The consultant working with the School Committee on the search for a new superintendent of schools said this week that Bedford is “considered the prize” among all current vacancies statewide.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said at a virtual search focus group that the post is desirable because Bedford “is a community that has decades of good leadership, a good teaching faculty, and that seems to have been dedicated to doing the right thing.”
“There are districts having a hard time because of politics,” Koocher continued, and candidates are skeptical because “the district isn’t ready to go where they want it to go.”
Current Superintendent Philip Conrad announced in October that he plans to retire at the end of the academic year. Conrad, who began in Bedford in July 2020, told the School Committee that what he lacked in longevity was balanced by intensity, as he led the schools through the Covid-19 pandemic.
Over the last 40 years in Bedford, Koocher observed, every superintendent of schools “stayed long enough to retire. You have a right to expect that Bedford would be a destination, the crowning point of one’s career.”
One resident commented, “I’m hoping our next superintendent isn’t going to just be around for three years.” The moderator replied, “I hope your next superintendent is in for the long term and it will be a very happy relationship.”
Tuesday evening’s forum, conducted as a Zoom meeting, was one of about a dozen planned for the community at large and internally among school staff.
“We are here to listen,” said School Committee Chair Brad Morrison as he introduced Koocher, who served as moderator.
About two dozen residents monitored part or all of the proceedings. Besides Morrison, the Zoom screen also featured his committee colleague Ann Guay and Sarah McGinley, who represents Hanscom Air Force Base households on the committee.
Koocher presented some general topics, asking for comments on the strengths of the Bedford schools, leadership experiences, and “areas of growth and development and change that need to happen as we go forward.”
The responses were wide-ranging comments, from individual situations to global issues.
Emily Mitchell, chair of the Select Board and parent of a current high school student and a recent high school graduate, stressed that in the community, “the superintendent is in a unique position to be a public figure.” The successful candidate, she said, would be comfortable in that role, exemplifying “clear, compassionate, responsible” civic behavior. Conrad has been a good model for that, she noted.
“We have had some challenges,” she said, during the pandemic and other “hot button issues.” Bedford, she said, is not “immune to some of the ugliness” that has plagued other districts.
Koocher noted that during an earlier forum with students at John Glenn Middle School, “we heard a lot of comments about wanting a superintendent who is courageous and will speak up.” The consultant said, “On the list of professions that cry out for courage the field of education has a mixed record,” particularly regarding “areas like major innovations on how to use money.”
Koocher said the students also talked about “the pressure of a lot of stuff getting crammed into a day, the pressure of student achievement.” A resident who said she was a former teacher said, “I’m not surprised by that. Things have changed over the past 20 years and not all for the better.”
She also said, “We are a little bit obsessed with assessing kids. It feels like there’s a lot of focus on data. I think we run the risk of transferring our anxiety over those things to the children.” The next superintendent, she suggested, should be “someone who values the whole child and sees data as a piece of that.”
Added another attendee, “We know about gaps and data. Now we need the programming to having kids learn the material that makes them good humans who can read, think critically, and be good community members.”
“Make sure we have a superintendent who continues respecting teachers,” commented another resident. “I think a strength is a go-forward attitude, with people allowed to be creative and try a new idea. It’s important for kids to see that. If the superintendent has that philosophy, it trickles down throughout the district.”
A participant observed, “There has been a strong history of communication,” to parents and the greater community. Another strength is “supporting kids who need more support and programming,” another commented. “We need someone who would recognize those things.”
The need for more staff diversity is “one thing we have known for years,” Mitchell observed. “The administration has been trying over the years but it’s hard.” She added that more foreign languages in the curriculum could help communicate with a more diverse population in the town.
A participant called for a better transition process from high school to college. Mitchell noted the high school’s affiliation with Challenge Success, a national program that works to reduce pressure, build resilience, and promote a broader definition of “success.” Nevertheless, Mitchell acknowledged, “the amount of information can be overwhelming.”
Other comments included the need for a response to bullying on school buses; more social studies in the elementary grades; “an incredibly strong appreciation for an inclusion model and making sure it is academically focused;” “values that are guiding curriculum;” and “a superintendent who has a vision.”
Koocher stressed that there is an online survey about the position that residents can complete anonymously. (The link is https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Bedford2023a.)