Before his arrival, there were budget cuts and hardships. Now, he’s Maryland’s Superintendent of the Year

When Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson was hired in 2018, he was faced with an ongoing budget crisis. The district faced more than 10 years of cutting positions. Now, the sky's the limit.

Frequently, District Administration has the pleasure of speaking with some of the most innovative and future-focused district leaders around the country to learn about their leadership philosophies and what exactly makes their district so unique. This week, we’re celebrating one such leader in northeast Maryland for his recognition as the state’s Superintendent of the Year.

Home to some 38,000 students and 55 schools, Harford County Public Schools reflects a diverse community of individuals. The district rests in what this leader describes as a “politically conservative community” and encapsulates a healthy mix of urban, rural and suburban areas. Close to one-third of students are eligible for free and reduced meals. It’s a fairly representative district, and these are just some of the characteristics that influence the work they’re doing to support public education for students.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with this inspiring leader in celebration of his most recent accolade and to showcase some of the innovations and strategies that are helping students thrive and meet their potential. Meet Sean Bulson:

Tackling issues head-on

When Bulson arrived at the district in 2018, he noticed two significant challenges that he’d soon have to overcome for his students, one of them being a deep budget crisis.

“We had traditionally struggled to get the funding that the school system needed to move forward,” he says. “2018 was the 10th of 11 straight years of cutting positions in the district. So, it was that first year that we had to look differently at how the budget got done.”

Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson named Maryland's Superintendent of the Year.
Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson named Maryland’s Superintendent of the Year.

As a result, the district was forced to make some pretty “dramatic” cuts after he was hired. Thankfully, he says they were able to establish a healthy relationship with their county government to avoid any further cuts.

“Over the next three years, we were able to do things a different way and begin adding positions back,” he notes.

The second issue he gleaned from his Listen and Learn initiative was surrounding school safety, which would become one of his most targeted interventions.

“Everyone around the country was talking about ‘run,’ ‘hide,’ ‘fight’ and all the different ways to approach safety,” he says. “So we went through and trained our 5,000-plus employees and took it on as one of our first major initiatives.”

“But I’m still working from the playbook that came out of my Listen and Learn initiative that I did when I first came in that really informed almost everything that we’ve accomplished in the last few years.”

Reflecting on their accomplishments

Like many leaders across the country, Bulson advocates for a targeted approach to reading and literacy. It’s an area that students in Harford County traditionally struggled with. In 2023, they’re finally seeing their work pay off.

“This year, we finally turned a corner,” he declares. “We made a huge investment in language arts and literacy. One of the things that I learned at the Listen and Learn was that the reading curriculum early on wasn’t suiting the needs of our students and teachers.”

“This year, we finally saw growth as our students outperformed the state, which was exciting. I want all of my colleagues to do well, but it is nice to see that we were growing and the investment was paying off.”

HCPSD Superintendent Sean Bulson with students.
HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson with students.

Another achievement worth celebrating is the work they’ve done surrounding workforce development. Bulson says they’ve responded to the shift that’s taken place around the country as we continue to see declines in higher education enrollment. As a result, they’ve moved toward the idea of helping students think differently about what happens after high school and giving them the training they need to be successful.

“We started recruiting apprentices about 16 months ago and we’re up to over 80 apprentices now in just over one year,” he says. “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do apprentice programs, but that’s really quick growth!”

This state-wide program allows students to gain some hands-on industry experience necessary for the workforce. For students to apply, they need to meet some general requirements, according to the district’s website, including:

  • Be at least 16 years old and have reliable transportation.
  • Complete the program by graduation.
  • Receive one year of related instruction, either provided by the business or a class taken for credits while serving in the apprenticeship.
  • Be in good academic standing and on track to graduate.
  • Complete 450 hours of work-based training and one year of related classroom instruction.

One area in which they’re developing workforce skills for students is that of teaching as part of their version of a “grow your own” initiative. It reflects the ongoing mission in districts across the country as they battle teacher shortages and other challenges to hiring.

“One of the first things I did was bolster our ‘TAM’ program, which is the Teacher Academy of Maryland,” he notes. “We doubled enrollment the first year and it’s been growing ever since.”

They’ve also worked with their local community college to convert it not just to a college, career and technical education program, but into an early college model so they can expedite their pool of qualified teaching applicants.

“We’d struggled for a long time to get people through that pipeline,” he adds. “But as we found ways to make it more compatible for the people who are doing it, we were able to remove some of those barriers to make it more successful.”

What Superintendent of the Year means in 2023

Over the past few years, district leaders have witnessed a dramatic shift in the job duties and responsibilities that the superintendency requires. It’s only gotten more difficult, which is why he believes those who choose to stick it out ought to be celebrated.

We asked Bulson what receiving Superintendent of the Year means for him. Here’s what he had to say:

Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson at a ceremony in honor of being named Maryland’s Superintendent of the Year.

“I’m in my sixth year in Harford County and my 11th as a superintendent. We’ve seen more than half of the superintendents in the state turnover in the last two years,” he says. “I feel like we’re doing great work in Harford. it’s worth being recognized and I’m happy to talk more about that and share with people some of the things that are going on. But I also think it’s a testimony to the fact that superintendents in general need to be recognized. This hasn’t been an easy job, and my colleagues are amazing.”

“Those are the things that I think about when I wrap my head around an award like this.”

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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