Interviewed January 4, 2001
Concord-Carlisle High School Principal Elaine DiCicco, retiring in June 2001, provides a personal window to her 34-year career as educator and administrator in Concord, the last 23 years as Principal.
I became principal in January 1978. At that point in time the high school had undergone a number of transitions, and there were concerns here at the high school about student behavior and programs, etc. that I learned about when I came. The faculty was looking for some clarity in terms of expectations for students. There also was a need to work on cementing relationships between the parents of the high school and the faculty of the high school so we could achieve a better working relationship.
Actually it happened pretty easily. In terms of looking at the school and the organizational structure and how it operated, it was a matter of sitting down with the administrators who were here, the two assistant principals and administrative assistant at the time, and also with members of the faculty, department chairs, as well as the student leadership. There was a good student government organization at the time and we had two very good advisors to the student government. We talked about expectations. One of the first things we really took a look at as a school was the discipline code. What we had I felt was unwieldy. It required an awful lot of paperwork and paper trails, and didn't really allow as much as I think would have been helpful for interaction between adults and students. So the attempt was to make it much clearer, much more direct, and give an opportunity to sit down and talk to students as opposed to keep filing reports and checking back to see if this was a first offense, a second offense, a third offense. So we streamlined things. In doing that we involved the student body, mainly through their student representatives, the parents, and obviously the people who worked here at the school. That work continued through the spring and ended up with a meeting in the auditorium where proposals were made for the new discipline code, and that was then written and enacted the next year. I think it has served us well with minor modifications through the years.
In terms of relationships between parents and faculty, the issue at the time had been as with all schools, and it certainly was not unique with Concord-Carlisle, that teachers were very busy working in their classrooms concerned with what they were doing with their students, and concerned about what they needed in order to do their job in the best way they could do. Parents felt that perhaps they really weren't a part of the school, that they didn't know as much as they would like to know about what was happening, that they didn't have as much of a voice as they might have wanted in the operation of the school.
At that time there were several parent leaders who had a very small parents group of probably about 20 parents who met regularly. They were very strong supporters of the school, and had opinions based on their impressions about the school. I felt it was important that we do something to open the doors to the parents and the community and to really have dialogue between teachers and parents in a much more meaningful way. We did that by initiating a dinner meeting in the library with a group of about 20 parents and 20 faculty members who just came to sit and eat and talk about their dreams for the school and for the students who were here. I think they were surprised that at the end of the evening, when they looked at the flipcharts they had been using to list their goals or their dreams, that they were essentially the same. Teachers were looking for the same things that parents were looking for. It really underscored the fact that though the parents may not be in the school all day and the faculty may leave in the evening, they still wanted the same thing. From there developed the beginning of what has become I think a very healthy and very strong working relationship of mutual support and respect such that I believe Concord-Carlisle now has the strongest parent association and I think the strongest parent/faculty-faculty/parent relationship of any school that I know of. I just think it's terrific.
Prior to my coming there had been a very high turnover of principals. There had been several principals from the early 1970s. The principal who had been here for many years, John Donovan, who was a very respected principal, had passed away. From that point to 1978, there had been a number of principals here. In fact one of the superintendents at the time had served part time as principal. Some principals were here for a year, some were here for maybe a year and a half, others for a shorter period, and the last principal was here for three years. It became almost a revolving door, and people would wonder who was the principal. I think that is one of the reasons why the faculty became so strong. They actually took on the responsibility of running the school if you will because there wasn't an administrator who was here over a long period of time, not necessarily to be directing or to be ordering operations, but simply to be taking care of the building and the needs of the teachers so they could do their teaching. They were doing a lot of administration. When I became principal, one of the things that I really wanted to do initially was to be sure that I as principal was providing the things that the teachers needed so they didn't need to worry about making sure the orders were done, or that administrative tasks were attended to. I needed to provide that environment and I needed to provide those tools. But the faculty to this day remains very involved in the operation of the school and I think to the credit of the faculty and to the benefit of the school.
As I said, there were two assistant principals here when I came. I chuckle when I think back to one of our first meetings together when one of them asked me if I was going to stay. The first day I arrived in January 1978 to assume the duties as acting principal actually, I met with the two assistant principals, Hal Manley and Frank Krypel who were two very dedicated administrators. They had been through the change in administration that I just described. As I think back, it shouldn't have come as any surprise, but when we sat and talked about coming back to the high school where I had been teaching and some of the things we would be concerned about and wanting to attend to, the question came from Frank, "Now, are you planning to stay? Because we've done this so many times with so many other principals, we just want to know if you're planning to stay?" And, of course, I was, and I said that I was and I think it was asked half in jest that he even asked the question, but we all laughed and continued on in our review of what things needed to be done at the school. I found the two of them extremely supportive. There was also a third person here at the time, David Dennen, who was an administrative assistant. Because of the enrollment here at the school, there were actually four administrators. I can't say enough about those three people. The position that Dave held was eliminated as the enrollment decreased, and Frank and Hal really were the two people who were an incredible support here for many years before they both retired.
The enrollment when I became principal was close to 1400, and I can remember classes of over 300 for graduation and wondering if we would ever get to the end of the alphabet as we announced each diploma individually. Today, we have 1056 students in the school. We've grown back from a low of 800 which we had a few years ago. Now we have approximately 220 students in the upper classes, and the freshman and sophomore classes are each about 300. So we're going back up and will be at 1250 to 1300 in a few years.
When I became principal, the Superintendent was Ralph Sloan. He had come here as a very young superintendent actually, and, I believe, was responsible for a great deal of the forward thinking of the system. He stayed for several years and was able to do an awful lot for the school. Actually had it not been for him, I don't think I would be in the position that I am today. It was he who initially came to me in 1974 in September when the foreign language department, to which I belonged, was having a meeting in the now Emerson Umbrella. It used to be the old high school and then became the annex, and was being used by the high school at the time because renovations were taking place here on campus. He asked me at that time if I would consider becoming an assistant to him in central office for the implementation of Chapter 766, which was the state special education legislation and it was to become effective September 1, 1974. Ralph knew that I had spent the previous two years working with the Massachusetts Teachers Association on my own time after school chairing their Special Education Committee so I was familiar with the law, and I had spent time speaking around the state to teachers groups and administrators and parents about the law. It seemed to be a very interesting opportunity and with his firm promise at the time that after one year I could go back to teaching which I dearly love, I said sure, I'd be glad to help.
So I went to central office and functioned as the Special Assistant to the Superintendent for the Implementation of Chapter 766. I laughed each time I wrote a letter because it took lines to write the title after my name. I was there from ‘74 until ‘76 so that was really two years that I did that job. I had decided I really didn't want that job permanently and Ralph knew that. The Director of Personnel for Concord and Concord-Carlisle was leaving to take another position and Ralph came to me and said, "How would you like to do personnel?" I can remember at the time saying to him that I don't know that I really know anything about personnel. He said well you didn't really know that much about special education either and you did a great job, so why don't you just take over temporarily. I learned a great deal doing that job, and I found it to be extremely interesting.
While I was doing the personnel work at the Bulkeley building, which is now the senior citizens facility, again Ralph Sloan came me and encouraged me to get involved in graduate work, some doctoral work in educational administration. I suppose at that time, even though he hadn't talked to me about it, he thought that someday I might become a school administrator in a school building as opposed to central office. I did in fact begin doctoral studies at that time. Then in December 1977 again Superintendent Sloan came to me and said the principal is leaving the high school, and we will have a vacancy in January, would you consider becoming the acting principal in January? That one took a lot more thought, I have to tell you, than saying yes to a year supposedly of special ed and another year supposedly of personnel work. I recognized that I would be returning to a building where I had once taught. I would be working with teaching colleagues in a much different capacity, and I wanted to do a good job if I was going to do it. I felt that I knew what the school needed but I needed time to think about it, and that one I did think about. Obviously, I said yes. I was acting principal until March and at that time, Ralph proposed to the School Committee that I be appointed principal. I believe it may have been the one time in many years that they hadn't done a big search to fill the position. I have loved the position ever since.
