Friday, October 13, 2000
Interview with Elaine DiCicco, retiring CCHS principal
Elaine DiCicco, principal of Concord-Carlisle High School since 1978 and a French teacher and administrator in the Concord and Concord-Carlisle school districts for 33 years, recently announced her intention to retire at the end of the current school year. She agreed to discuss her thoughts and reflections with the Mosquito soon after making her decision public. Following are excerpts from that interview, with the Mosquito's questions in boldface type.
You've obviously seen many changes in the high school environment during your 33 years at CCHS. Which changes would you rate as most positive and most negative?
I think the involvement of the parents and the growth of a really strong parents association here was very positive. It really started back in the '78-'79-'80 period. There has also been an expansion of opportunities for students, including travel opportunities, performance opportunities, and courses with some really outstanding teachers. These have been really important and positive changes.
Over the years, we've grown from what you might call a traditional comprehensive high school to more of an academic, college-prep high school. While I think that's been good for many students, it poses a challenge and I think we need to be careful not to lose sight of the fact that we really have a comprehensive student body. We need to provide a comprehensive enough program that meets the needs of all our students. I also think that there have been positive changes in what we know about instruction and education, based on so much research we've been able to draw on to tell us how to do a better job with a wide range of students. There have been some really exciting things happening in the classrooms, which have become a lot more student-centered over the years.
As for negatives, I don't really focus too much on them. But young people are confronted with so many difficulties in society today, which really pose more challenges for them as they grow up. It was a lot easier 20, 30, 40 years ago to be a teenager. There weren't so many gray areas. There weren't so many issues to deal with. And while our students are doing incredible work, a lot of them feel the need to take on more responsibilities, even adult responsibilities. I'm not talking about academic challenges, but a lot of the ethical and moral questions and gray areas...what's right and what's wrong. It must be very difficult.
But your faculty and staff have to be involved in helping students deal with these kinds of issues.
Sure they do, and I think we all see more non-academic needs to address. Over the years we've taken on more responsibilities that were not typically seen as educational issues.
CCHS students have benefited from strong primary and secondary school programs. Do you believe the state's ed reform process can help improve the outcomes for under-performing CCHS students without degrading the high school experience for high achievers?
That's a wonderful question. I think that we need to hold everybody to high standards...no question about that. And as a school, we believe that everybody can learn. I think the challenge comes in making sure that we are maintaining the level of challenge that's appropriate for all students, so that we can really stretch the students who might need a greater challenge, and that we are providing for those kids in the middle that everybody talks about all the time. An appropriate level of challenge should really motivate them and get them interested and involved in what they're learning. For kids who are finding learning difficult for one reason or another, we must be able to reach them, to have them learn and feel confident about their learning. It's a heck of a lot easier to talk about than to do. I think that is probably the greatest challenge teachers have today in the classroom. We have a number of classes here at the high school that are more heterogeneously grouped than homogeneously grouped.
Can we do all this and be able to help our students meet the requirements of the state, which means pass the MCAS test and graduate, and really not adversely affect the large group of students? I think absolutely we can, because I don't see us, now or in the future, focusing solely on preparing students to pass an MCAS test. I think we're confident enough that our curriculum will eventually address the standards reflected in the state's frameworks, and in many areas will go beyond them. If a student doesn't pass the test as a sophomore, we wouldn't view that as some great failure because it could well be due to the fact that some of the material they weren't able to manipulate is something they're going to learn as a junior. And if students are having difficulty passing the test, then we take steps to provide them with assistance. But at the same time, we have programs that are providing some really exciting and challenging opportunities for kids. So I think we're going to be okay.
Carlisle students entering CCHS have spent their elementary and middle school years learning and practicing systems thinking. To what extent does this approach to learning get reinforced at CCHS?
I think it gets reinforced in the courses here in which students need to use higher level thinking skills, where students need to analyze data, or think about outcomes and impacts a decision might have. Systems thinking involves more than just the computer graphs that are made with systems dynamics software. It is the process that teachers use in the classroom to have students thinking out situations, debating alternative solutions to a problem, listening to a case study and saying, "now, what are the possible solutions to this and what are the implications of a decision to do x as opposed to a decision to do y." And these kinds of things go on in the classrooms here, beginning in freshman year. So I would think that Carlisle students who come in with a background of using systems thinking would find a natural progression of the work they've been doing.
Carlisle students enter CCHS with less foreign language experience than most Concord students. Do you believe they generally "catch up" after four years at CCHS?
Yes. By the time they're juniors or seniors, they're in the advanced courses just like the Concord students and seem to be doing well. I don't see them as necessarily disadvantaged. In fact, Carlisle students are really doing well at the high school.
Many voices are calling for a later high school start time as a way to reduce the number of sleep-deprived students in CCHS classes. Would you recommend such an approach?
