The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 12, 2009

Retiring teachers reflect on decades at CCHS

Retiring CCHS faculty members include (left to right) Health and Fitness teacher Dick Kerr, Special Educator Kathy Pendergast, Social Studies teacher Andrei Joseph and Guidance Counselor Brad McGrath. Not shown is K-12 Health Coordinator Kathy Bowen. (Photo by Beth Clarke)

This June, the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School (CCHS) will be losing five veteran staff to retirement. The retirees represent a cross-section of high school life: social studies teacher Andrei Joseph with 31 years, physical education teacher Dick Kerr with 34 years, guidance counselor Brad McGrath with 28 years at CCHS and six years in Framingham, special education teacher Kathy Pendergast with 20 years and Kathy Bowen, Health Coordinator for K-12 with 10 years. Each had to grow and adapt. Their roles, the evolving curriculum and the changes in the school environment mirrored the changes in society.

All truly enjoyed working with the students. Dick Kerr and Andrei Joseph said, “CCHS is a great place to work” and Brad McGrath pointed out, “The kids here are great to work with. The students are very engaging…CCHS is a student-centered community.”

Transitions in curriculum

With experience spanning three decades, it was no wonder they had much to say when asked about the changes they had seen. McGrath and Joseph both spoke about the dramatic changes brought about by Proposition 2 ½, the state law limiting increases in the real estate taxes that supports the schools. McGrath said that before Propositon 2½ went into effect in the early 1980s “We used to have career exploration and hands-on learning.” CCHS was a comprehensive high school that included courses in auto body, welding, electronics, auto-mechanics, child development and home economics. There were business classes with an internship component. Students could work at different places in Concord, some leaving at noon. One example was a fire cadet program. He added that few high schools still offer such a broad education.

“We became a college prep and fine arts high school,” said McGrath, who observed that it took about five years to make the transition. Joseph lamented the changes, including the loss of staff. [As a college prep high school,] “We do very well. Many kids fit that model, but not all…When I think of those courses, we should have updated them. We have lost something.”

McGrath noted positive changes as well. Co-curricular activities broadened from athletics, theater and music to include a wide variety of clubs, such as Junior State, Moot Court, Dance Club, Model UN, Science Olympiad, Spectrum and Environmental Club. More kids are now included and McGrath said, “This is a good thing.” He quoted from a recent survey of CCHS students, in which 96% of students said they were connected to one adult and almost 60% said they were connected to three or more adults at CCHS. “Connections come through common interests. That’s what we do so well. This is a student-centered community.”

Remember single-sex phys ed?

The changes in Physical Education have been dramatic. Dick Kerr explained, “In 1975, boys and girls had separate classes. There was a curtain pulled across the gym with girls on one side and boys on the other. Each talked about the evils on the other side.” There was no health education. Now the program is coed, inclusive and health education is a large component.

Kerr said, “We fought co-ed in a way.” The gym teachers were used to single-gender activities and he recalled them giving students two options for sports, football and tennis. Most, if not all boys would pick football and most, if not all, girls would pick tennis.

“Today, all those obstacles have been overcome.” Kerr adds it was not without consternation and he recalled there was a time when whatever he said was considered “sexist.” He added that it was a pendulum swinging, “a transition of the times,” and things have settled down.

Title IX would have huge implications. “There have been phenomenal changes in the girls.” Kerr spoke of the athletic strides the girls had made across many sports.

“There’s one negative thing for boys,” he said, since the average time for boys to run a mile has increased by a couple minutes, while the average for girls has decreased by a couple minutes. One reason for the drop in boys’ performance might be due to a softening in the teachers approach. “We could really push the boys,” Kerr said.

In the 1990s, Kerr noted,“AIDS drove the health program. There was a need to educate students.” However, the addition of a classroom component did not go smoothly until the gym teachers became comfortable teaching health classes. For instance, Kerr had only taken one health education class in preparation for his teaching certification. He said that has changed a lot over the decades and younger fitness teachers are well versed in health education.

SPED advances

Kathy Pendergast has seen substantial growth in special education (SPED) over the last 20 years. Pendergast is the head teacher for the Alternative Program, which is a special program for a dozen students with social and emotional needs. Over the decades there has been a shift

towards including special education students into mainstream classrooms. “We’ve gotten much better at widening our scope of learning styles. Teachers have adopted their curriculum.”

