At John Glenn Middle School: An Interview with Principal Kevin Tracey

By Mitch Evans

John Glenn Middle School principal, Kevin Tracey
John Glenn Middle School principal, Kevin Tracey

Sitting in front of me is an avid golfer from Old Saybrook, CT who is a keen reader of nonfiction and someone who enjoys skiing and hiking. He is married to Meredith, an English teacher at North Andover High School, and they have two young children, a daughter who is 6 and a 4 year old son. I am here to interview Kevin Tracey, the Principal at John Glenn Middle School.

Here is what he had to say:

How long have you been here in Bedford, and where were you before?

It’s hard to believe but I’m going into my 10th year here in Bedford. I was assistant principal at the High School for six years, working with Jon Sills, who was the principal at the time. I am now entering my fourth year as the Principal of the John Glenn Middle School. Prior to working in Bedford, I was an interim Assistant Principal at North Andover High School (NAHS) for a short period and before given that opportunity, I taught social studies and coached volleyball, skiing and outdoor track at NAHS.

I grew up in Old Saybrook, CT, a quaint little town on Long Island sound on the mouth of the Connecticut river.  Having originally thought I would go into the field of law after college, I jokingly say that my “career” in education started in a town close by to Old Saybrook called Essex.  If you ever find your way to the CT shoreline, the Griswold Tavern in Essex is a great little spot.  It is historic, charming and much less touristy than Mystic. So one Friday night I was out at the Tavern and I met a husband and wife.  By the end of the night, the wife and I were leading the place to the Unicorn Song. The next day I received a phone call from the gentleman and was offered a job at Old Saybrook High School as a substitute teacher; it turns out he was the Superintendent of Schools.  If only all interviews could be that much fun.

After a short stint as a substitute teacher, I was transitioned into a teaching assistant position and then moved again to cover a maternity leave position in the History department. I just fell in love with teaching and I decided to go back to school and get my Masters in Education and History at Boston College. After finishing my Masters, I had an opportunity to teach in Ireland and then came back to the USA in 1999 and started at North Andover High School.

I met my wife at North Andover High School, we taught next to each other, she was in the English department and I was in the social studies department. At that point it was a school without walls, an open concept school- You could take a ball and throw it across the entire department. As a young teacher there was nothing better for me, I walked into a department where many of my colleagues had worked together for 30 years.  They were a phenomenal group of educators and I was able to listen to them teach without being intrusive. My department head, John Strobel, would stand by the dividing wall and give me invaluable feedback on how I was teaching. I will forever be indebted to John and my colleagues for sharing all of their expertise and for helping a young, inexperienced teacher get his legs under him..

After John retired, I was given an amazing opportunity to teach his history component of an interdisciplinary class, coupling history, English, art and music. This experience really drove teaching home to me. I loved the thematically driven, team taught concept, and this helped shaped my philosophy on teaching. My wife now team teaches the course, so I still feel married to the class.

Do you miss teaching in the classroom?

Yes I do. When I was first fortunate to be offered my first assistant principal position, I agreed to the job on the understanding that I could continue to team teach and coach track. I did not want to leave my kids after starting the year and the track team had had a succession of strong seasons, I wanted to see it through.  I miss the close interactions with the kids, the relationships that you build and the things you learn from them as a classroom teacher. However, I have no regrets. I love what I do now and I consider myself incredibly fortunate.

Who has most influenced you as an educator?

Jon.  I’m not just saying this, because he is our Superintendent but, it is Jon Sills. Jon is so thoughtful in his leadership, is unwavering in his commitment to all children and in what is right in education. I know he was at first hesitant to move to the role of superintendent only because he loved so much being the principal at the high school.  Ultimately, he realized that he can make the greatest impact for kids, the district and for education in Massachusetts by being where he is today. On a personal level, Jon has been my mentor since I walked into the door at the high school.  When I was teaching, John Strobel was instrumental in mentoring me in the classroom as I had mentioned before.

Last, but certainly not least, my wife Merri. She is one of the best teachers I have ever seen and I can say that objectively since I knew her before we were dating or married.  I have never seen anyone give more to the job, build better relationships with students, craft more thoughtful, engaging courses or spend more hours grading papers, writing recommendations…She is one of the cornerstones of her school and keeps me very grounded now that I am no longer in the classroom.

Another school year is over, what were the highs and lows of this year at JGMS?

There were a lot of highs for me. One of them, which has been two years in the making, is the launch of our new advisory program around building a community with character. The entire idea was generated by a dedicated committee of teachers and did not come from the leadership team. The initiative largely arose because the staff felt that the advisory period had incredible potential to be geared towards a more positive direction and away from strictly an “anti-bullying” curriculum.  Under the umbrella motto of “building community with character, the committee generated themes and fun, community-building activities for each month, which started with a ‘pep rally’ style opening ceremony. This new advisory model has been a unifying force and has generated a lot of pride in our school.  The ceremony was a great way to kick off the year.

Two years ago, we began an initiative to identify our learning expectations for every subject at every grade level. In essence, we were re-writing our entire curriculum by identifying the key concepts and skills, essential questions, enduring understanding and the assessments we would use in every class- an enormous undertaking.  Without any hesitation or grumblings, the staff dove into the work.  Every department has worked incredibly hard and by this Fall we will be able to post all of the documents publically on our website.  They were almost all completed within the first year; however, we have simultaneously taken on an overhaul in our current curricula in science and social studies.  In science, the department has adopted the new Next Generation Science Standards(NGSS), as well as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) standards and ensured that the learning goals spiraled through all the grades, to better prepare children for high school. They also built in opportunities for project-based, hands-on, learning experiences to allow children to demonstrate what they had learnt.

Given our desire to bring about more attention to issues involving social justice and a more relevant global perspective to our students, the social studies department decided to completely revise their curriculum as well. The eighth grade curriculum now anchors itself in the Facing History and Ourselves framework and in the teaching of civics, which culminates beautifully with our annual trip to Washington, D.C.  Our sixth grade curriculum now centers on global cultures and religions, inequities and what happens when differences arise using materials to promote critical thinking and tolerance.  Seventh grade now focuses on an in depth look into the rise and fall of great civilizations.

Do you think this new curriculum will help children when it comes to issues of diversity within our community?

Absolutely. But it might appear that these changes to the curriculum are reactionary given some of the events that have transpired over the past few years in Bedford, and they are not. Our social studies department has been interested in making some curricular changes for some time.  However, these changes are very timely, have been very well supported by the district both financially and philosophically, and will only further advance the conversations around race and diversity we are having as a Bedford community.

So, I am very proud that by the fall we will have learning expectations across all subjects including the visual arts, music physical education/wellness and technology. On the topic of technology, I am beyond excited that we were able to hire a second technology teacher and double our offerings.  This means every 6th grader will now have technology once in their six day cycle. And 7th and 8th graders will have technology twice a cycle as a core class. The curricular focus in a continuum across the three grades will be on the four STEM standard- specifically, our students will be engaged in hands-on learning experiences in engineering design, introduction to coding language and programming.  What better way is there to learning math and science than to apply the concepts in a creative manner by problem-solving and creating?

As a principal, what message do you want your school to convey when visitors walk into the building?

I wish for everyone to feel welcomed; for every student to feel valued and respected for their uniqueness, and for every child to feel challenged regardless of their ability.

What does the future hold for middle school education in Bedford?

You asked me about a low point before, and I didn’t answer. Despite our best efforts to minimize stress and disruption to learning, PARCC took the wind out of our sails. When you look at a period of 60 days of school and 30 of those are disrupted by testing, it was an incredible challenge to keep the momentum going. I think all credit goes to our staff who rolled with it, put their best foot forward and tried to alleviate any anxiety and stress in our kids.

Me being cynical doesn’t do anyone any good in terms of PARCC or state-wide testing, but this year almost put me over the edge in terms of my views on the direction we are moving in respect to assessment and collecting student achievement data. What does it mean if we are going to try and quantify everything we do here when our kids are not widgets?  We have done a lot of great work on district determined measures and common assessments which were home grown and truly reflective of our curriculum work. Plus, they generate meaningful data in real time, which we use to inform our instruction and curriculum.  This work has been on-going and will continue.  However, with overlaying PARCC on top of these initiatives, I just get very frustrated and nervous about our children being over-assessed and the lost instructional time.  I am relieved that Pearson (the company responsible for administering the PARCC assessments) has listened to our feedback and has agreed to collapse the two testing windows into just one for next year. I still haven’t seen any of the data from this year’s tests.  Of course, the MA DESE will decide in the fall whether or not the state will move towards PARCC or to stay with MCAS.

Yet, when I asked students which test they preferred MCAS or PARCC, I didn’t have one student who said MCAS. They all said PARCC, and the reason is they felt that MCAS was “boring” and “repetitive”, but the manner in which the PARCC questions were designed made them “really think” and apply their skills.

I am very proud of our technology department and our teachers in their work getting technology in the hands of our students.  While PARCC was certainly not the driver for our increase of technology at JGMS, we have nearly quadrupled our devices in the past three years to include 6 carts of 30 iPads, multiple carts of laptops and improved WiFi throughout the entire building from a two year infrastructure project.  This increase of technology aided in our administering PARCC electronically; moreover, our teachers have worked tirelessly to integrate technology into their lessons in meaningful ways.  Using these devices to actively engage students in learning is vital, it’s the way of the future and students needs to know how to use these devices to create, to problem solve and to think.

What else does the future hold? Well, middle school has its own identity because of the developmental stage of the kids. Our guidance counselors have done a fantastic job on social emotional development and have started the ‘student support team’ which provides interventions for kids when they need it. The ‘skills center’ is also something to be proud of here; we started the program my first year and it has grown amazingly to include support in math, writing, studying, executive functioning and organization…you name it and we provide it in the skill center. Under the leadership of Ms. Jennifer Naylor, 124 students’ academic needs were being supported within the skills center and its programs; it’s a truly happening spot.

It’s summer vacation, you’ve just returned from a week away, what does the rest of the summer look like for you?

The district leadership team has a retreat next week. We will be looking at strategic planning and goal setting with all four principals, Jon Sills, Mary-Lou Sallee (Assistant Superintendent) and Marianne Vines (Director of Special Education).

In terms of family I have another trip planned up to Ogunquit in Maine.  I’ll try and squeeze in a little golf, but spending time with my wife and children and our Labrador ‘Riley’ is how I like to relax.

We have our share of work to do to get ready of the school to open.  Before you know it, we will have 6th grader orientation and new staff orientation.  By the second week in August, I start to feel ‘antsy’. I miss the kids and the teachers and am the happiest person in the building on the first day of school.

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