I would. The research seems to unanimously support that kind of an approach. From what I understand, where schedules have been changed to create later starting times, students seem to be happier about it. I don't know whether enough long-term study has been done to actually say there are great academic gains, but if you were to talk to most students in this building, I think they would be in favor of it. Right now we're trying to figure out how we could make that work, especially in terms of transportation. I do believe there is a group looking at it this year. It was one of the recommendations that came out of our strategic planning effort last year. I think it will be looked at by the administrative council over the course of this year. I certainly think if we can manage the bus situation, it's probably worth a try.
Faculty turnover is increasing and a significant percentage of CCHS teachers are expected to retire in the next five years or so. At the same time, fewer college students are planning for careers in education. What advice would you give your successor for maintaining the high quality of CCHS faculty despite these opposing trends?
Probably to do what we've tried to do the last few years or so, and that is to get out there early looking for candidates. We were interviewing people in February and March. We do have a pretty aggressive recruiting program. Our director of personnel, along with several administrators, goes to several job fairs in the area to meet graduating students. But when we're talking about retirements, we know ahead of time what vacancies will need to be filled, so that we can get out into the marketplace a lot earlier. And I really think, given what our school system has to offer teachers, that many in their early years of teaching in other districts would consider joining the Concord-Carlisle team. So, in addition to getting out there early, I would advise my successor to continue to provide the professional development opportunities, and to continue to encourage creativity among the faculty. I think teachers need support, to know that it's okay to try something new, and that if it doesn't work the way they thought it was going to work, that's okay too, and it doesn't mean they're a failure. We've tried over the years to really create that kind of an environment, so that when people see something they believe could be a valuable addition to our curriculum they're able to try it out, in pilot form, to see if it's going to work. If it does, then we'll take steps to introduce it. I think teachers working in that kind of an environment continue to be excited about what they're doing.
Other than teacher recruitment, what are the major challenges that your successor will face?
Well, we're about to embark on another building renovation, and that might be a challenge because, unlike the last renovation, we don't have the luxury of space into which we can move the people and facilities whose space we're trying to fix. And we're also in a much different economic period. Even though the economy is great, the expenses for school building projects are very large, and so it's going to be a challenge to move forward on the high school renovation. We're also, in 2003, scheduled for our periodic accreditation evaluation. While I have every reason to believe that this high school will get a very, very good evaluation report, a lot of work needs to be done by the staff and the administration to prepare for the accreditation review process.
Also, I think it will be a challenge to continually look hard at what we do in the classroom and at the school to keep instruction and curriculum at a high level. It takes a lot of work to really integrate curriculum, instruction and assessment in a very meaningful way, and to make changes in instruction to meet the needs of all the students. It's an increasingly challenging job because of the many needs of the students we serve. We must be able to reach every student who walks through that door, and be able to serve each with a program that meets his or her needs at the highest level possible. I think it's a huge challenge.
Are you referring to inclusion of special ed students?
That's just one population. There are also kids who might be turned off to learning, and students who are really interested in specific areas. We need to make sure we've really got the challenge there for them, for students who are really gifted and for students who are coming to us with difficulties and problems in their own personal lives which can get in the way of their learning. There must be other kinds of supports within the building to help troubled students be able to learn, and that's not necessarily just special education. And there are very high expectations on a school that earns high scores on all the standardized tests. So, trying to put all that together is an exciting challenge. I also think we've just scratched the surface when it comes to knowing the full implications of technology in the learning process.
Why now, and what's next?
I just think it's time. I don't know what else to say. It's a decision I've been thinking about for awhile. There are a number of things that I've been involved in that are kind of coming to an end at the end of this year too, so it just seemed to be the right time. In June, I finish my work as a commissioner with the Commission on Public Secondary Schools. What's next? I really don't have any specific plans, but I'm sure that I'll be busy doing a hundred things. It will be nice to have a bit of time without a specific plan, because I've had a specific plan for so long! Maybe I'll tutor; maybe I'll travel and finally use my French someplace. There are all kinds of things that interest me, but I just haven't had time to do them. When I was in high school I took art lessons and really enjoyed painting, but I haven't been able to do that. I love arts and crafts kinds of things. I'd love to travel. But I'm sure that once July comes there will be a whole burst of things on the horizon that I can't even see now. I really haven't spent a lot of time thinking about that, so much as how to make sure I get everything done before the end of the year. So I'm just very much focused on things here at the high school.
Is there anything else you'd like to mention in the way of final thoughts?
I guess how lucky I feel to have been a part of this place. Not everybody gets the opportunities that I've had. It's nice to be able to say that you can get up every day and look forward to coming to work, and to not really see it as work. There have been so many enjoyable things, and it's different every day. I work with some of the most talented and caring people that you could find anywhere, a great group of students, and receive wonderful support from parents and the community. So it has been wonderful, and I know it will be wonderful until the last day. It's just a magnificent place to work. I don't think most people have a full appreciation of how special Concord-Carlisle is. It's a place where people are eager to learn or want to teach and have great ideas, sharing people, where kids and adults count. I would wish that everybody could have the kind of experience over so many years that I've had.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito