The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 15, 2003

Features

CCHS Vice Principal Damon retires

As I sat down to interview retiring Vice Principal Henry Damon in late July, we recalled that our sons had gone to the high school together, played in the band and had graduated in 1986. Now I was at the school to learn about Damon's experience at Concord-Carlisle High School over the past 34 years.

Henry Damon (photo by Lois D'Annunzio)
Damon first came to CCHS as a guidance counselor in 1969. He had grown up in the Washington, D.C. area, received a master's degree in guidance counseling from Columbia University and had taught at a private school in New Orleans. His grandmother lived in Belmont, so applying for a position in Concord seemed like a good idea. Once in Concord, Damon had a surprise. There were other Damons living in town and he learned that the Damon Mill was named after a distant relative. He had never heard about the Concord Damons as he was growing up, but he was happy to get acquainted with Winslow and Florence Damon and meet other Damons at family gatherings. For the past 12 years Damon has been living in Lexington.

Moving ahead in our interview, I had prepared several questions I wanted to ask. Although Damon had served as Assistant Principal from 1985 until 1996, I asked him to explain his position as vice principal for the past six years.

Twenty per cent of my time is spent on student discipline. The rest of the time is spent on student-related issues. I'm responsible for all student scheduling and maintenance of the student information database. I'm involved in supervision and evaluation of first-year teachers, department chairs, and teachers without department chairs. I work closely with other principals. We added another assistant principal four years ago when the student body started to grow. I don't recall facing such difficult and stressful times with budget cuts and coming close to having a Joint Town Meeting as we did last year.

MCAS are taken in the spring of the 10th grade. What are your thoughts on the testing and how does it affect the high school experience?

There have been some modifications to our curriculum. It has put pressure on students in math and English and it has taken a big bite out of instructional time for sophomores in the spring term. It forces us to make sure students have the fundamental knowledge to pass. Students who need extra tutorial time get it. Eighth graders who did poorly in school may come to CCHS for extra help in the summer before their freshman year.

What differences do you see between Concord and Carlisle students entering CCHS in their freshman year? (I refer back to the early '80s when my sons attended CCHS and the kids from Carlisle were considered hicks from a farming community.)

I see no difference between the Concord and Carlisle students coming to CCHS. Yes, the Carlisle School has a strong math and music department. But in general, overall, I see no difference. Upon graduation [for all students] there has been a big change. When I first came to CCHS in 1969, 55% of CCHS graduates went on to a four-year college. The others went into the military, nursing, directly to a job or on to a two- year vocational program. We see little of that now. The percentage in the last decade has been in the low 90s for those going on to a four-year college. Our students do very well in college admissions. We get high marks from students and colleges alike.

Some believe teacher salaries at CCHS are too high.

I don't see much difference from other area schools or comparable school districts. Looking at the total compensation, CCHS health benefits are lower. Are they comparing us with the schools on Long Island, in Westchester County, in Philadelphia, or in Shaker Heights? Teacher bashers should do their homework. Recruitment of qualified teachers who have taught in their discipline has become nationally a big problem, especially in math and science. It is not a problem at CCHS. We have a rich applicant pool because of the schools in the area. Students come here to college and they want to stay. Learning has changed. Students [in schools of education] learn what facilitates good learning. Most CCHS teachers have master's degrees.

What about charging fees?

The major fees have been for the late bus and athletic fees. The school committee has approved a list of cuts if a 2% budget cut becomes a reality. This would make for a significant increase in fees to be charged. There are mixed feeling about fees. While there are provisions for families who can't afford to pay the fees, for others it's a hardship. Many suburban schools have fees and some get dependent upon them.

You've obviously seen many changes in the high school environment during your 34 years at CCHS. Can you tell me about them?

The early '70s was a chaotic time at CCHS. There was a sense of barely contained chaos. It was a time of heightened drug use and not enough space. The school was hopelessly overcrowded with an enrollment of 1,700 [there are 1, 240 students enrolled at CCHS in 2003]. The Emerson Umbrella was used as a school for the freshman class. It was the time of the open classroom when students could leave the campus during a free period and go downtown.

Things settled down by the late '70s and early '80s, once additions were made to the school, including the expansion of the cafeteria and the library. Other very positive changes at the school have included the growth of Special Education (SPED) over the past 30 years, addressing the needs of all students. Chapter 766 had been instituted in Massachusetts, even before the national full-inclusion program was put into place. Making the school a safe place for all students, including gays and lesbians, has been a top priority. Maintaining our commitment to the METCO program is a benefit to all our students. Students shouldn't be taught in an isolated community. There is a near parity of girls and boys sports; the student-teacher ratio has gone down; there has been a strengthening of instructional practices overall and we have wonderful language labs.

I do have concerns about funding of SPED. The federal and state governments have passed mandates for special education. The federal government was to pay 40 % of the cost, but we have received no more than 15 to 17%. The state has passed a mandate for SPED, but we aren't getting any money. What they are doing is pitting SPED against regular education. Since the state won't raise taxes, they are shifting the burden to local taxpayers.

What are your plans for the future?

I've been too busy to decide what to do. I need a chance to unwind and reflect. I have several ideas. I'm interested in the environment and ecology, the Habitat for Humanity, and possibly taking a Harvard mediation course. I plan to stay in Lexington for a while.

And your successor?

He is Dr. Alan Weinstein.


2003 The Carlisle Mosquito