School Committee interviews finalists for HWRSD superintendent position | #education | #technology | #training

HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) School Committee interviewed the three finalists for superintendent of schools.

The interviews, conducted over a four-and-a-half-hour marathon meeting on March 31, were structured so that each candidate could give a brief introduction on why they had applied and then were asked the same 10 questions by the committee.
The first candidate interviewed was John Provost, currently the superintendent of Northampton Public Schools. Next was Marlene DiLeo, the superintendent for Ware Public Schools. Finally, the committee interviewed Cynthia Kennedy, director of intervention and acceleration in the Athol-Royalston Regional School District.

For the first question, School Committee member Patrick Kiernan asked about the candidates’ leadership philosophy.

“Everything a superintendent does is through relationships,” Provost said. He went on to say that he believes in “servant leadership” and “leading together.” A district functions best when unified by a compelling dream. “It’s the story that people tell each other about what they believe and why they’re here,” he explained. He added, “Ego is really the enemy,” of a cohesive team.

DiLeo said “collaboration” and the “six pillars of character,” which are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. She said she used the pillars as a template when raising her own children.

“I lead from the front,” she said. “I’m in the mix.” She added that she participates in lockdown drills and professional development.

Kennedy said she believes in a “shared leadership” with “lots of perspectives,” but also said she is a “decisive person” who is not afraid to make tough decisions once she has all pertinent information. She also said she has had training in transformational leadership and making “positive change.”

School Committee member Lisa Murray asked the candidates to name three professional accomplishments, as well as what they expected to be the biggest challenge in HWRSD.

Provost said that, due to several reasons, there was no documented curriculum when he took over in Northampton. He described it as a “source of disunity and great concern among parents.” It took five years to fully develop and implement a standards-based curriculum throughout the district and he had to let teachers take the lead in the development process.

Another achievement of which Provost is proud is reforming the special education program in elementary schools from being concentrated in a single building to a fully integrated model. Not only did student achievement increase, but it made better use of resources and allowed children to stay with their peer groups should they develop the need for services.

Last, Provost cited knocking down barriers to high-level classes and creating more equitable outcomes.

As far as a challenge when taking over HWRSD, he noted that getting to know the families and encouraging unity between the towns would be at the top of his list.
For the first of DiLeo’s accomplishments, she told the committee, “In eight years, we’ve never cut a position because of the budget.”

She also spoke about creating a fire science course to get students certified as EMTs (emergency medical technicians) and establishing a “manufacturing council” that allowed students to follow a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Pathway in Grades K-8 and a Manufacturing Pathway in high school.

DiLeo pointed to giving back to the community as an accomplishment. She related a time when she was told that a local oncology patient had never been to a prom. She worked to put on a full prom experience for her and the other cancer patients who were healthy enough to attend.

“First and foremost is the safety and security of my students,” DiLeo told the committee.

Considering challenges when leading the HWRSD, DiLeo also mentioned getting to know the families and “making sure both towns feel like they’re at the table.” She also mentioned getting state legislators to follow through on promises.
Kennedy said she is most proud of building relationships. “Everybody has a part to play in a district,” she said, adding that building relationships makes for “effective” leadership.

She said she is also proud of reforming her district’s intervention program. Because Athol-Royalston Regional School District does not have an assistant superintendent, Kennedy said she had taken on many of those responsibilities, including work on the budget.

Kennedy also pointed to an Innovation Pathways program and “college academy” in which high school juniors and seniors can take up to 12 college credits at no cost to the student. There is also vocational training available.

Regarding the challenge of taking over HWRSD, Kennedy said “lacking prior experience as a superintendent will require a learning curve,” but she comes at the job with fresh eyes.

Committee member Sherrill Caruana asked about the development and evaluation of horizontally and vertically-aligned curriculum programs.

Provost said he would create teacher curriculum leader positions that represent the various grades and content areas of the district conference to develop the curriculum. From there, he would have the team, always in a re-evaluation mode,” to keep up with state standards. He told a story in which this method found that the elementary-level English language arts curriculum was not meeting all five elements of reading and the district was able to adjust the curriculum to solve that problem.
DiLeo stressed the importance of collecting data and then, “peeling back the layers,” to see where things have gone wrong or could be improved. She also noted that not all students learn the same way and the curriculum needs to meet them where they are.

Kennedy said alignment has to be based on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) standards. Teams should be brought to compare curriculum across grades and classrooms and synthesized into an aligned program, she said. An ongoing review process would keep the alignment in place, she said. Kennedy added that curriculum priorities would be checked against the strategic plan, as well as the “scope and sequence plans,” which determine the topic studied and the progression of materials.

Committee member Sean Kennedy, who pointed out that he was of no relation to the candidate with the same last name, asked about the most significant communication lesson each finalist had learned and how they had incorporated it into their work.

Provost said he had learned the importance of communicating respectfully to all parts of the community. Despite having a large Spanish-speaking population in his district, when he began as superintendent, communications were only sent out in English. He realized he was doing a disservice to a portion of families and asked a staff member to help him send out bilingual robo-calls.

Now that the district has speakers of 13 languages, the district uses software and technology to incorporate “instantaneous two-way translation for both audio phone calls and digital text-based correspondence. He also noted that younger parents are more likely to receive communications through text messages than emails, and using text messages allows the district to inform a wider array of the community.

“Get it out there quick because the kids are going to do it faster,” DiLeo said of timely, transparent communication with the community. She added, “Not everybody gets communication in the same way,” so it is important to share information in different formats. She gave the example of sending out videos when COVID-19 first hit, because the district was unable to meet in person. “You know how much people love YouTube,” she quipped.

When Kennedy became a principal at a school part way through a school year, she said students were “dysregulated” and parents were upset. She addressed the situation as she would have in her former, much larger district, While she brought the school under control, she said that she now realizes communicating in a “small and rural” district is different. In hindsight, Kennedy said she would have spoken with upset families one-on-one and worked with them until their concerns were assuaged.

Now, she said, “I’m much more open” and “see the value of that input.” Kennedy said she would create a multi-stakeholder advisory committee to meet monthly and floated the idea of a “coffee hour” with community members to have an informal dialogue.

Sean Kennedy asked the finalists what the biggest challenge they had faced in their current position and how it was resolved. He also asked how the stakeholders were identified.

Creating a positive culture is the top challenge cited by Provost. “That’s the job,” he said, adding that it is a constant work in progress to help people resolve issues and model good behavior. “These are human problems,” he said, but said he was confident that, “I have a deep enough toolbox.”

DiLeo related that there was a time when high-performing sixth graders were not doing well in middle school. After reviewing data on the issue, she found that the students in sixth grade were not being held to an appropriate level of achievement. “A number of people weren’t happy,” she said, but “we were able to right the ship.”
She added, “Every day is a challenge,” and said she holds her breath from the time the buses drop kids off until they pick them up.

Kennedy shared that she and a partner had been asked to create a pathway program, she “didn’t have a clue how.” Even after researching and reaching out to businesses and colleges, Kennedy said she did not have a “clear vision” of how the program would come together, but it eventually did. “I had to have faith that there was a way through it. If something doesn’t work, shift and keep trying,” she said. She pointed out that it took many partners to make the program a success. It has since been expanded from high school students to eighth graders.

School Committee Vice Chair Maura Ryan asked about the candidates’ definition of accountability.

“Doing what you said you’re going to do,” Provost said. He said people can’t always control outcomes but can control whether they tried. He added that success is less important than everyone doing their job.

DiLeo said, “The buck stops with me.” Accountability is taking ownership of things that have gone wrong and fixing them, or as she said she prefers, fixing things before they go wrong. She also said that providing training and professional development is part of her definition of accountability.

Kennedy described accountability as meeting expectations and student needs daily, as well as supporting students who are not making progress and teachers. She said the superintendent must be accountable to the families and taxpayers.
Ryan asked about the development of a school budget and how it should be proposed.

“I backward design it,” Provost said, explaining that he plans backward from when the budget is due. He begins with “everything that isn’t personnel.” He meets with all directors and principals together for a full day and tries to balance needs against the budget likely to be approved by the town government. Provost then works with town leadership and collects public feedback. He acknowledged there would be differences in a regional district, but said transparency is key.

DiLeo said Ware Public Schools used to receive its budget based on the town’s financial status in a given year, leading to a “yo-yo budget.” When she became superintendent, she began producing a needs-based budget, with information from principals, which she brings to her school committee. When presenting the budget at Town Meeting, DiLeo said she makes a case for how the budget will help students.

She also said that she seeks out grants and other alternative funding sources, so she does not have to rely solely on taxpayers.

Kennedy said a budget is a function of the timeline, needs, data and the strategic plan, which determines priorities. It also requires understanding revenue sources and what expenditures should be expected. She said the superintendent needs to be, “transparent, open and communicative to town partners,” so that, “there are no surprises,” while also gathering as much input as possible.

Committee member Bill Bontempi asked for an example of innovation solving a problem. He also wanted to know how the candidates view innovation and technology changing education.

Provost pointed to Innovative Pathways, a program that creates, “a directed experience of high school,” with courses and work experience formed around a career path. He said it exposes students to rigor of higher education and the real world. The two pathways available to Northampton High School students are in IT and healthcare and social assistance. The IT students maintain the district’s Chromebooks and Provost said they feel respected because they are trusted with that work. Meanwhile, the healthcare and social assistance students can move into college pre-med programs or work elsewhere in the medical field.

He said COVID-19 proved that schools are important places for students to gather. While technology is making community engagement easier and creating options for remote education, he has concerns that students are too involved in education through screens.

DiLeo spoke about determining the needs of the community and providing educational opportunities to fill those needs. She said she was “surprised” that Massachusetts hasn’t moved toward “project-based learning” and “competency versus compliance.”

In terms of technology and innovation shaping the future, DiLeo said a bright side of the coronavirus pandemic was that it forced her district to become one-to-one, with a device for every child. “Technology is great,” she said, but added that it quickly becomes outdated. She said a five-year plan that includes maintaining the technology has to be developed to keep it up to date.

DiLeo also mentioned teaching students about internet safety is a must.

Kennedy explained that teacher recruitment and retention has been an issue in her district. She planned to use one source of grant funding to bolster the ranks by paying for paraprofessionals and those working on waivers to attend college and become certified. When the original funding fell through, Kennedy switched gears and paid for the program through an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER III) grant.

“If we’ve learned anything,” Kennedy said, “it’s how technology can expand learning beyond the classroom.” She said she’d like to see students use 3-D printers for project-based learning. She also suggested a team to advise the superintendent on new technological learning opportunities.

School Committee Chair Michal Boudreau asked about recent professional development in which the finalists had participated and how it impacted their work.
Provost said he had been working with other superintendents on bias and diversity. From that work, he has reconsidered interactions with staff, students and families. “How do I have to show up for a workforce that is majority women who may have had a bad experience with men,” Provost gave as an example. “Just being a 6-foot-tall white man with people who have had bad experiences with people who look like me.”

He said that he spends time in other people’s spaces and with non-certified staff who have experienced microaggressions from certified staff. Listening to stakeholders allowed him to support English language learner families by providing space for them to meet in community, rather than have to always be the minority in a room.

DiLeo pointed to professional development in which she participated that emphasized the need for consistent language usage among same-grade teachers and between grades. She said being “on the same page” is essential for horizontal and vertical alignment.

She also talked about diversity, equity and inclusion trainings that help explain how equity is applied in K-12 education.

Kennedy said her current superintendent is a leader in equity in education and inspired her to learn about anti-racism and how racism affects education, as well as “other isms.” She said she has gained an “expansive understanding” over the past year and is now more aware of “whose voice is not being heard” and whether reading materials “reflect” the student population, while offering insight into the lives of others.

For the last question, Bontempi asked what the finalists do in their free time.
Provost said he is, “completely committed” to his work, but was a member of professional organizations. “Faith is important to me,” he said. He said he creates a work-life balance by not engaging with email or work on the weekends.

At the end of his interview, Provost asked what are the committee’s hopes and dreams for the district? Bontempi talked about implementing the strategic plan, Ryan said she wants students to feel safe and to have skills for the future. Kiernan expressed a desire for the towns to heal from their differences and Caruana said that she hoped for a way to ensure equity without “fracturing” the district. Kennedy said he would like to do better for students and wondered what the future of education would look like.

DiLeo shared that she is the mother of 26-year-old twins and the grandmother of a 4-year-old who lives with her and her partner. Aside from her family, DiLeo said she rows every morning and plays golf. She admitted that she is a “workaholic.”

“Integrity is everything,” DiLeo said and added that people need to come away from a right or wrong mentality. “We need to get back to the we, not the me, not the I,” she commented. She likened it to rowing, “Everybody can be doing the motion, but if you’re not all rowing in the same direction, you’re not getting the full benefit.”
Kennedy told the committee, “I love to be outside.” She said she is active and skis, hikes and plays golf. She has four children and one grandchild.

She commented that not having prior superintendent experience gives her a fresh perspective, and she is confident she can be a “proficient, if not exemplary” superintendent.

The School Committee will deliberate and vote on the candidates at its June 2 meeting.

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