
“I believe in the strength of the wisdom of the crowd,” he said. “Superintendents, including myself, were walking away with 10-15 ideas on how to solve their dilemma. We created a safe space for superintendents to share ideas. This was something that I did not experience when I entered the roundtable, as a new superintendent alongside of peers Dr. Kristopher Harrison and Dr. Joseph Ricca.”
Most recently, Purnell served as an interim executive county superintendent of Morris County. “The Morris County superintendents strived to keep their schools open during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “I was so impressed with their leadership and extremely fortunate to work alongside of their roundtable president, Michael Wasko, superintendent of Hanover Township Public Schools.”
Purnell has also served in a variety of other leadership roles. He served as the legal chair for the New Jersey State Board of Examiners, under Dr. Robert Higgins. He currently serves on the boards of Hope+Future and the Good Shepherd Mission and is also a commissioner for Middle States Association Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, thanks to a nomination from colleagues Clayton J. Petry and Dr. Michael Kuchar.
Purnell has an entrepreneurial lens and credits the Young Presidents Organization for much of his personal and professional growth. “I currently serve as the chapter chair but have deeply benefited from the relationships and expertise of my peers,” he said. “They have become my extended family.”
Purnell launched a crowdsourcing platform, called It’s Anonymous, in 2021 that contains an element to protect and hear all voices. “The platform is synergistic of my work to ensure that leaders are listening to all voices and not just the dominant ones,” he said. “It also ensures that employees and students, in the case of schools, can report something without fear of retaliation.” The platform is in its early stages but gaining traction in schools.
When asked about the challenging times New Jersey schools have found themselves in since the onset of the pandemic, Purnell referenced the Dale Carnegie 1936 classic, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which he has looked to throughout his career for guidance. He recalled a time when he rolled the book out to his leadership team while the district was in the middle of labor negotiations. Some teachers were even picketing at one of the schools.
“I told them that I had a new book for them to read,” he said. “At the end of the day, I wanted my team to know that we would reach an outcome and resume our great work together. It was important that they understood not to take anything personal. The book study changed the tone.”
After reading the book, several school leaders began to bring coffee and donuts to teachers while they were peacefully demonstrating. Purnell referenced a quote from James Comer: “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”
Looking Forward At the end of a hard day, you can find Purnell playing games with his daughter or coaching his boys in lacrosse. “I would not be where I am today without my wife, who has been the rock of our family, ” he said.
Purnell has been married 19 years and loves spending time with his wife and children. They like to explore nature, find good pizza places, bike and play tennis.
In his onboarding meeting with NJSBA staff, Purnell noted that he won’t have a comprehensive vision for the Association until he gets detailed input from staff, members and stakeholders.
But speaking in broad terms, he referenced three themes; connect, content and advocacy (which he stated are synergistic to his YPO membership organization).
Connect: “As the organization reemerges from the pandemic with an in-person Workshop, I want to ensure that we are connecting members in new and meaningful ways of engagement,” Purnell said.
Content: Purnell indicated that he wants “to ensure that NJSBA continues to provide content that is of high quality.”
Advocacy: Purnell is a champion for local control and is cognizant that each district faces its own unique challenges. NJSBA will continue to advocate for what is best for all students.
Purnell added that he’s quite aware of the toll the pandemic has taken on public education. “Our teacher education programs have a declining enrollment,” he observed. “But the value of a teacher cannot be understated. Teaching is a noble profession, and my opinion is that NJSBA can help inspire and rekindle that flame, alongside of our partner organizations.” He added, “NJSBA has a vital role to play in changing the narrative of the profession.”
Photographs Courtesy of Timothy Purnell