Friday, October 8, 1999
Getting to know Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson
The following is the eighth in a series of occasional articles designed to introduce residents, new as well as longtime, to the individuals who keep Carlisle running smoothly —our town officials.
An old-fashioned coat-rack dominates one corner of Davida Fox-Melanson's office at the Carlisle Public Schools. It sprouts a collection of hats ranging from a hardhat, acquired during the recent Link Building expansion project, to a leather sombrero, a baseball cap, and a lacy bonnet. Their significance seems obvious: the job requires whoever holds it to wear many different hats. "They have symbolic meaning," Fox-Melanson admits with her unmistakable laugh.
Fox-Melanson came to Carlisle eight years ago to fill the position of assistant superintendent, and the following year she was promoted to superintendent. She had made the move from her previous job as elementary building principal in Franklin, because it was time for a change, and Carlisle struck her as interesting and challenging. "I guess it has remained so," she says, "because I'm still here, and I continue to be challenged."
After growing up in and around the Boston area, she earned an undergraduate degree from Clark University in Worcester, and then completed the bulk of her graduate work at Boston University. Fox-Melanson lives in Wellesley with her husband, an elementary school principal in a city setting, and her two grown children. Her son recently returned from working with The Peace Corps in Central Asia. Her daughter, carrying on the family tradition, is beginning a teaching career with a kindergarten in Westboro. Husband/wife school administrators isn't a typical pairing according to Fox-Melanson, but they have very interesting conversations about the challenges of public school education.
In addition to being a wife, mother and graduate student, Fox-Melanson has also been a teacher. At times, she was simultaneously all of these. She has taught children from Auburn, Massachusetts to the Lower East Side of New York, and a few suburbs in between.
"We need to be lifelong learners," Fox-Melanson says, referring to the introduction of Systems Thinking into the school system, "to have underlying skills and values that aren't just situational. We expect that the students will do well. We hope that they will also do good. It isn't enough to simply be successful"
The school has hired about 16 new teachers this year. Is this unusual?
They are there for a variety of reasons. We are expanding programs, for example, adding a foreign language. Some of them are replacing people who for a variety of reasons have not returned, some by their choice, some by ours. I think it's very healthy. We have very high standards for ourselves and love to grow. It's a wonderful school system, but it's not for everyone. You have to be a really high-level professional who's willing to continue to grow. It's what we owe the students and the taxpayers, and the town has been very good about supporting what we think of as cautious growth.
Can you talk more about adding Spanish to the foreign language choices?
This year we have begun what we call a flex program in the fifth grade. This means the students will have half a year of French and half a year of Spanish. It's an opportunity to have a taste of each, and then they'll make a decision, after they've had this exposure, in the sixth and seventh grades. This year, sixth and seventh graders can choose French or Spanish. Eighth grade is finishing up with only French, because they didn't have that opportunity and we wouldn't be able to give them much of a background in Spanish. But foreign language is a core subject, just like math or social studies.
I'd like you to comment on the MCAS requirements. What has the initial impact been and what do you think of them in general?
Well, we're still trying to understand the expectations and the frameworks of the testing. It's one way of measuring things. In the last round [Carlisle] students did well, and we hope they will continue to do so. We anticipate making some changes in support of aligning our curriculum with the frameworks [of MCAS]. However, I don't see us making wholesale changes simply to teach to a particular test. But the MCAS teststhe ones I've seen so farare fairly good and in-depth. They're not fill-in-the-blanks. They do require kids to think and to write and to make connections. To the extent that they continue to do that and reflect what we've been teaching, it won't require wholesale changes. We've added a little more emphasis on dictionary skills. We've added a poetry strand, because we found that to be a [relatively weak] area. And we continue to struggle with what emphasis to place in what grade on particular topics in science. But overall, we have a solid program and I wouldn't want to turn it upside down.
Can you comment on the lack of an eighth-grade play, the limited choral-arts program, and frame them in the role of the arts in education?
