The Bedford School Committee interviewed each of the four finalists for superintendent of schools on Monday and Tuesday. Each session was 90 minutes. This is the three of four stories on the candidates.
Dr. Matthew Janger told the Bedford School Committee in his 90-minute superintendent finalist interview on Monday that “People move here because they want to be part of a community, and that is reflected in the schools. I love teaching and I love working with kids and teachers and the feeling of being a strong educational community.”
He began his career as a reading teacher at the Landmark School in Beverly, a place for students with language-based learning disabilities. He described an unsuccessful effort to launch a new school, after which he went to Yale and earned an MBA. He went back to teaching and leading an elementary school before he became principal of Arlington High School 10 years ago.
Janger cited the $291 million high school building project in Arlington as an example of his collaborating with parents, educators, and the community. Talks began during his first year, envisioning ideal teaching scenarios; the limitations of the existing facility were evident in that context, he said. As planning continued for some seven years, he said, it was a “community visioning process.”
On the topic of contract negotiation with teachers, Janger said the key words are “transparency, trust, and professionalism. We’re on the same side.” He added, “When you get into a negotiation and it’s a game of poker, somebody loses.”
Janger emphasized that “schools operate on the ‘Good Samaritan subsidy.’” That means teachers use the contract as “guardrails” rather than assigned times. “If I had my druthers, I would pay teachers twice as much, but I have to be respectful that the community only has so much money to spend and we need to use it effectively.”
Janger was asked about how he supports teachers on a daily basis. Besides being in classrooms to provide support, he said, “A really central role of administrators is to stop people from feeling they need to respond to every initiative. There are a million valuable things to do in schools, but we can’t do all of them.”
The candidate described an effort to launch pilot heterogeneous classes in Grade 9 English during pandemic-induced remote instruction. “We spent last year looking at leveling practices and taking community feedback.”
The superintendent’s relationship with the School Committee should include a “no-surprises policy,” Janger said. “And I need to understand what you think is a surprise.” That means individual meetings with members and perhaps retreats.
Financially, “the town should understand that you are never asking for something you don’t need.” He added, “Never take a nickel for granted.”
Asked about the Hanscom Air Force Base and METCO constituencies in Bedford, Janger said, “One of the things I would do would be to go there. You don’t really understand a place until you walk down the street.” Bedford benefits from both communities, he said, but “that also leads to tensions and challenges.”
The goals of academic rigor, improved social-emotional learning, and diversity, equity, and inclusion are not mutually exclusive, Janger stated. “If students don’t have social-emotional skills, they are not going to engage with deeper learning, and if they are not engaging in deeper relevant learning, they are not going to feel like they are having equitable outcomes,” he observed. “And if they feel they are not being heard and seen in the curriculum, they are going to struggle.”
Janger also noted that when he chatted with students earlier in the day, “the thing that got the most vigorous head-nods was when I talked to the students about anxiety. Kids in towns like Bedford are just amazing in what they can do and what they want to do. Many of them are stressed out.”
Asked about narrowing achievement gaps, Janger said, “We want to be talking specifically about individual students and how they are being targeted for individual support with more and better instruction on the things they are not doing well on.”
“The academic discourse needs to be around things important to the students,” he said, and diversity makes learning more exciting. “Students need to feel comfortable bringing their own histories to class.”
Asked about post-pandemic declines in standard test scores, Janger replied, “with effective, consistent, aligned, targeted instruction, you are going to get high growth scores. The worst thing we could do is to get overly focused on the scores for the sake of the scores. They are not necessarily indicators of great teaching and can distort what we are trying to do.”
Other issues addressed by the candidate in response to questions included:
- Teaching literacy: “Some of the controversy about phonics is overblown,” Janger said. The key is “how you implement things in schools. A systematic approach done with fidelity gets positive results. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
- Special-education effectiveness: “The criteria are the assessments of student progress built into the system. It’s really important that progress is done by assessment. The kids vary enormously.”
- Extracurricular activities: Janger said the nomenclature “extra” is misleading; “the two just feed into each other. He noted the effectiveness of teachers involved in running clubs and activities.
- Addressing declining enrollment: “You don’t want to create a situation where people are fearful, fighting for scarce resources,” he said. Also, “you need the town to understand that a 10 percent reduction in students doesn’t bring a 10 percent reduction in the schools.” Fewer students also can create new opportunities with space and staff, he added.