Williamstown-Lanesborough Superintendent Looks Back on Career
|Superintendent Rose Ellis earlier this fall with Secretary of Education Matt Malone in Lanesborough.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Fourteen years of leadership in Williamstown and Lanesborough public schools comes to end on Friday afternoon.
Tri-District Superintendent Rose Ellis, whose retirement becomes effective at the end of the year, is scheduled to work her final shift in the central administration office on Friday.
Ellis came to Williamstown to serve as superintendent of the elementary school district in 2000. In 2008, Williamstown joined with Lanesborough to form Superintendency Union 71. Two years later, SU71 joined with the Mount Greylock Regional School District to form the Tri-District partnership.
This week, she took a few minutes to talk with iBerkshires about her tenure. Ellis was spending some of her time packing up her office at the junior-senior high school, but not too much time, as it happens.
"I've been so busy, I don't know how much I actually had unpacked," she joked.
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. At a recent meeting, Mount Greylock Regional School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene took several minutes to praise the outgoing superintendent.
"We're a very different school today than we were four and a half years ago," Greene said. "At that time, we suffered from severe budget cuts. Faculty morale was low. We were in ‘needs improvement' status with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. We needed strong leadership to turn things around, and we found it with Dr. Ellis.
"Once again, we're a first rate school with a top-notch and energized faculty. We have achieved Level 1 status [with DESE] for three years running. That kind of change does not happen overnight, and it does not happen by the sole effort of one person. The transformation of Mount Greylock was truly a team effort."
Greene credited Ellis with leading the team in a turnaround that has included improved performance on standardized tests, the creation of a strong partnership with Williams College and a successful application to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
"I want to thank all who have put in great effort to get us here, and I want to thank Dr. Ellis for leading the way," Greene said.
Ellis talked about what led her to Williamstown, the jump to a Tri-District and the future of that Tri-District model in the face of opposition from school committee members in one of the three districts.
Question: So, first I want to back up and talk about your experience before you arrived in Williamstown. Were you an administrator before taking the job at WES?
A: I was in Douglas [Mass.], and I was a principal of a large elementary school.
Was this your first superintendent job?
A: Yes. Actually, I was hired as a superintendent and business manager. I think it was an effort to create cost savings.
That effort continues.
I got to Williamstown, and I was very comfortable taking the two positions. I don't know what I had in my head. But I enjoyed doing budgets. I had experience doing them. So I took both positions.
And it worked quite well. I felt we were effective in solidifying that budget. I'm very pleased with that budget. It has been solid for 15 years.
I feel the town was supportive at that time. And I've had that same relationship with them going forward.
Before that, I was a teacher for 15 years.
What levels did you teach?
A: Primary through elementary. I cut my teeth in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I had about 13 students who were English language learners at that time. I used my Spanish early and often. It was a growing experience for me to be in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Then, my husband had an opportunity to move up this way. I've always been very open to opportunities.
Even when I was a teacher, I volunteered to take a new program and move it up through the grades. They televised my classes. I was encouraged to be part of different committees.
I was just very devoted to my career and have been ever since.
Do you miss the classroom? Or have you missed it over the years of being in administration?
A: Yes and no. I think it gave me a repertoire of skills that I feel as a principal and even as a superintendent allowed me to go in and out of classrooms and feel very comfortable about the interaction and understanding the instruction or the curriculum
I think it gave me the foundation to know what good teaching looks like.
|The normally serious superintendent laughs at a Mount Greylock School Committee meeting.|
Do you get much chance to get into the classroom?
A: Yes. When I took this position, I was also interviewing in Newton at the time — and that was for an assistant superintendent for, I think, 12 elementaries. Then I saw this position, and I'm really hands-on. So I liked the idea of someplace where I could be hands-on and involved.
I've tried to be in and out of classrooms. It's been a little harder in recent years because of the demands of this position.
This position has been very demanding. I believe I've worked very hard at this position, but I saw it as such an opportunity.
By 'this position,' you mean the Tri-District.
A: I know it's a small district. I think we have 1,200 or 1,300 students, but it's the duplication ... of so many systems, whether it's the budget, the meetings, the contracts. I have nine contracts to negotiate.
But, again, I went into it with my eyes opened because I envisioned this alignment.
When you do go into the classroom now -— obviously education has changed with technology and instruction techniques. Does it feel like the classroom experience?
A: I'd thought I would have seen more acceleration in my career. I thought I would have seen a number of things in my career — like a longer school day, that's probably the biggest lament. I mean how can you give more time when there isn't enough time? I thought we would have seen some adjustment to the school year.
I think the issue with technology is that it is so expensive, and it was very difficult to leverage that when you needed other essentials.
I see pockets of brilliance, and overall, I see a wonderful openness to embrace it. I think that's the shift.
When I first became a principal, we had computers, and they were covered. There were dusty covers on them.
I think people truly believed they were going to go away as so many fads in education come and go.
You mention the difficulty paying for new technology. It's a difficult time for budgeting in education in general because it's such a labor-intensive 'industry' if you will. And the cost of labor keeps going up, whether it's benefits or salaries.
A: One of the beauties of being a business manager was I could see the hand-in-glove connection, which was very helpful in planning. Seventy-five percent of the budget is salaries, so there's not a lot of discretionary funding available.
That's why it's so important to know how both fit in terms of the priorities of the district or the needs of our students or the needs of our teachers. There needs to be a real symmetry because there truly is very little money.
When I first arrived, there wasn't even a line item for technology. And over the years, particularly in Williamstown, we've been able to maintain that line item, and things are current there.
The flip side is teachers want to learn, but it's very difficult to find the time. We do a lot more in the summer.
You're speaking now of professional development.
A: Yes. In the last 10 years, we've done a lot more than ever happened when I was a teacher.
Teachers have always had the requirement to go out on their own and take continuing education classes and that sort of thing. But you're saying there are more opportunities through the school district.
A: Yes. Now, districts are actually professional development providers. It's more job-embedded experiences. You could go out and take workshops and that sort of thing, but it didn't always translate to what was happening in the classroom for a variety of reasons.
[Now the model] enables the administration to work in tandem with the staff about, 'OK, we're looking at our reading. Maybe we need a reading program,' and involve the teachers in that selection.
I think that kind of job-embedded experience in the district has enriched our classrooms. Because now the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. The teacher across the hall knows what their colleague is doing, and we've created opportunities for them to converse.
And vertical integration as well.
A. Vertical integration — and vertical right up through here.
I have to say that was one of my greatest satisfactions, that I've been able to help create that alignment.
If somebody wants to come and take it apart, that's up to them.
But I felt that I had heard myself coming here, 'Why aren't they regionalized?'
I feel passionate about the reality of the benefits. They're huge.
You laughed a little when you said, 'If somebody wants to take it apart, that's up to them,' but are you worried that that legacy is going to be somehow lost?
A: Of course, I'm invested in it because I took this position to move it forward.
I think the districts are strong, but I do know there are members of the school committees who feel the direction should be going right instead of left or left instead of right.
I think we've demonstrated clearly the value [of cooperation]. But if communities aren't comfortable with each other, that creates a whole new set of issues.
I think what I was committed to demonstrating is that there are huge cost savings to doing this and benefits well beyond that.
And the cost savings we saw immediately. All three districts saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by going from three superintendents to one. It's very simple. I think people have forgotten now those revenues were there, but to pay 20 percent of a superintendent's salary instead of 100 percent is much, much more affordable.
And in Lanesborough, I was able to invest that money ... to make decisions based on specific priorities.
I take a lot of pride in the importance of strategic planning. We wouldn't be where we are as a tri-district if we didn't plan. In education, as in any organization, everything feels important to every important. No matter where you are, the lens is here, and this important. And somehow you have to get that 'helicopter view' and look down on the landscape and say, 'OK, we've got this much in the way of resources, and how do we deploy them? Let's pick the three or four priorities we're going to go to the wall for.' And we've done that in all three districts.
That's the only way because otherwise you have an array of initiatives that are going off in multiple directions.
The legacy, I think is a strong legacy. We've taken it further than anyone has. I can remember reading an article from the 1970s in the [Berkshire] Eagle where they interviewed Helen Renzi, who I think was four superintendents before me, and she said, 'Oh, it's just a matter of time before they regionalize.' And that was decades ago.
Taking the districts this far is certainly one accomplishment. Other very visible accomplishments have been getting Mount Greylock into the MSBA's building program and finishing the new building at Williamstown Elementary.
I was on the building committee at Williamstown just after I was hired.
Are there other accomplishments that maybe aren't as visible that you think about?
A: I think I've tried to see a thread through all the work I do that it's really about relationship building. I think that's been a hallmark of my approach as a hands-on superintendent.
It goes back to visiting the classrooms. Some days it's so refreshing when I can walk out and visit the classroom and watch teachers do their magic and the craft, because it's truly a craft.
One of the pieces is the new 'Three Rs: Relevance, Rigor and Relationship-building.'
I remember when I was doing my doctorate, it was on change and improving schools. I called someone who was a well regarded reformer at the time, and I asked him, 'If you had to boil it down, what is the most significant criteria in the change process in education.' And he mentioned relationship-building.
In any organization, it's so critical so you feel valued and feel your work is important.
What I've tried to do is not get caught up in the ego of my position. In fact sometimes I'm uncomfortable with it. Rather. I'm educator. I love my work, and I see my role as two-fold: to remove the roadblocks and then to provide the resources. I think I've been able to demonstrate that.
|Talking with state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi.|
I was just saying goodbye to the staff at WES yesterday. ... And I remember going to the librarian and saying goodbye to her. And she thanked me and mentioned to me she had come to me years before she was the librarian when she was a second-grade teacher and said to me, 'I'm interested in being the librarian. Is there a place here for me?' I said, 'Absolutely, if you're going to stretch yourself and grow, I'd be interested in you being our next librarian.' Our former librarian was still there, but she retired, and Susan is our librarian there today.
You're building relationships with staff and principals. Does that translate to modeling for them to build relationships with their students?
A: Absolutely. That was one of the first aspects of working together here at Mount Greylock. When I came up here, the first part of the summer I opened my doors and just said anyone who wanted to come could come and talk to me about Mount Greylock — what did I need to know and how could I help. And it was very, very instructive.
Some of it was that the day was so frenzied, the students were stressed, the teachers were stressed. I felt we needed to just take a breath and slow down. We put in the Directed Study period. That was a piece we put in to give the day a little breathing room. And then, we needed to nurture those relationships.
The Greylock Way is an aspect of that, that if you're going to create relationships with young students that you're going to mentor, then you need to have some values. What do we stand for here at Mount Greylock. So those core values were so important. There were issues around respect for differences. I brought in Multicultural Bridge.
I have to say this school is just a different place.
And I've been so appreciative the faculty was willing to work with me. And they may not have wanted to. They didn't pick me. I had to work very hard to let them know that this was about them and not about me, that I really care about the generation of students coming up to the school. I felt like I got my students to the edge of the cliff, and I didn't know what was going to happen. Were they going to fall over the cliff or were they going to soar?
So I wanted to be very influential in that connection. And now there's a greater sense of community among all three schools. Even if the schools go their own ways, there will still be that connection.
The core of creating change and moving schools toward improvement, as we did here. We were in 'needs improvement' [status with the state] for three years. It was huge.
I also have to underscore the support from Williams College. ... Williams helped.
You mention Williams and the Williams Center at Mount Greylock ... One could imagine there might have been resistance on the part of the faculty here to an initiative like that. Was there?
A: The Williams Center was another initiative. Was it mainstream? No. But I saw it as my role to make it mainstream because it was a remarkable resource. When I was in the eastern part of the state, we had Verizon as a business partner. But to have a higher-ed partner of that caliber was phenomenal. It was a wonderful bonanza for me. I worked very closely with Jim Kolesar and Kaatja White and the principals at the time and the teacher.
I think what I had to do first was let the teachers know that I respected the work that they did. And all I wanted to do was help them move forward together because we couldn't be silos, and that's what high schools have been because of the disciplines. It's easier to stay in your own zone. So we broke down those barriers. And now I can honestly say that there's a large appreciation for the support from Williams. Now teachers feel they are valued in their own right, in their own discipline. And yes, it's wonderful to have a colleague from Williams, but they're as good as any instructor.
You understand my point, though. It could be seen as a threat.
A: It could have been seen as coming in to tell us what to do.
And there might have been some of that feeling. I don't know. But I think what we did was try to respond to what they needed rather than imposing what someone thought they needed.
We did a lot of dialogue when I first got here about what direction we take the school, what's important to us. And I think now there is an appreciation for it.
And all of this adds up to something you alluded to earlier — the tangible improvements in terms of standardized test scores and that sort of thing.
A. I think that combined with the alignment of the three districts, the focus on the kids. The beauty of it is you see the whole child. ... The middle school is looking a little more closely at the elementary schools.
The elementary schools are looking more closely at the middle school and the high school. I just think that's a beautiful thing - the whole child. That's been my strongest recommendation around the educational value [of the Tri-District]. Before it was fragmented. This was a 7-through-12, and that was a K-through-6.
A: I'm open. I think I need a little time to catch my breath, spend some time with my husband who has been absolutely fabulous. He's a wonderful supporter. When I took this position years ago and I had to make a decision, we were either going to live in the North End or Williamstown, we thought we'd come out for two or three years. He said, 'Let's go for it. ... I just need to live near an airport.' We thought we'd stay three years, and here we are 15 years later. We built a house. And we're not going anywhere in the short term.
I'm just keeping my options open. I think there will be plenty for me to do.
Do you see yourself doing what [incoming interim Superintendent] Gordon Noseworthy is doing?
A: Not in the short term. I know there's a list, and I'm welcome to put my name on the list. I think my particular style is I'm about improving things. I'm a problem solver. I don't know how I'd feel about coming in and being an interim. ... But I don't know. I'm open.
One of my greatest passions is mentoring administrators. I'm open to doing something along those lines.
I think there are plenty of options for me.
How about in the short term? Plans for the next couple of months?
A: We're doing a long holiday weekend in Boston. My holidays have always been laptop in hand and cell phone in pocket and everyone goes to bed and I work until 2 in the morning. That's going to change.
And then my husband and I have been exploring alternate eating styles. We've become vegan in the last five years. We're going on a vegan holistic cruise a little later in the winter. We'll pursue interests we have around meditation and cooking courses on the boat.
That should be fun.
Tags: LES, MGRHS, retirement, superintendent, WES,