I first came to the high school in September 1967 having been hired to teach French and was in awe of the foreign language department and thought it was incredibly special to be able to come back and teach in my home town. Even though I didn't attend Concord-Carlisle High School, I went to a private parochial school here in Concord, Rose Hawthorne that doesn't exist any more, I had been in the public school system through grade 8. So it was a huge homecoming and I was just excited that after three years of teaching to think that I was good enough to be able to work at Concord-Carlisle High School.
I had spent the first three years of my teaching in Uxbridge, Massachusetts after my degree from Assumption College. I had done some intern work at Uxbridge and they had asked me if I would like the job. I can remember being offered my first job and being told that the salary would be $4500 for the year, and thinking that I was wealthy and calling home and saying you'll never believe what happened to me, I've been offered this job with this wonderful pay. As I look back at that, I chuckle. $4500 I guess was a lot of money back then. Today our salary scale here is enough to bring a teacher's salary with a doctorate and being here 17 years to around $80,000 a year. So it's changed a lot.
I look back at all of that coming back to the school and working with colleagues and looking at it in a very different way, and I think how easy it really was. I couldn't have asked for more support from the faculty. They certainly were very supportive. I really believe that they wanted as much as I did for the school to work and for things to be good and for things to get better, so we all worked together. There were issues and concerns for them around curriculum, and we talked about that, and we made changes to some of the programs. There were management issues that I wanted to be sure were attended to, and I had a lot of support from the faculty for that, just in terms of general climate in the school, and we worked really hard and I think together have made some nice improvements. It was really touching the third year that I was here and at that time principals could be granted tenure but that's no longer the case, the faculty presented me with that beautiful painting there on the wall, a tenure gift when I was granted tenure by the School Committee to remain as principal. That was a pretty special time and I felt good that there was that much support from the faculty. I've enjoyed working with everybody here. I don't feel that I am their boss and they are working for me.
When the school reform legislation was enacted in 1993, tenure for administrators or principals was eliminated, and tenure for faculty or teachers became known as professional status. The bargaining rights for administrators also changed. We used to have a thing we called A2C3, the Administrators Association of Concord and Concord-Carlisle, and we were a bargaining and negotiating group for all of the principals and assistant principals in the two districts. With that reform legislation, principals no longer have the right to have a bargaining unit and are to negotiate individually with the superintendent. I have to tell you that's something that's never really bothered me because this is the kind of district where no one has had to worry about that kind of thing. I know there was a huge uproar among the State Principals Association because there are places where protection is needed for employees. I've always found Concord-Carlisle School District as well as the Concord Public Schools when I worked in central office to be very above board, very straightforward, very honest, very caring and the foolishness that goes on in some places doesn't exist here. Everyone knows where they stand, and when somebody says this is my word, it's their word and they can be trusted. So that in 1993 didn't bother me so much as it did a lot of other people.
After Ralph Sloan came Leon Pierce as superintendent. He was here for a very short time. He had hired Irwin Blumer as director of curriculum or assistant superintendent and then Irwin became the superintendent. He was an incredibly competent superintendent, and he really instilled in both districts the value of respect for human differences, and I think of all the things he did for the district, that's one of the biggest things he did. It's not a small issue. It really has rippled through and that original belief can be seen in the way we treat our inclusion programs in special education and the way we have included everybody in this school. He also drove the school system forward in terms of curriculum and professional development. Just as Ralph Sloan was great to work for, he certainly was a collegial superintendent. He in turn mentored Tom Scott who was the most recent superintendent of long tenure here and whom everybody respected very much, and I think was an incredible leader for the school district. Then when Tom left we had an interim superintendent, and now we have our new superintendent, Ed Mavragis.
