By Kathleen McGinty
As you embark on your one-year anniversary at Andover High, what have you enjoyed the most?
I have enjoyed being here with the teachers and the kind of learning that’s taking place. I have enjoyed seeing you all as students really engaged in real reflection. I loved the debates that students have put on…. That to me was one of the highlights of last year…. What I saw were a whole bunch of students really reflecting on issues of importance and thinking through the issues. That’s what’s been most fun. I found everybody’s really thinking, doing a lot of thinking, and a lot of reflection. Not just memorizing — it’s a whole lot more than that. It’s thinking critically, it’s evaluating, and I’ve seen teachers, a lot of teachers, promoting that….
Number two: it’s been fun for me to be here because I live in this community, and my sons went here, and I was a parent for a long time. Now I’m the principal of the high school in my hometown. I’ve lived here in Andover for about 25 years…. I used to go by this building, drop my sons off. I was principal at that time over at Billerica. Billerica High. We used to play Andover High in all kinds of sports, and now here I am, principal of Andover High School, and that’s been a lot of fun.
Are there any qualities you have seen in the AHS student body or faculty that make them stand apart from the people at other schools you have been at?
Yes, one especially. It’s been the ability of everyone to, students especially…to adjust quickly. What I mean by that, what comes to my mind when I say that is, for example, last year with the seniors and the tardy policy. Now, after a couple years of things being the way they were with lates stacking up in pretty high numbers, to have [the policy] enforced, not changed, but enforced…all of a sudden everybody just said, “Okay, I’ll be on time,” and habits that they had they were able to change…. They were able to turn around and do an about-face.
A lot of students, I think, in a lot of schools I’ve been in wouldn’t be able to do that, wouldn’t be able to make that instant adjustment. I think here, again going back to my first response, I think here students are…encouraged to be and are naturally more thoughtful, more reflective. Some of that’s based upon, I believe, a really great situation. I mean [Andover students have had] opportunities to see things that kids in other communities maybe haven’t seen when they were little. You know, opportunities to do things with your folks that in Andover people are able to do more of than in other communities, by and large. So students here, I think, have had a whole lot of advantages that have been really helpful for being able to think critically or being able to think through something quickly, make a quick decision. What I see also in athletics is that adjustments are made during games, or as you’re playing a game, students can quickly make an adjustment and not be caught by surprise as often as in other schools. That’s again part of the ability to kind of think on your feet and at that particular moment.
What made you want to come back and serve as a principal for a second year in a row?
It was a decision that I made in June. I hadn’t planned on it.…You know, I’ve got four little grandchildren, and I was planning to spend more time with them, maybe do a day or two of babysitting. So it wasn’t something that I was thinking about during the course of the year. When we weren’t able to obtain a new principal…it was a matter of “should the high school have to go through another person who’s new and has to sort of get acquainted with everything, or would things be better off if I stayed for another year because I had pretty much become familiar with things?”
Number two for me, personally, I was having a very good time for all the reasons I just spoke of. I love being here. I love being with the faculty here. I think it’s a really good team of faculty…and I like being with you guys as members of the community…. So that’s what led me in June. I sat down with Mrs. Sharkey…and we were talking and she asked me, she said, “Maybe would you want to stay for another year?” because we were talking about the fact that Dr. McGrath was going to have to find somebody to fill in for another year. So we got to talking and decided, “Well, we’ll ask Dr. McGrath if she’d like me to come back for another year,” and she said yes. So that’s how it happened.
Were there any major changes made at the school during the summer that will affect students or faculty this school year?
There weren’t changes. There are some issues that I think we need to look at, and we’re not yet formed in terms of what we want to do. One is drinking. I’m really concerned about the amount of drinking that’s taking place in the community…with respect to it overflowing into school activities. It’s an issue for me, and the Powder Puff game last year was a real, I thought, disaster, because of the large number of kids who were drinking at the game and then coming back into the dance afterwards. We’re taking some steps to see what we need to do there to discourage drinking. Breathalyzers, for example, we’re going to borrow from the police department for dances, and we’re just going to try and spend more time in conversation with everybody about it. It’s a challenge that I’m really putting to the juniors and seniors especially to ask the question, “Why is it necessary? Why can’t we have fun without it?”
The other topic that I feel we want to have some conversation about this year is academic integrity. I think there’s a significant amount of pressure on students at Andover High to do well in school, and I think often times it leads to ethical violations that are taking place. We had a couple incidents last spring that to me were the tip of an iceberg maybe…. I’m talking about having class forums with students about the issue and kind of reflecting together on the whole issue of academic integrity, the quest for good grades, and everything — plagiarism, texting answers to one another from one class to another. Things of that sort…are just violations of who we are and who we want to be at least. So that’s another area that I want to pursue.
I think the other things are really more about curriculum and structure and preparing for the accreditation for next October, and a lot of work is going into — and this is probably the bulk of the work with the faculty — all the facets of accreditation. That involves the culture of our school, what’s the curriculum, how relevant is our curriculum, how are we teaching, how are we making sure that we know that students are achieving what we would hope that they could achieve, what are we doing to help kids who are struggling, and how are we engaging your parents, the community…. Those are topics that the accreditation team looks at, and we have to get ourselves ready for that. We are doing a self-study in the faculty. They are writing a paper that involves the reflection on whether we meet these standards of accreditation that this New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) has put forth for all high schools, for all public high schools in New England states…. That’s going to be a huge.
Aside from addressing those issues, do you have any other major goals or hopes for this school year?
I’m hoping that I can play a role in getting the new principal acquainted with the school. We’re hoping we can have the new principal named by early February so that he or she can come in and spend some time getting acquainted with the high school….
Some other things are going to be bringing some ideas at least that I feel have worked, have made good schools great schools. I’m going to try and bring that to the faculty and have a conversation with them. I’ll give you an example of a data team. What a data team is is a group of people who gather, and they talk about how Andover High as a whole is achieving what we set out to do. So when you look at the opening page of the Student Handbook, you see academic, civic, and social expectations that we have for every student who graduates…. Well, the trouble is often times schools don’t have a way of measuring that, of whether any of that has happened truly. We say it’s going to happen but we’re not sure if every [student meets those goals]. A data team kind of assembles all that, puts it together, and presents that to the high school for review so we can see if we do what we say we really want to do…. Tests like that, it will be fun to bring to the faculty and see if they buy into it, if they like it, if they think it’s valuable. I think it’s personally valuable and necessary. So there will be things like that that I’m trying to do through conversations with the faculty.
I want to engage more students in the process. We have a school council. We need a couple of student representatives [on] the school council. The school council’s made up of parents, teachers, and students, and they advise me on important issues at the high school and look at the school budget. They look at the discipline code. They review that. They make suggestions for changes. I need a couple of students for that. I want to work more closely with Student Government this year, engage them and the class officers and the class boards. I’d like to really spend a little more time with them, with everybody kind of listening and suggesting ideas and seeing what people think.