Pendergast has been a part of the changes in special education. She has helped in creating several programs with the goal of getting students into mainstream courses. For instance, the Pathways Program focuses on students with medical and physical needs, such as students with Down Syndrome. The Challenge Program is for kids who are starting to make bad choices. The Network Program is for freshmen who find the high school a bit too large. Network students meet in groups with a tutor and counselor and the focus is to help them prepare for a strong sophomore year.

Bowen said there is now more education for parents. “It’s very important to meet the needs of parents.” She recognized the Concord-Carlisle Parents Initiative and the speakers brought in by the Concord-Carlisle Parents Association.

Student stress rises

Several of those interviewed said stress was the biggest challenge for CCHS students. Pendergast said students feel there is an expectation that everything “has to be done immediately and almost perfectly.” Some worry about whether they will pass the MCAS. Kathy Bowen said, “Kids have never had to be so concerned about their future. They stress about grades, rank, college [applications] and sports. They push themselves to do well.” McGrath agreed, “It’s more challenging than ever, in terms of helping students and families deal with the stress of being in a competitive high school.” He has taken courses and workshops over the years to not only counsel for careers and college, but also, to handle critical situations such as suicides and eating disorders. “We are part of a system of managed health care,” said McGrath.

Joseph felt, “Students are being asked to grow up too fast.” Both he and McGrath touched on the issue that 30 years ago, only 65% of CCHS graduates went to college. Now, nearly every graduate goes on to college. Joseph said, “In this competitive atmosphere, there is pressure to conform to that value system.” McGrath pointed out, “Some kids express their gifts in other ways than high grade point averages and standardized tests.”

Bowen stressed the need to continue with the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, to watch the trends and proactively build health programs to educate students and hopefully decrease the number of kids at risk.

Satisfying moments

Each of these dedicated individuals felt a great deal of gratification from doing their jobs. Joseph grinned widely and said it is so satisfying when the students are all with you, engaged. “When it works, there’s a joy in the classroom, an excitement, watching kids fighting for a chance to talk. They want to know more.”

Pendergast, whose goal is to help students find a balance between social and academic pressures and to help meet the needs of special education students in mainstream classrooms said, “There are those glimpses that a student gives you into their soul. Where you can see them thinking ‘I can do this.’”

McGrath’s aim has been to get students through this part of their lives. He said he likes to hear from students from the past about what they are doing. “Some kids that struggled [here] become successful adults, good parents and community members. It reaffirms the idea that we shouldn’t give up on anyone. That’s why public education is so important.”


Perndergast said one of the biggest surprises has been the level of support from parents, some of whom have made significant donations to fund special activities for the department.

Joseph said he did not initially appreciate what special needs students could bring to the classroom. “At the beginning, all I could see were the obstacles.” He said the support of the SPED department was helpful in resolving any issues that arose. The SPED students “brought illumination to conversations, they enlightened us…They have taught us patience, compassion, lots of different ways to measure [progress and success].”

Joseph also said he was surprised by the relative acceptance by students and faculty of others with differing sexual orientation, noting there had been a real shift over the decades. “It’s a benefit to all of us.”

It was also noted that less smoking in and out of the building has made it a healthier environment.

Kerr, who had many stories of making gym classes coed, said that in the first weeks he was teaching a coed class, a girl came to him and commented that he had gotten a haircut and that it looked nice. Kerr did not know what to say. He’d been teaching and coaching boys for years and none of them had ever commented on his appearance.

Retirement plans

Dick Kerr said, “I enjoyed the ride.” He plans to pursue his many outdoor interests such as white-water kayaking, skiing and sailing. He says, “My whole life has been play.”

Kathy Pendergast has been very involved with both the Venture Crew, a coed Scouts program for kids up to the age of 21, and the 4-H of Greater Chelmsford. While she does not have a definite plan yet, she is considering working with three- and four-year olds with special needs.

Andrei Joseph plans to be in the teacher emeritus program and return to CCHS half-time. The program allows teachers with at least 15 years of employment at CCHS to continue part-time for up to three years. Joseph also hopes to play more golf, read more books and go to more Springsteen concerts.

Kathy Bowen plans on starting a consulting firm for health education counseling. She is also a Life Coach and helps both parents and kids with transitions. She will be doing a program through Concord-Carlisle Adult and Community Education with small groups and families.

McGrath has also been accepted into the CCHS teacher emeritus program for next year. Looking ahead to full retirement, he said, “I’m very proud of the new counselors we’ve hired. I’m leaving you in good hands.” ∆

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