Today there are more demands made on the school system in terms of social issues. There is no separation between what is going on in society and the school. That is a topic of a great deal of discussion among us here in the school when we sit down and talk about how things change. There were issues that never reached the school before, and things that people could never talk about outside of the family because it just wasn't something that was to be aired that we get involved in now. As a result of legislation at the state level, we are involved in personal matters that I don't think schools were as involved in before. We are mandatory reporters for example, and if we have any reason to believe that there is any kind of "abuse" of a child, we are required to report that to the Department of Social Services. That means a great deal. If a student comes to school and says I'm being hit at home and they have bruises, we have to assume they are telling the truth. If students are telling us, "I'm very depressed and I think I'm going to kill myself tonight," we have a whole protocol and crisis intervention team that goes into action. We have come so far as to develop what we call a crisis handbook for faculty and one for our students to help everybody in the school know what are the procedures to follow, who are the people to go to, and what do I do as a concerned person if any of the following things happen. Those include what if somebody does tell me that they think they're going to kill themselves, or what do I do if somebody says I'm having difficulty at home, or what do I do if somebody says I absolutely have to do something, I'm too fat and I need to be thin and I'm going to take all these diet pills. A whole range of issues, medical issues, are much greater than they were in the past. Given the advancement in medical technology, we're seeing many more students in the schools who probably would not have survived when they were infants, and they are here with us now, and we're pleased to have them with us, but some children have much more complicated needs. We have not just students who may need a wheelchair or crutches but students who need feeding tubes, who need to be changed, who can't personally care for themselves, and those personal hygiene issues need to be attended to. They enrich our school system, but they also place different kinds of requests and requirements on us.
We live in a much more litigious society than in past years and it is not uncommon for us to hear from a frustrated parent, "I'll have my lawyer call you." We can understand sometimes that parents become frustrated, maybe progress isn't being made as quickly as possible or they think somebody hasn't been as fair as they could have been to their child, and it seems that very often it's the litigation issue that is brought up. The attorney that we talked about most of the time never goes any further than that. We have been involved in litigation around placement issues, mediation types of things that weren't as prevalent years ago. Then there are social issues such as what do we do and how do we combat the increase in alcohol use and abuse among teenagers. We know it is on the increase unfortunately. We have dealt with issues of smoking. That I'm pleased to say has decreased substantially, but there are still concerns about drug use. We know that there are students in the school who are involved in those behaviors and are using those substances. We know that it's possible they are doing it here, and we know they're doing it in the community. It's a different kind of a problem and it's really difficult to address. So we take all of those things I think in stride, but we've had to put in place crisis response teams and protocols for dealing with different kinds of issues. We now have a safety plan that has been developed in cooperation with the local police and fire departments given what's happened nationally in terms of safety. Those things I don't think were thought about as much many years ago, but they have become very important today.
Many years ago teachers and administrators lived in the same town as their school but today a greater proportion of the faculty live out of town. We do have quite a few teachers though who live in Concord or Carlisle or in abutting communities. The teachers tell us it's difficult to find housing in Concord or Carlisle particularly if they are young teachers and just starting out. The price of homes is rather expensive. There are teachers who live in the town and like to, but as I say the greater proportion of the faculty are from out of town. Some are traveling from as far as New Hampshire in communities that are an hour or more away, and as far as the South Shore.
Years ago we were a comprehensive high school and we used to have home economics and industrial arts, but that's changed quite a bit. Back in the ‘50s and from the inception of the high school the reports talk with pride about the vocational aspect of the high school and the technical courses being state-of-the-art. And we did have state-of-the-art home economics, business education, and industrial arts. When this building was built and opened in 1961, we had those programs, and an addition that was built in 1974 actually built an industrial arts wing that had state-of-the-art shops and a home economics suite that in addition to providing for the sewing and cooking classes actually had a child development classroom and had a nursery school associated with it. The business education department was constructed in 1974 in another new wing. Those programs were very strong, but little by little it seemed like there was more emphasis on going to college. We went from 55% to 70% of the high school going on to two and four-year colleges to today when 95% of the senior classes are going on to college. In fact last year's class had 92% entering four-year colleges and another 3% entering two-year colleges, so the trend has been away from technical schools, nursing schools, etc. When we would do the end-of-the-year statistics to show where students are going, we always had numbers going on to nursing or technical or prep schools or going to work. Those numbers have changed significantly. As the years progressed and the enrollment went down, we began to eliminate courses in those three areas until we got to the point where it didn't make any sense to run the programs any more.
