Principal, Alcott School
Concord Public Schools
Interviewed December 19, 2002
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Click here for audio in .mp3 format
I think it was the most magical, mysterious, almost religious way that I got here to Concord in
1973. My wife and I have always felt our arrival in Concord was a blessing and that we were being
rewarded for some of the pain and discomfort and worry and difficult things we had experienced earlier,
particularly when I began my principal's career in Prince George's County, Maryland in 1970. Prince
George's County was and still is the largest school system that has ever gone through forced integration
through busing. I was invited to join their administrative staff at the age of 27. I was anxious to become a
school principal and we left home and hearth in New York in order to go there. It was a real personal and
I was named principal of the Silver Hill Elementary School very close by the Washington D.C. line. It was a school that was not particularly rooted. We would turnover 66% of our students a year. That means that two out of every three youngsters in June hadn't been there in September. So it was impossible to build any sense of community. The racial makeup of the school was in the first year approximately 80% white, 20% African-American. The system was under court order to desegregate. In my second year, as a result of redistricting it became apparent that Silver Hill was going to experience the same sort of racial change that the entire system would the following year. So I was called into the Superintendent's office and asked if I would mind if the school and the experiences that the school went through that year could be put under a microscope and perhaps we could learn from that for complete implementation the following year.
So in effect the school became a pilot school for desegregation. It didn't take long for the word to get out that this was the school that would be the pilot school for desegregation. And there were lots and lots who wanted it to be so painful and so disruptive from a legal point of view that perhaps the courts would back off. So therefore the school became a lightning rod for all those social and political kinds of activities. It was brutal. It was horrible for a 28-year-old to have to deal with that sort of thing. I remember having my life threatened. We got hate phone calls at home in the middle of the night. We were cut off from family. We were very much on our own. We were ostracized by neighbors. My wife was pregnant with our third child. It was incredibly uncomfortable.
When we realized that we simply had enough, I went to the Superintendent of Schools. It was easier to get an appointment with Ted Kennedy in Washington than it was with the Superintendent. But, it was a wonderful experience to have that kind of easy access. I really did have direct access into a huge bureaucratic operation. So anyway I went and saw him and said, "Look, I'm through. I've done it. I'll hang around for implementation but I'm out of here after that." My wife and three kids moved back to be near family in upstate New York. I lived with a friend and would commute back and forth on the weekends in order to see everyone. It was just a gut-wrenching experience. Anyway I remember saying to my wife on a weekend in October or November of the last year when I was going through the New York Times and there was this advertisement for elementary school principal in Concord, Massachusetts, "How would you like to live in Concord, Massachusetts?" I didn't know anything about Concord other than the linkage of Concord-Lexington in the historical sense. So I sent off the r~sum6 and heard nothing. Just heard nothing. In fact, it was further off than the back burner.
I was considered for a number of positions in New York that would have put us very close to family. But it wasn't sort of playing itself out. I got a phone call in New York on the weekend from a guy named Sel Whitaker who said he was the Assistant Superintendent in Concord. Then the light started going off in my head, and I started laughing. And I think I said, "Well, where in the hell have you guys been?" He said, "Well, there's been some difficulties." I knew immediately that something had to be going on internally which probably slowed up the process. He said, "Would you mind if I flew down to Washington in order to visit you at the school?" At that point in the ball-game I had nothing to lose so I said absolutely, come on down. And I will remember for the rest of my life sort of standing in the doorway of my office when this man mountain walked through the main door. Sel is about 6'6" and probably 250 pounds. We hit it off from the time we made eye contact. I was 29 at that time, and he was 30. We walked around the building. I shared some of the things we had been through. We had lunch. He was impressed enough to invite me to visit Concord. I flew into Logan on a rainy night and Frank Curran, who was the Director of Transportation, was there in a school system station wagon and drove me out to Concord. It was a typical late April/early May dark gloomy, rainy night. I saw nothing.
We came down Lexington Road and even there it was difficult to get a handle on what the place looked like. The first clue I had that this could be special was being dropped off at the Colonial Inn and told I had the Thoreau Room to sleep in. I had read Walden and been moved by it. So I spent the night there waiting to be interviewed, through the entire course of the coming day, by parents, school committee, superintendent, current principal, staff, things of that sort. I remember waking up and kind of rapidly getting dressed and kind of breathing deep in order to get myself in the right frame of mind, and walking out on the front porch of the Colonial Inn and looking at a bright sunshiny day over Monument Square. I turned around, went back into the Inn, picked up the phone and called Jackie. It was her birthday, and I said to her, "This is it. This is it." It seemed almost fate at that point. You go through an interviewing process and people are throwing hardballs at you. I figured I batted at least 450. I was doing dog-gone well. It went well.
I don't want to overstate that. It's really interesting because it went very well with Ralph Sloan who was the Superintendent of Schools and himself only 29 years old. Obviously Sel was in my camp. It went well with staff. It went well with the principal at that time, Marian Gorham, who by the way was just completing her 51 year of service in Concord. But the School Committee was a little hesitant. So the vote in the School Committee in favor was three yes, no no, and two abstentions. That's not exactly a vote of confidence, but that's the way it was. So anyway I got a phone call from Ralph Sloan saying that the job was mine and we were thrilled. Twenty-four hours later I got a phone call from the Superintendent of Schools in the Hudson River Valley offering me the job of principal in a special education school. I said to him, "I just agreed to a job in Concord, Massachusetts." He said, "Well, that's a pretty poor place, isn't it?" I said, "I don't know, it didn't look that way to me." So anyway I said no to him. I made a commitment and that was where we were going.
We were invited down to sign contracts and for Jackie to see the town and so on. We wanted to look for a place to live. This was 1973 and we walked into John Finigan's real estate office at Fred D. Boyd's and sat down with a very nice lady. I told her what position I was being offered and I wanted to live in Concord. She opened a huge book with pictures. She asked what we were looking for. I said, "Well, we're looking for maybe an old farm house with maybe 10 acres of land and we'll pay as much as $40,000." She took the book and just slammed it shut. She gave us a whole series of listings. In that regard we thought that the second shoe had fallen. That we were teased to this wonderful place, but bam we were going to be cut off from becoming a part of it. It was very depressing. I remember spending late into the night at the Arrowhead Motel in Bedford pouring over these books, and Jackie was in tears and what are we getting ourselves into and that sort of thing. We looked at houses as far away as Stow. I didn't want that. I wanted to be a part of where I worked. And Stow is no Concord, and Lexington is no Concord.
We were in the real estate office, out of the real estate office, in the real estate office, that finally this little Irish fellow walked to the door of his office and asked to see us. He introduced himself as John Finigan and he was president of Fred D. Boyd's. He said he didn't like to interject himself into these sorts of situations but he'd seen what we were going through. He went to the board and pointed to a house. He said, "That house is in Concord. Buy that house right now. I know it will be a stretch for you but it will be the best investment you ever made in your life, I promise you." Well, we took him at his word. He was very cooperative in getting us hooked up with Middlesex Bank so that we got a very fair interest rate with some flexibility at that point in time. So we bought this house on Sawmill Road in Concord. We needed a second mortgage in order to carry it however. The builder Dick Sundstrem said "Well, I'll carry a second mortgage for $10,000," We asked when do we sort of write the contract and all that stuff. He said, "Oh, that's all right. I've done this lots of time before in Concord and I've never gotten stiffed. People pay me back." It really was an example of a handshake. He allowed us in. It became an absolutely wonderful neighborhood to raise kids. We had great neighbors, but it was very difficult to afford that big of a house. John was absolutely right. The house probably went up 400% in about 12-14 years and made life a lot easier for us. In fact, it's made it possible for us to stay in town after retirement.
One of the interesting things was during that period when we were searching for a house, Ralph Sloan the superintendent said to us, "You know there's a New England town meeting taking place tonight. Have you ever seen one?" We said no. He said, "Well, it's better than a soap opera, you ought to go take a look." We wound our way to the Armory that night and we were in the visitors section on the stage. Here was this enormous group of people debating, arguing, being passionate about the whole range of events that the town was going to be dealing with in the coming year. With all that passion and commitment, there didn't appear to be any hard feelings. It wasn't personal. Coming from New York where (a) you didn't know who was making the decisions in the first place, and (b) if you didn't watch out you would end up with a knife in your shoulder blades, everybody was out for their own well being and frankly didn't care much about neighbors and would advance their cause at the expense of others. That just wasn't there. That was just mind-blowing.
