WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — It was inevitable that someone was going to walk away disappointed from April 5 meeting of the Mount Greylock Regional School District Transition.
But the School Committee members themselves were not disappointed in the answers they got from the two finalists for the district's superintendent post.
And while the panel only could choose one of the candidates, there were a lot of similarities in the responses it received from Taconic High School Principal John Vosburgh and interim Superintendent Kimberley Grady, the eventual selection.
Each recognizes a growing need for emotional support for students, each has been challenged by the time demands of a school building project while trying to address the education needs of his and her schools, neither sees much likelihood that Berkshire County will expand into a single "super region" any time soon.
Below are excerpts from the hour-long interviews of each candidate, during which the committee asked a series of predetermined questions with an opportunity for committee members to ask follow-up questions.
Question: How do you view the needs to address social and emotional well-being of students changing over the next decade ahead?
Vosburgh: Any district that has not address these needs is probably falling behind the curve and is going to end up in the area of a low-performing school. Kids are arriving with much different needs than they did even 10 years ago. The truck for us educators is to evolve as those needs have evolved.
My school is implementing many programs that not only support students who come to us with those needs but also provide safety nets for kids who are … now in need of further assistance. … The role of the educator, whether a teacher or a paraprofessional, has changed and needs to continue to change.
Grady: Working with social and emotional health is critical. As presented in the Mount Greylock budget for this year, we've added a school adjustment counselor. And we've identified a growing need for children around emotional support at a younger level.
Part of the health program we worked on with the district attorney's office looks at emotional needs. … We have a student support team that meets weekly. Referrals are being made at younger ages for supports to be put in place.
It's important to maintain school psychologists, working with building-based support teams, and to educate families and the community so they know they're not alone -- so everyone is hearing the same language so children are successful.
Q: What does strong school-based leadership mean to you? What steps do you think are important in creating an environment where schools feel empowered balanced with district needs?
Grady: Strong leadership starts at the ground level and up. I've had the opportunity throughout my career to work with amazing leaders, but in this most recent position, I've had opportunities to grow new partnerships and new collaborations.
We developed a new teacher induction program for the three schools. We're working together to get to know our teachers, get their input. We have had traditional class time with them. And at the holidays, we've had a social event with them … to let them know we're human, too.
Having face time in the schools is critical, so you're not just isolated in your offices. Interacting with faculty and staff is important.
Vosburgh: My style of leadership is such that I hold folks accountable for their work but with support and increased communication. I have high expectations, but not unreasonably high. I realize that people arrive to the school with different skill sets, different strengths and weaknesses.
I've always encouraged my teachers to take risks. If it fails, it fails, but you might end up with a diamond.
I don't think necessarily that looking over people's shoulders, arriving unexpectedly with sort of a ‘gotcha' mentality is the best way to go about business. I think encouraging people, complimenting people but, at the same time, when need be, asking, ‘How can I help you?' Having some tough conversations, when need by, brings out more of what people can offer on a day-to-day basis.
Q: How do you create an environment where criticisms and concerns can be raised, and how do you react to criticism?
Vosburgh: It's important to establish relationships with your colleagues and establish that level of trust where they know they can come to you if they feel uncomfortable or feel they've been treated unfairly. I have an open door. My door is rarely closed. People know they can stop in. I'm out and about in the school all the time, talking to teachers at all levels.
Grady: I'm a public figure. I'm routinely taking constructive criticism. I have to take both sides of everything. I've learned a lot from being in the public eye and iBerkshires.com and its comment section. Every voice has to be heard. I'm not right all the time. I know that.
I take calls from all of you. I take calls from teachers with concerns. We're solutions-based is how I see things.
Q:If you made the decision, as many school systems have, that elementary students should be starting and ending their day earlier and middle and high school-aged students should be starting and ending their day later, how would you implement the switch?
Vosburgh: It would make an interesting pilot study. It would be something you try for a year or a couple of years.
I'm not one who makes a decision overnight. You start by doing your pre-work and determining this might be something you want to try. You inform all your stakeholders. It's not a matter of saying, 'Next week, we're doing this.' People have daycare issues, etc. … You definitely have to get the consensus that this is what folks are on board with and we're not going to create a bigger issue.
Grady: There's a lot of research out there now about flopping those times. For us, the problem is trickle down. … On the secondary level, it would impact athletics. As it is now, there are contests where they need early dismissal. We have been creative here in the rotating schedule model so you're not missing the same class all the time in the morning if you're not an early riser.
But more schools are trying it. I know it's been brought up. It's something we're willing to explore.
We know little kids are up earlier. We know older kids are up later because of homework, athletics, etc. But, again, we're in a really rural part of New England. Trying to make that work when you have one bus company is tough. It's not off the table, though. It's something the building principal at Mount Greylock has expressed an interest in looking at.
Q:It's interesting that both of you are in the middle of building projects. Can you give us an estimate of how the administrative time is divided between the building project and the educational product?
Grady: First and foremost, the three schools are my priority. The building project has a team of people it needs to rely on.
But myself and the principal are spending more time on the project because there have been hiccups along the way. Saturdays and Sundays I'm here. … It has gotten in the way at times of getting to the elementary schools. But the principals reach me on a regular basis. Is it a lot of hours in addition to regionalizing [the three-school district] at the same time? It did all happen at once, but we're all still standing, the kids are learning and the budgets are done.
Face time at the elementary schools is important. … They had a lot of face time when we were leading up to [November's regionalization] vote. But then right after that, it was budget season, and there are only so many hours.
Up until this year [as director of pupil personnel services and assistant superintendent], I jumped between three schools successfully. As of late, with negotiations and regionalization and the building project, I haven't been to the elementary school as much as I personally would like.
Vosburgh: We open July 7, hopefully, and it's definitely taken away from my day-to-day.
For me, it's been [classroom] observations. I have 103 teachers. I try to do them three times a year. I'm doing them once this year.
Fortunately for me, I have a great staff. I have a vice principal who has been in the district for 35 years. I have a dean of students I've been working with for a long time. We have a great guidance department. Our teachers are top notch. If it wasn't that way, I'd be more concerned than I am. But you have to trust the folks you're working with to know they're picking up the slack.
Q:What is your response to the recent recommendation of the Berkshire County Education Task Force about the aspiration for a single school district in the county?
Vosburgh: Living in Berkshire County all my life and knowing the communities as I do, having worked in Lenox, worked in Great Barrington, being from Dalton, working in Pittsfield, and knowing the desire for a lot of communities to maintain their own identities, I find it very difficult to believe we'll end up with three, two or one school district.
We can't form three co-ops in [high school] hockey. We can, but it's not easy.
I do like the idea of, where it makes sense, having shared services because clearly in some of the smaller communities, particularly with special education, sharing some of those costs … could make some sense.
I don't want to say I'm not a team player, but you're hired to be a representative for and take care of your community and your schools first. If it makes sense for your community to make that move, wonderful. If it benefits another community, even better. But that would have to be well thought out.
Grady: I feel like two towns [Lanesborough and Williamstown] that shared a middle/high school for 50 years just got to this point of having an expanded region. And we aren't through the growing pains of what that looks like.
Are there areas to look at shared services? Sure. The business office, payroll, common things. Right now, there's a lot of resource sharing going on with professional development.
Geographically, to share beyond where we are is tough. The travel to and from places is hard. You lose an or so in the car. I can see working with the task force to see what are the common areas each district needs and starting small.
A super region? Just knowing what we're doing now, I couldn't imagine having to look at any more contracts at one time.
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