Without them we are basically a college preparatory school at this point which causes concern and should for a population of students who are here who are not necessarily going to want to or should go on to a four-year college. They want to go on to the nursing schools and the technical schools, and we really need to address their needs. What we're finding is that addressing their needs is really more in the technology area though that particular area attracts everybody. So instead of having a program like industrial arts or home economics where those kids who aren't going to college might go, we now have an applied arts program that includes a lot of technology-based courses for anybody in the school who likes to participate. We have worked very hard not to create the kind of division that I think existed when there was industrial arts for example. Students began to drift away from there because they didn't feel it was for the college preparatory student. How wrong they were but that was the impression. So in growing a technology-based program now that includes things like desktop publishing or digital imaging or architectural drafting, those particular courses address needs and will position students to be able to choose a variety of options after high school. They are actually using their hands and doing some applied learning which meets their learning style. So we're trying to look now today at students and how they learn best, what kinds of approaches to teaching make sense, and I think we've got a ways to go, but I think we're on the right track.
Curriculum has become more personal for students. They can have a fine arts program if they want or write music with computers. Actually it's very exciting. In addition to all the courses we have and that we have had that would be considered rather traditional in terms of reading, writing or history or the sciences or foreign language or math, we've tried to introduce in all of those areas the use of technology to really expand how students can learn and what they can learn about. We have for example a state-of-the-art language lab which now is outfitted with computers so that students can use the Internet to research in their language, something that makes it come alive and is real.
We have a huge enrollment in music and one of the new programs is the course where students can actually learn to compose. They're doing the technical understanding of music theory but they are also involved in putting it together and making music. That's true in a number of areas. They make art in a variety of ways. They are learning how to build and how to design. In areas like English and Social Studies in addition to being able to research through the technology, they're also learning how to make presentations or even how to learn better. We've learned that the skill of writing is much easier to learn if you're working on a computer in the writing lab here. That's nothing particularly new. We've had it for many years. In addition to all of that, we've looked at things like the virtual high school where students can learn via the Internet, and they can log in and can work on their course at any time during the day or night for that matter. It's a different way of learning and for some students it's really exciting and they find courses that we don't offer here, so it's an enriching experience. We have tutorial assistance for some students and independent study for others, senior project for students who like to work with a mentor and actually design a second semester senior year course of study. So we've tried to have a variety of offerings and options for students so that whatever can really grab them and take them in and help them learn is there for them. It's fun for the faculty too because we're able to do a lot of different things too.
Being principal is a full time life. I can't think of any kind of life that can be more fulfilling at times, more frustrating at times, more tiring at times, more exhilarating at times. I spend a great deal of time here at it, and even after 23 years of doing it, I still find new things every day, excitement every day. I love it. I've never been bored, have never said oh, why am I doing this. I think it's one of the most exciting and wonderful jobs anybody could do. I know there are people who tell me you're crazy, I don't know how you do it. It's an exciting job.
But now I've decided to retire. It's very strange but a year and a half ago or so it just felt, and it's really the only way I can put it, that it was time to think about moving on and doing something different. Twenty-three years is a long time at something. I think it's good for the institution to have a change. I think it's good for me to have a change. I leave looking forward to what I will be doing come next July and frankly not really knowing what that's going to be and feeling good about that, but also feeling good about what I'm doing right at the moment. I'm not wishing that July could come in a hurry because I'm dying to leave, and I feel good about that. But I'm looking forward to July. It will be different for me. I'll have some time to do some things that I haven't had an opportunity to do because I really have spent most of my waking hours concerned about things at school, whether it's been doing paperwork, or attending meetings, or speaking, attending conferences, it's been very school related and I truly believe I've lived school for all the time that I've been here. It will be nice to do something like painting or needlework or gardening or traveling -- that list is so long of things that I really haven't been able to do as much of as I would like because of this job. It will be a change.