Friday, June 4, 2004
Where everybody knows her name
On the eve of her retirement, Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson looks back at thirteen years in Carlisle
"At the time, the superintendent's office was in the Spalding Building," she says, speaking from her sunny corner of the Wilkins Middle School Building. "I wanted to stay here because it's more in the middle of things. I can look right out the window and see the kids playing. They knock on the glass and wave as they walk by. They come in to bring me cupcakes." Sometimes, she admits, the contact is not strictly social: "Just today, I looked outside and saw a child licking a bench. I opened the window and called out to him, 'I don't think that's such a good idea!'"
Indeed, the decision to keep her headquarters centrally located is typical of the way Fox-Melanson sees her role in the school. She likens it to the "management-by-walking-around" philosophy that has overtaken numerous corporate workplaces in recent years: "I practice superintendency by walking around. I pass down the corridor, pop into classrooms to see what's going on. The kids know who I am and can talk to me. That's important to me."
When Fox-Melanson arrived in 1991 as the assistant to then-Superintendent Vin Simone, she saw a school that seemed to comprise many grade levels all functioning separately. One of the changes she takes most pride in is the progress she has made in creating more campus unity. "This is no longer just a collection of eight grades [plus kindergarten and the integrated preschool] sharing a campus," she says. "Now there are philosophies, curricula and core values that follow a common thread throughout all the grades."
The core value that matters most to her is civility, and she cites as another professional accomplishment the establishment of an ongoing dialogue throughout the school community about what civility means. "When I first arrived, I saw examples of kids who did not view themselves as part of a school community." Instead, she explains, they thought they were answerable only to their own classroom teachers. "Recently, we had what we called 'Civility Day,' though it was really closer to an hour than a whole day. We split the school vertically [meaning that each half included children of every grade] and had each half spend some time working together. It was a wonderful exercise. I saw large eighth-grade boys holding the hands of the smallest kindergarteners with no self-consciousness whatsoever."
Asked to expand on the core-value idea, she says, "In the younger grades, we explain civility in terms of citizenship and basic civic responsibility. In the older grades, we make them think a little harder about what it means." She describes a concrete example that is fairly easy for older kids to grasp: "We tell them to imagine coming across a book lying on the ground. Anyone can move the book out of the way, but civility is picking the book up, looking inside to see who it belongs to, and making sure it gets returned to that person."
In fact, civility is so important to Fox-Melanson that she has recently helped establish an annual award designed to "recognize one student in grades 5—7 and one faculty or staff member who consistently exemplifies the qualities of kindness, decency, compassion and concern for others." The two winners will be announced at eighth grade graduation. The award is named after Fox-Melanson's late mother, Lillian V. Eisenberg, "a woman who consistently treated all people with dignity, respect and kindness" and often told her daughter that "It is important to do well, but it is more important to do good."
The nominating process for the Lillian Award, which took place last month, gave the kids plenty of opportunity to think seriously about peers and adults who exemplify the trait of civility — including one child who reportedly said to his teacher, "Mrs. Fox-Melanson is pretty good at this civility thing. Maybe she should get the award." The teacher explained to the child that it was Mrs. Fox-Melanson who was giving the award; therefore, she was implicitly disqualified.
Needless to say, Fox-Melanson has seen many changes within the school system over the past 13 years, some that she has intentionally engineered and some that have been imposed by outside forces. The implementation of the MCAS exams has changed curricular values somewhat, she says, although she refuses to let test scores carry too much influence over classroom activity. "We include a section on 'Facing History and Ourselves,' a Holocaust awareness program, in eighth grade social studies," she says. "That takes away from time they could be preparing for the MCAS. But I feel that the history program is important, and the School Committee backs that decision."
Moreover, it is not surprising to hear that her role as superintendent includes managing concerns that she couldn't have imagined in the earliest days of her teaching career. "We're living in a very different time. We have to be vigilant." The school has practiced emergency drills of all kinds in the past few years, she says, including full-campus evacuations and in-house lockdowns. There are smaller-scale concerns to accommodate as well: everything from mold contamination to food allergies. What hasn't changed is her attitude toward children. "They're wonderful," she says simply. "The children are what keep me going. If the job was only about budget oversight and wastewater treatment measures, I couldn't do it. No one could."
Numerous festivities are marking the final weeks of Fox-Melanson's tenure in Carlisle. Last month, 200 colleagues and well-wishers, some dating back to her days as a teacher in the town of Franklin, gathered at Fruitlands Museum for a party marked by tributes, speeches and gifts. Fox-Melanson recounts with great amusement the reaction of her two adult children to the evening's warmly affectionate tone. "After all the speeches, my kids said to me, 'And you always told us they didn't like you!'"
Inevitably, there is some ambivalence about leaving. "My career has been a process of continuous growth. I don't have any lofty things to say to sum it up, but I'm not dissatisfied with how it's turned out. There's always the feeling that I could have done more, and as plans here at the school are evolving for next year, it's sometimes hard to acknowledge that I won't be part of it." As to her plans once she leaves her Wilkins Building office for the last time, she says that several educational consulting opportunities have arisen, but she hasn't made any decisions yet, other than the decision not to do anything full-time. Her husband is not yet retiring, so life will continue to be centered in their Wellesley home.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito