By Mitch Evans
After serving as one of three Deans at Chelmsford High School for nine years, Heather Galante is excited about landing her new position as Principal of Bedford High School. Just two weeks into her role, I had a chance to interview Heather and find out about our district’s newest school leader.
Thank you for taking the time to meet with the Bedford Citizen. I know you must be very busy at the moment. You started on July 1, what are your thoughts so far?
It’s going really well, I’m meeting with different faculty members over the summer so I can get to know them and learn more about the school. I think you can live in town but you don’t really know the vibe and culture of a school until you are immersed in it. I have meet with over 30 people so far and I’m finding out about what makes the high school such a great place. It’s all very positive; the teachers, the kids, their commitment; there is very little attrition, which tells me that people are happy to be here.
How long have you lived in Bedford?
We have been here for five years and before that I lived in Framingham. We did a lot of research into the school systems and Bedford kept coming out on top for us, with the world language starting in third grade, highlight on the fine arts and music (which starts early) and generally, the focus on the whole child. The Bedford school district offers such a comprehensive program that I could see ‘our’ tax dollars would really be used effectively. However, getting into the town became more of a challenge as there was hardly any housing inventory, it took us a year or so to find a place.
So you have two younger children in the school system here. It’s great that you will have experience of the whole K-12 system.
Yes, my daughter is just about to enter 5th grade at Lane and our son is heading into 2nd grade at Davis. We have been so impressed with both schools, the children are loving it and it just confirms why we moved here. I just want to give a big plug to the Bedford elementary schools, I am in awe of the teachers’ commitment to all kids, at all levels and abilities. They are differentiating every day in ways that, as a high school teacher, I didn’t understand. My own children have very different personalities and abilities and they have both felt embraced, supported and challenged at Davis and Lane. We have a thriving K-12 system, thanks to the work ethic of our staff. The high school receives a fair amount of recognition, but we must not forget that this is due to the great foundation from our primary and middle school grades. Our children come into 9th grade with really strong skills, and while test scores are not the only indicator of success, BHS has great results.
You have made the decision to work in the same town in which you live. I know many educators who choose not to do this, tell me a little bit about your reasoning?
Working in education whether you are a coach, an administrator or a teacher, is such a huge time commitment. I felt that if I was going to be spending this time away from my own kids I wanted it to benefit a town that I was invested in.
When I worked at Chelmsford High School, my children became part of that school family, they were always at events and special occasions with me and they knew the students and my co-workers. I would like to build that same relationship here. I also think there is real value in knowing the children who are coming up through the system and building the personal connections with the community and the families; there is then “buy in” from the get go.
I am very committed to Bedford, I believe in the values and the vision and I think it’s a perfect match. I also think that a smaller school highlights my strengths; which are getting to know teachers and faculty members personally, identifying what makes them tick and what they are interested in. When you foster those personal connections, the output is so much greater. As a principal you have to be visible, to be seen supporting events and to be available, so my commute is a perk. The Bedford High School principal position was the only job I applied for as I was very happy in Chelmsford and I am now thrilled to be here.
Has your career always been in education?
Yes it has but not always as an educator. I started out at Minuteman Regional High School primarily as a counselor, but I also taught an elective psychology course. I was there for five years but I still missed the classroom so I applied for a position at Arlington High School as a full time Social Studies teacher. While there I obtained my administrator’s licensure on the recommendation of the Principal. After four years at Arlington I applied for positions as an Assistant Principal and accepted a job at Chelmsford High School as a Dean overseeing and managing 550 pupils. I think Bedford High School is a small enough school system, at just over 800 students that you can personalize experiences for people and build community. Making that connection is so important because you see a faculty that is happy and proud and invested in what they do. The effects trickle down to the students. Bedford pride is definitely alive and well here.
So you don’t see a Chelmsford style house system evolving here in Bedford?
I am not making any dramatic changes, my first year is really to investigate. I need to observe and do a lot of listening. I think it would be very presumptuous of me to come in and switch things up right away. It doesn’t honor the people that have put time in already. I need feedback from the staff, the families, community and the students. If certain things aren’t working then we can make changes for sure, but this is clearly a happy and high functioning school.
Have you seen a copy of the School Improvement Plans for 2016/17, any thoughts for the coming year?
There is a focus on teaching, supporting, and challenging all our students. We want all of the courses, regardless of level, to be rigorous and for students to demonstrate higher order thinking. We are continuing with professional learning communities (PLC’s) which have been in place for a few years and afford our teachers opportunities to work with colleagues on enhancing and restructuring content and assignments to meet the needs of all students. We are also fine tuning our Learning Expectations work within the various departments. These will help students and parents understand what we want our students to know and be able to demonstrate at the end of each course. We are also highlighting digital citizenship this year. We want our students to be educated about the use of technology and the responsibility that comes with our one to one iPad initiative. We have made additions to the 9th grade iPad orientation and we want to embrace a partnership with parents/guardians as we all learn to navigate the digital world with our students and children.
You have said that you are a person who feels comfortable using data to guide decision-making, but that you also believe that not all that counts can be counted. What are your thoughts on standardized testing and the pressure it puts on our teachers and children?
Unfortunately this isn’t just a Chelmsford and Bedford issue, this is a global issue. Kids are feeling the pressure of being the best; getting into college and doing all that they need for post high school options. This pressure is both external and internal and over the years when I talk with students who seemingly have it all, the perfect resume, the great test scores; they are not finding joy. For me that creates a sense of urgency to help students figure out that they don’t need to be the very best at everything. It is OK to make mistakes, that’s how we learn.
I think there is a real push for kids to take a lot of upper level classes and to get higher GPAs, but I want students to be able to articulate what brings them joy, what they have loved about their academic and social lives while at high school and to ensure that we have given them the tools to pursue something that they are really passionate about. The overscheduled child happens at an early age and we are seeing the major consequences of that in middle and high school.
While I see the benefits of technology and the digital world, it’s great for connectivity and can enhance teaching and learning; I also think that it can be very deleterious to the development of our students. They don’t get a break from the stress, they can’t unplug even at home, and I think we are yet to see the long term consequences of that for our kids.
Talking of taking a break, you mentioned you are away on a work retreat with other District leaders but do you have any family vacation plans for the rest of the summer?
Yes, I am off on a retreat from Tuesday to Friday this week which is for work but will be fun too. I also hope to get away with my family to New Hampshire for a break at some point, and spend some time with my husband and children.
But. I knew when I took this job that I would be doing a lot of research over the summer, getting to know Bedford High School. I want to start the school year with information in hand because once the school year starts, you are ‘on’.
Well I know you are busy so I won’t keep you much longer. Just one last question. What is the message you would like to give to visitors, staff, students; anyone walking through those doors, about Bedford High School?
I would like all visitors to feel that BHS is a school that is welcoming to all people, and while we have high achievement here, Bedford High School is a place where everyone belongs. My hope is that after going through their high school experience students leave here feeling that they have grown and been exposed to a wide variety of academic and enrichment opportunities. I want them to know that they will always have a home within our great school community.