In any case I was offered the job as principal of Ripley School. It was in architectural terms a very progressive, an open spaces school. It was said it was an open spaces school because this was the wave of the future in terms of education, but I've always been under the impression that was an open spaces school because that was the least expensive kind of school to build at the time. Given what we know today about learning styles and learning disabilities, it was really a nightmare. The Assistant Superintendent prior to Sel Whitaker's arrival on the scene was at the center of what Whitaker meant when he said we've had some difficulties. He was a very free thinker in education terms. He staffed the new Ripley building with graduates from non-teacher training institutes. The thinking was that if you simply put good kids with good people they would learn. Where I had always felt that in order for people to learn, they had to be taught. So it was necessary for me to sort of resolve all those issues. They were volatile because it was real clear that Ralph wanted to change the direction of the system away from what is called "touchy-feely" into a more instructional academically-centered kind of program. That was the late 1960s.
Ralph Sloan was a protdg6 of a guy named Mark Shedd who was the Superintendent of Schools in Philadelphia. Mark came from that superintendency to teach at Harvard. Ralph had done his internship with Mark and Mark lived in Concord. That was the connection that allowed Ralph in the door. He was a baby. The three of us were babies, which made it enormously funny. They were funny people and loved practical jokes, and continually played them. The school system was sort of like our big sandbox and we could do what we wanted with it. We were very full of ourselves and felt we had all the answers and no one knew what was going on. It was just great fun. Philosophically and socially we were all on the same page. Our kids were growing up together and we were socializing. It was the best time in my life. But Ralph understood that the school system wanted to get "back to the basics." Let's start pushing on academics. That was really the charge. It became necessary to purge a number of people who hadn't been trained as teachers, who were well meaning, good people, but perhaps this wasn't the profession for them. That wasn't easy to do. You didn't want to hurt people's feelings. They weren't bad people. You didn't fire them because that would be ugly and inappropriate. But you did want to encourage, so you had to be very careful about how that all played itself out. You did not come in here and roll over people. Again the message from Ralph and Sel was you dealt with people as real human beings and not play heavy handed stuff.
In any case people got the message that the times had changed and this was not the right place. So we began to change staff and we began to focus far more on academics. Dot Kress who was the language arts specialist at the time was incredibly helpful to me. She had come on many years before, but she was not a supporter of the direction the system was going and wanted to get back to "basics." That sounds so trite but it's the truth. She wanted to teach kids to read. You've got to teach kids to read and write and do mathematics or the community isn't going to allow you to do other exciting things. Those things are bread and butter. We had to get those things done. Ralph also was of the opinion given his feel for the politics of the town that the system did not want to be the best. We don't want to be the best. Fourth in the state, fifth in the state, salaries, test scores, that sort of thing, but not number one because there was a sense of a large portion of the community that we didn't want to draw attention to ourselves. We didn't want new people coming in. We didn't want to be another bedroom community of Boston. We didn't want to be a Weston or Wellesley. And that is absolutely in keeping with old history of the town. I've always felt that people have become really passionate about the history of the town. At the turn of the century in Concord, if you were to say to somebody we're going to the city, they thought you were going to Lowell. There's a real wall between Boston and Concord and it goes right back to the revolution and all that sort of thing. Change was coming and folks were anxious to keep it away from our borders. The byword or catch phrase at that time was "maintain the character of the town". And that meant, don't change.
So I think we started moving in that direction. We started getting to be good but not great. Money flowed freely at that point in time and life was good. The issues I had to struggle with were educational issues not the social issues that I had dealt with before which were horrific. Kids were mischievous but they didn't seem to present the range of neurological, social and emotional problems that you find today. That's just the truth. And so life was good.
Then a tragedy happened. In some ways from an educational point of view, Concord in the '70s was sort of the emperor's clothes. We were good but we told ourselves we were better. Everybody in town told everybody else that we were better. There were enormous gaps and enormous shortcomings that nobody wanted to address. The best example of that was you had a high school that was built for probably 700 students with 1600 students. That was excused away with this concept of open campus. After all they are only two, three or four years away from college when they will be free to roam and wander, why don't we introduce them to that early on? So if they want to go to Friendly's and have a cup of coffee, let them do that. And you know why don't we take advantage of the surroundings so why don't we offer gym classes at the South Bridge Boat House and we'll give kids instruction in canoeing. If they want to go bowling, they will go to the bowling alley (now CVS) and if they bowl a string, the owners of the bowling alley simply sent that up to the high school at the end of the week and they got a check so the kids could bowl. The real idea was to keep the kids out of the building because there wasn't room for them. All that exploded when a group of young men from Boston, African-American kids left the school, went to the South Bridge Boat House and unbeknownst to the owner of the boat house after a class had just gone up river in canoes, they hopped into a canoe and went off after the group. The instructor told them to go back that they weren't part of the class. They ignored him. He went on with his class and they went further on. Somewhere around the Sudbury Road bridge one of them fell overboard and drowned. This was 1978.
