High School Principal Candidates Meet Belmont
Superintendent Tom Kingston will decide the next principal by noon Thursday, June 14.
Mary Pederson, Belmont School's human resources director, was wondering where all the students were Tuesday night, June 12, at the public get together with the two finalists – Dan Richards and Purnima Vadhera – to be the next Belmont High School principal.
"They promised that they'd be here," she said with a shrug.
In the end, about 40 people came to Belmont High School's auditorium to listen to and fire questions at the candidates to succeed Michael Harvey leading a high school that is rated as one-of-the-best open enrollment high schools in the country but one that residents and town officials believe is under pressure to keep standards high for both students and teachers.
The candidates met with the High School faculty and were interviewed by Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston earlier in the day Tuesday. A final decision will be made by Kingston on Thursday, June 14, sometime around noon.
• Purnima Vadhera
Interim principal of Somerville's K-8 Arthur D Healey School for the past year.
Assistant Principal at Newton South High School and biology/science teacher at Brighton and Newton South high schools.
BA and BS from Boston University; MEd in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from Harvard University.
Completed three years of medical school before switching to education.
Frequent word/phrase: "rigor."
What she said:
When Vadhera said she "loves to talk," she means it. An energetic, passionate speaker, Vadhera left the world of medicine as she was preparing for her year of clinical "rounds."
Vadhera began her education career at Boston's Brighton High with all the challenges of a school in an urban setting.
She was instrumental in putting together interdisciplinary courses such as a class combining music and physics.
Even though Belmont High School does have the "rigor" in the courses they offer, Vadhera will not be satisfied with just meeting the norm but will keep investigating way to challenge students. "They need to be prepared the global competition" they will face when they graduate, she said.
She has work experience in all 13 grades – from kindergarten through 12th grade – knowing the issues impacting middle schoolers as they enter their high school years.
She will increase parent's involvement in the school with volunteer opportunities so they can be an integral part of the learning process. She is an admitted "over communicator" so parents, students and staff can expect their share of e-mails, news letters and morning coffees "but not just as a way to say 'hello' but to demonstrate what students are doing from reading their poetry to having them explain their science experiments.
Expects interests in the school will "duke it out" behind close doors in advocating for their ideas, but "once we open the door, we leave as one" with a unified program and plan.
Student safety – in the context of making right choices with alcohol and other substances – is paramount in her role as principal. She shut down an on-campus school dance at Newton South High School with just a few students brought alcohol to the event.
She brought yoga to her Somerville school.
She will bring "hands-on learning" to push teachers and students "to the next level" with virtual learning and other technology.
Vadhera is a firm believer in practical experience and will use her contacts and networking with colleges to provide work and volunteering opportunities to Belmont High students.
She will initiate conversations on diversity that goes beyond skin color, rather focusing it towards a global view and will speak on tolerance.
She said she will be savvy at scheduling the school year to allow students to have a wider variety of classes, even changing how the school year is constructed; in Newton they looked at a semester system. "This must be revisited."
She can "pick up a vibe" in teacher candidates she's looking to hire to see if they are seeking to grow and . She has let teachers go after viewing the data that showed a lack of improvement but only after giving them an opportunity to improve. "Where not generous else where in society" if you can't do the job. "And (education) is the highest priority."
She wants teachers to be more active with parents online, not only when there is trouble with grades or socially but when their child is doing well.
"We should be praising them when they are staying the course or picking up their grades. Too many times the only time (educators) speak to parents is when something is wrong. I want to change that."
• Dan Richards
Principal of Melrose High School for the past year.
Assistant Principal at Belmont High School for seven years before leaving for Melrose. Business teacher at Newton South High School.
MEd in education leadership from Salem State College, master's from Cambridge College in management, negotiation and conflict resolution.
Named the state's best assistant principal as well as a national finalist in 2011 just before leaving to Melrose.
Frequent word/phrase: "well-balanced."
What he said:
When Richards arrived in Melrose, the school had a reputation as "the great wall" with little coming in or out . He began social media with a twitter account that students helped get going with instant feed back proving to be a great success.
He says Belmont High's greatest asset is its "talented" faculty which is ready for the next level. "We need to tap into that pool to meet the challenges we face."
Despite working at the High School for seven years, his entrance plan as principal is to listen to all parties – students, teachers, parents – rather than making any quick decisions.
Richards big issue to develop "well-rounded kids."
"We want all students from the middle of the class as well as the AP (pupils) to be celebrated for being socially and emotional ready" when they graduate from the High School and be proud that we "have really good kids entering the world."
Part of the role of the school is to include kids who can not make the "full-time commitment" to athletics or the arts. There must be clubs and activities that they can attend which provides enough time to develop their social skills and gain relationships. Students should not be stuck with an "all-or-nothing" proposition in terms of extra-curricular activities.
He will reinstate "Diversity Night" which he spearheaded as an assistant, to provide students a wider view of the world.
He wants students to be the instigators in the classroom if they don't believe a teacher is meeting their expectations. "They must learn to advocate for themselves" to develop problem solving skills.
Richards' experience in Belmont makes him aware of parent's complaints that students are unable to make the class selections they want because courses have been pared down to the extent that many students have multiple "frees" – periods in the day they do not have classes. Richards said as principal, he needs to maximize the number of students to the available classes he can place on the schedule.
"That's a hard one especially when a popular class is dropped," said Richards but that may be necessary because the number of students wanting to take the course doesn't justify a teacher being assigned to it.
The limits are purely budgetary with Belmont's tight schedule a result of not having enough teachers hired to fill the schedule.
"This is a conversation we need as a community," said Richards, saying the faculty shares the same frustration.
He's most proud of his time in Belmont identifying teachers who had leadership qualities and directing them into administrative positions and heading departments.
He will seek outside sources of funding like he did in Melrose with a $75,000 gift directed towards foreign language study.
"I will tap into the community and advocate for the school and what we need," said Richards.
Richards said that his quick move back to Belmont may have residents think that he'll be off and running to a superintendents position soon. But give the opportunity to come back to Belmont, "I will work to be the best principal in the state and make this the best school in the state and nation."