Basically, we didn't have the capacity to support both a seventh- and eighth-grade play. Although the idea of having a play was wonderful, we couldn't sustain it for two years. We didn't have the time or the people or the volunteers. By the time I came [to Carlisle] it was beginning to fray around the edges. Parents didn't have as much time to devote to it and the [eighth-grade] kids had many, many other things to do. So we made the decision that we wanted students to still have the experience, and seventh graders were very eager and they had fewer demands on their time. The state was also [demanding a certain number of hours spent] on learning other things. Those who have been in town long enough know we were struggling to rebuild our programs in generalfine arts, as well as languages, as well as the library. We still don't have one hundred percent participation, but we've managed to reengage it so that most kids play some role. Now, the arts in general are something that we need to strengthen, particularly in the area of choral music. We have a wonderful instrumental music program, everybody knows that, but the art experience has been growing. We now have two full-time art teachers and we are able to offer a broader program and tie it to the rest of the curriculum.
Now, I want to shift the focus and ask you about the status of the new septic system.
It's never-ending! The litigation continues and we don't know when it will end. Both sides have been given an extension.
This has been going on for some time now, hasn't it?
Yes, since the spring of '96, when the current septic system failed to pass Title 5 inspection.
Given [Concord School Superintendent] Ed Mavragis' recent suggestion of a shared Concord/Carlisle middle school, what do you think of regionalization?
This is not the first time the subject has been broached. A study was done in '92 or so, and the conclusion at that time was that a regional school approach was not financially feasible. There wasn't a strong sentiment in favor of it. The possibility of regionalizing the middle schools was discussed at length [by both school committees] again last year. Carlisle is still growing and the school is approaching capacity, even with the Grant Building [the completed Link building], but it's my hope that we will do what's best for our students and this community. I'd rather not take a personal stand at this point, but I'd like to see the data. I think we should run the numbers, assess and discuss both sides, and continue to talk with Concord. It's fine to pursue a detailed study, but we shouldn't accept a quick explanation. This community has a whole range of choices.
I'd like to ask you about the very sensitive issue of the pending sexual harassment complaint. Can you comment on the impact it has had?
Can you expand the question?
Sure. Can you talk about any impact it has had on the faculty, students, policy changes or general awareness?
Well, since it is a legal issue, I have to be cautious in my response. It has been very troublesome and it's still not resolved. Certainly our consciousness was raised and there was a recognition that we could be doing more. This is an issue in the public's mind, and events like this do find their way into schools. We have tried to respond pro-actively. This year, all employees attended a two-hour training the second week of school. In addition to that, we took a hard look at our existing sexual harassment policy, which dates back to '93. Last night the school committee adopted a policy in which sexual harassment is defined, examples are given, a complaint procedure is outlined, and examples of possible solutions are offered. The situation has made all of us think hard about the issue of civility.
Can you say more about that?
I think this year particularly, we've talked a great deal about how to inculcate civility. First of all we have to model it. We can't teach it as discreet skills. Yes, you can help kids understand how it is that we can relate to each other in pro-social ways, but they have to see us live it. They watch what we do as well as what we say, and middle-school-aged children are very sensitive to anything they see as hypocritical. I would like to outreach to the rest of the community. One of our goals this year will be to try to involve the faith communities, so that we can all be giving the same message. Not preaching, but giving kids the notion that this isn't just about how we behave in school, that civility is what we as a community value. It's not just about good manners. Good manners are nice, and they're very important, but [we need] a more basic caring. And that can't be legislated.
Where did you get the idea for "Dialogues with Davida"?
Well, someone else came up with the name, and I don't care for it, but I felt it was important to give parents and the community an opportunity to vent, basically. It isn't very common in other school systems, and it can be difficult. Most people tend to come only when they are upset about something. These dialogues have produced some terrific ideas that we have implemented. It's all about communication, and my frustration remains that some people say, 'We don't connect.'
Did you have a favorite teacher?
Yes. I was sixteen years old, and she was my English teacher. She had very high standards and I didn't think I could achieve them. But she taught me about writing and gave me a lifelong passion for all of its genres. At the end of the school year she invited us to her house for lunch.
Will we see you at the Pig 'n Pepper this year?
Nobody's asked me yet, but I hope so. I'm ready. I'm usually there all day Sunday, with my husband, counting money in the trailer. I'd do anything. For the first two years my husband helped park cars and never even got inside.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito