Thomas Scott, Superintendent of K-8 Shirley School
by Lee Milliken
Thomas Scott has served as superintendent of the K-8 Shirley School system since 1994. Previously he served as director of special education in New Hampshire, school psychologist in Methuen, and mathematics coordinator and fifth/sixth grade math teacher in Sherman Oaks, California. He received the doctor of education degree from Boston College. During his tenure in Shirley, a new middle school was constructed, community and parent participation was increased, the preschool program was expanded, a full day kindergarten program was implemented, Spanish language was introduced in all grade levels, and the number of competitive grants received by the district was tripled.
“Meet and greet”
About thirty parents and teachers participated in the "meet and greet" public time on Thursday afternoon.
Facing the group Scott seemed at ease talking about his elementary school of 800 students and the relationship with two high schools, Ayer and Lunenburg. The students are "tuitioned out to the neighboring systems [and consequently I] need to do a lot with the high schools. The two schools compete for the students of the elementary school. The relationship is good. The kids know kids in the other towns and the towns have joint recreational teams."
He has supported a program in his school that is modeled on a business enterprise. The students form businesses such as setting up a school store or a service to senior citizens. "This way the students give back to the community."
School Committee Member Suzanne Whitney Smith asked about the language program in the Shirley school. Scott said the Spanish language is introduced in every grade from K through 8. The elementary school teacher has one class a week with the younger grades. This provides the children with primarily a cultural exposure to the language and helps the "kids understand and appreciate diversity. In grades 5 to 8 the exposure is more intense, and in high school the students are ready to go into second year Spanish classes."
Shirley has a full day kindergarten program and 90 children in a preschool program where parents pay tuition. The town also has a full day early childhood program and play groups for three- and four-year-old children. "This brings the community into the school." He has found a variety of grants for programs. "I have gone after every single grant I can get." He has received a grant from the single employer in town, charity grants, and a grant which fosters peer mediation for 20 students. They have a Japanese intern coming to the school this spring as part of the enrichment program.
In response to a question about professional development, Scott said that teachers are offered courses in house. They also can go take advantage of the resources at Fitchburg State College which is nearby. The State College also sends interns to Shirley. All the teachers have taken a course on mentoring so they can be involved in the mentoring that goes on in the school.
School Committee interview
1. Why you would like to be the Superintendent of Schools in our district? Specifically, why are you attracted to the position? What qualities and strengths do you bring to this position and to our community?
I was initially asked if I was interested by Richard Warren of Future Management Systems of Danvers. Richard Warren is someone I worked with in Ayer, and Carlisle is closer to home. A few initial things come to mind. I was impressed with the vision statement. Carlisle is a world class school with extraordinarily high standards and expectations. It is a great chance to increase professional experience. My whole life has been dedicated to education.
I have had a diverse background. I have taught math in a private school in California, taught in both large and small public schools, and been the Superintendent of a small public school. I have also been the Director of Special Education, a school psychologist. I have had fun and enjoyed what I've done. I feel that with the breadth of my experience I have a lot to offer, to bring out the best of everyone.
2. Today you had an opportunity to visit with our community. Could you tell us how our system either compares or differs from the school where you are now working?
There are a lot of similarities but also some differences. The grades K through 8 are the same -- elementary and middle school. The major difference is the socioeconomics of the community. Shirley is a widely diverse community, as wide as you can get, from the wealthy and gifted to the homeless. We have a contract with Devens where there is a homeless shelter. The diversity makes it exciting to try to meet everyone's needs. Everyone benefits by working together.
We have tried to have a good curriculum and instructive practices. We have a foreign language instruction and enrichment program in Kindergarten through eighth grade. I am happy to see what I see in Carlisle."
3a. What is your vision for a high performing school? What do the schools strive for in curriculum, instruction, technology, community involvement, and student performance?
My vision is to have a world class district. It is a compelling force to compete to greater and higher excellence. You set your sights higher than and beyond the state. It is important to look for direction from places such as Singapore math and other strategies used for teacher preparation. One must work hard to give the teacher's time to work together and have the kids be purposefully engaged and motivated. I was really excited to see Systems Thinking in the learning process and curriculum. Technology is a wonderful tool.
In the new school in Shirley that opened in January every classroom has access to the Web and the teachers can bring the world into the classroom. There is also a cart filled with laptops that can be brought into the classroom.
3b. What do you seek to accomplish in your career?
"I would like to think we have made a quantum leap into a world class school district."
4a. From the standpoint of your career, what would be three of the most important accomplishments you believe you have made to education in the past five years?
When I started in Shirley in 1994 it was a stable, quiet, placid school. It was very traditional with a textbook-based education. Now there is more creative teaching and more availability of professional development. The thing I am most proud of is the teachers are more highly qualified. Early on I taught a course on the model of the practice of teaching. It helped the teachers think of how they worked with children and their relationships with the kids. My heart is with the kids.
4b. What do you see as one or two challenges you would like to focus on if you were appointed as our superintendent of schools?
"Challenges? The buildings need to provide the space to allow you to grow to have exciting opportunities."
5. Please describe a time when you provided leadership to produce a significant change for a school or a program. Why did you feel it was necessary for this to be pursued? How did you address the community’s investment with the status quo? What did you do? At what points did you become more directive; more collaborative? Why? What did you learn from the experience?
"This is a comprehensive question. If I could go back in my career I would go back to the time when children with disabilities were taught separately in another location. That is not the best for the children. Over a period of time I was able to introduce an inclusive model. It was a tough sell at first, attitudes had to change and teachers had to work on skill building. When there was resistance I had to be more directive and supportive. The start began with those teachers willing to be leaders and take the plunge.
I learned you have to be persistent and not give up on a vision. It is important to work together, listen to feedback, modify plans if necessary, and make changes. If one is successful it carries over into other areas.
6a. Describe how you would attempt to bring the community together in anticipation of a difficult budget process.
Providing a budget is always a difficult process. There is never enough money and you always have to do more with less. I generally don't bring our the whole budget into the process at one time. In Shirley I bring out pieces. We have discussions, assess needs, and have the public hear what we are doing. We are always faced with cuts and we have to prioritize to meet the bottom line.
6b. Describe a specific budgeting situation you have faced, tell us how you addressed it. What were the tradeoffs and results? Why did you select these trade-offs and not others?
We found when we had to cut a position a group of parents took up the slack and provided private funds to set up the needed programs. This caused a program called "Ignite" to be set up by a parent and all kinds of activities came into the school. "Galileo" visited last week. You have to think outside the box so you can continue bringing in the same ideas and programs.
7a. In your current position, how have you communicate with other town departments, town boards, parent groups and the community?
It is critical to keep everyone informed. Every Friday I send out an e-mail to keep everyone informed on what has happened during the week. I also cue the school committee on concerns and issues at the school so the members are not caught by surprise. I usually have several regular phone conversations with the chair of the school committee. We discuss the agenda but every chair is different as to the amount needed for of further discussion. I meet with town departments and parent groups. The principal writes a weekly newsletter to the parents. I write articles for the newsletter and the local newspapers. I ask teachers to write articles and send in pictures. I go out to town board meetings -- the Selectmen, the Finance Committee, and other informal meetings. It is important to go out and meet people in town.
7b. Share an example of an unpopular idea that you brought to your staff and describe how you persuaded them to support this approach.
I asked our teachers to do electronic mapping of their lesson plans on the web page. Once that is done you can look and see where you are going and what you have done. The teachers said they had too much on their plate or some were unsure of the process. So with some teachers we backed up a bit and did it together. The tension and anxiety level came down.
7c. Share an example of a challenging issue that you brought to the superintendent and or school committee and how you enlisted their support.
I changed our report cards. Before the listings were ABC and most students were getting the A. The report card didn't mean much. I wanted a standards based report card so there would be more information for the parents. Now listings are four to one. I started the system in the younger grades and have gradually added it to the higher grades. The teachers have to articulate well enough to convey what the child is learning. It was not an easy sell.
8. You arrived anticipating a variety of questions. What questions did you expect that we did not ask?
You have been a thorough group. The questions have been comprehensive to find out what makes me tick. You have asked all the right questions.
School Committee Chair David Dockterman then turned to the pile of index cards that contained questions from the audience.
How did you start the Spanish language program?
Scott answered that you set your priorities and then build a budget on them. In the Middle School the language program is more comprehensive. However, the kids learn more easily when young. It was hard to hire a good teacher so I found a woman who is a native of Columbia. It becomes a cultural experience for the children. She speaks to them in Spanish and they get excited. They have a fun time. The teacher becomes a respected model of a Spanish adult.
How would you increase the funding and money for the school?
Increase revenues, write more grants, the school choice program has helped. We get $1.2 million in a contract from Devens. The MCI prison in Shirley has provided lots of labor during the summer. They have provided necessary lighting and rebuilt an area around in the library. The food service is self-funded. We have scheduled a transportation service together with a neighboring town. So far we have managed to keep the classroom size to an average of 20 kids.
What are you looking for when hiring new teachers?
Generally the principal and a committee does it. I look for teachers who are passionate and know how to instruct kids. I try to go out and see the teachers in place or have them come and teach a mini-lesson. It sometimes pays off to hire a teacher with more experience.
How do you keep a teacher productive and excited about teaching?
It is important to have opportunity for teacher development. I assign mentors. The principal sometimes can take over so the teacher can take a class to regain a spark that once was there. Sometimes if an additional assignment or job is given to the teacher it helps them come up to level. If these plans don't work then you have to go through the evaluation process.
How do you feel about having a competitive band?
It is important to have different levels which can inspire and provide motivation.
How do you feel about programs for talented and gifted students?
I am not an advocate of a separate program for gifted and talented students. All the children should be exposed so all will benefit. The adventure should be for the whole school.
How do you work with the Town Boards?
Invite individuals to come to the school. The school budget is the biggest gorilla on the block. It is important that they understand the whole problem. The members of town committees must be aware that their presence at school committee meetings is extraordinarily important to the whole town. For example, FinCom members will be able to talk more intelligently about the school if they have been part of the initial discussion.
How much time do you spend interacting with the children during the day?
I interact a lot. I will walk through the classrooms and buildings all the time. Even though the time spent seems short over time you will get a clear picture of the situation.
What does “world class” mean?
World class means an education that is not confined to the town or ourselves. Why not think about looking at education programs in the world? In the U.S. we have the shortest year. It is a throwback to the industrial revolution. It is important to set high standards. Learning styles of children are much more spread out than purely verbal or analytical. If you want success you need to meet a variety of learning styles. Some students have good memories and can give factual answers, others have other qualities and ways of learning.
Any last thing you want to say?
I am passionate about education. I am excited about it. My parents came from Ireland with a sixth grade education. They had five children, all of whom went to college. My mother could recite Shakespeare. We all had music lessons. The value of education was there. If we had an education we could succeed to happiness and prosperity. I want to give that opportunity to every child.