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Panel Discusses Challenges for Next School Superintendent

April 14, 2008
By: Worcester State University News

Michael Contompasis, former interim superintendent of Boston Public Schools and former headmaster of Boston Latin School, said: “I think we‘ve reached a crisis point in our urban schools.” He served as a panelist at a forum organized by the Research Bureau, Thursday, April 10, at Worcester State College.  But, he added, “I truly believe that Worcester has addressed this issue and has made tremendous strides.”  He said Worcester’s next superintendent of schools will need to possess great vision and creativity.  “They will need to think about what these kids bring to the classroom every day.”

Marion Guerra, principal of the Goddard Elementary School, drew a clear picture for the audience of just what those conditions are.  Her school is home to 696 students—368 who are identified as second language learners.  They speak 22 world languages and 98 percent of her families are living in poverty.   Despite this, she says, “The next superintendent inherits this word: opportunity.”  She told the story of Herbert, who came to her school from Central America, living in a crowded apartment with his extended family and with limited skills in language and mathematics.  When he reached the sixth grade, he, like all the other sixth graders, wrote an essay on his three goals. Two of these goals were academic and one personal.  His first two goals centered on English and math proficiency.  “He said he knew he needed to attain these to reach his third goal, ‘to help people who didn’t have anything to eat or a home to live in.’  He knew because he’d been there.  Herbert brought soul back to our school,” she said.  Inspired by his goal, the school raised $2,500 in change for Herbert’s favorite charity.  “I have many Herberts at my school,” Guerra concluded.

Autonomy and innovation are the keys to success for the next superintendent, according to panelist Linda Nathan, co-headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy.  “You have to give autonomy to your teachers and principals so they can be innovative.  She sited pilot schools as one way to achieve autonomy.  Boston currently has about 20 schools with pilot status according to Nathan.  She said the schools have autonomy in curriculum and assessment, governance, budget, scheduling and staffing.  Prior to her work at Boston Arts Academy she saw success with the model at Fenway School.  “In one year at Fenway, we went from under 50 percent of our students applying to college to over 74 percent.”  She said innovation was key, but that MCAS got in the way of their innovation.  “MCAS is the worst thing that happened to us,” she said.  “True, it brought the floor up, but it brought the ceiling smashing down. Our innovative science and humanities curriculum went out the window.”  Instead, she said schools need to have the freedom to define a very clear vision of what they are and what that means to their students.  “Our schools talk about what it means to be an artist, a scholar and a citizen.”

The panel was moderated by David Driscoll, former Massachusetts commissioner of education, and sponsored by Worcester Credit Union.  For more information on the Research Bureau, visit

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