From an educational point of view this was a watershed. The superintendent moved for the dismissal of that instructor saying he did not act appropriately. He ought to have brought the entire group back and demanded that these non-participants get back to shore. So the superintendent moved the School Committee to dismiss him for cause. He got himself a very good lawyer and in the auditorium at the Alcott School over a three-day period of time, from 8:00 in the morning until on the last day, sunrise, in effect the superintendent and our lawyer argued for dismissal, the teacher and lawyer argued that all this was the fault of bad management of the high school, and the School Committee sat as judge and jury. I supported the dismissal because it was frankly a continuation of a pattern of rather poor decision making. Sel Whitaker was opposed to it. I think Sel sensed that this was going to expose some warts in the system that were going to cause us all enormous pain. So Ralph and Sel differed on this but Sel being Assistant Superintendent and understanding the role got on board and got behind it. Behind closed doors he wasn't on board. Anyway the School Committee went into executive session and kept Ralph Sloan out which frankly is illegal. The School Committee cannot meet unless the chief operating officer is present Ralph knew he was in trouble at that moment. The School Committee came out and voted not to dismiss the teacher but there were some minor penalties. I think Sloan understood his administration was over at that point. Following that I think it was that June there was a real legitimate race riot outside of the high school. I knew at that time and Sel knew and Ralph knew that that was it. There was fighting with the Metco students. Metco threatened to fire Concord and pull all their kids out and this was a terrible threat. In effect they would be labeling the entire town as racist. A good portion of the town was racist no question about that, but didn't realize they were. There were strong feelings about those kids coming from that place sitting in that corner of the cafeteria.
Ralph handed in his resignation. Sel Whitaker was chosen as an interim superintendent. After discussion with me, his wife, and others that he would announce immediately that he would not be a candidate for the position which I really believe was in his best interest. Understanding the relationship of the Assistant Superintendent and the Superintendent, he had lived in the shadow of Ralph for a number of years. I thought he needed a fresh start somewhere else.
As I review the history of the school system you had these sort of huge chunks of time, the eras where good things are done, good direction is established, and between them are these sort of short blips where the school system makes a mistake in hiring leadership. So we had these 7 or 8 years of Ralph Sloan and one year of Sel Whitaker which is an enormous amount of time for a superintendency to go forward. In large part they mirrored each other in terms of direction. Sel left. A gentlemen named Leon Pierce was hired. This underscores the difficulty of working in Concord. He had a very successful record before his arrival here and in fact he had a very successful record after he left. But his tenure in Concord lasted only 18 months. It was a hard time, but he simply could not get his arms around the unique quality of this town. Every town thinks they are unique. Concord, I assure you, is.
At that point Prop 2 % had just been passed, enrollments were down, there was pressure from the Feds for us to build more elderly housing in town, and they wanted the Bulkeley building. There had been an addition to the high school in large part I think motivated as a result of the death of that young man in the river, so the Emerson Building was excessed. We didn't need it any more. The system agreed to turn the Bulkeley Building and land over to the Housing Authority. They would then move into the Emerson Building. At that same time, the town wanted to dodge 2 2. They did not want to go to an override. That was the last thing in the world they wanted to do. So they voted to close the Ripley School which at that time had an enrollment of about 220 kids. This was 1981. 1 loved working in Ripley. I loved the community I worked with, they were wonderful folks. I was at my happiest there. I argued that it ought not be Ripley, it ought to be Willard. In any case I think it was clearly the architecture of the building which was kind of an embarrassment. The vote was to close Ripley School and take the school population and move it into Alcott and then to redistrict Alcott to Thoreau and Willard. That would work.
The School Committee in fact ran out of the political energy to fight. They had the political energy to close the school, but they did not have the political energy to go through the redistricting which in some ways is more painful. I was asked if I became principal of the Alcott School with my community, could I fit both populations into the one building. Being youthful even then and wanting to be a good soldier, I said yes, I think I can do that. So it was at that point that we began to "modify" the building in order to enhance its capacity. We converted a hallway into a faculty room, subdivided kindergarten rooms so we could get an extra kindergarten room, fed kids in the auditorium so we got another classroom, and on and on so we could fit them in. The promise is look, Phil, the enrollment is going down, you can see it here, the trends and within two years, you're not going to have anything to worry about. Well, the truth is the enrollment did go down the first year, but it started to creep up in the second and in fact, grew beyond. I was pulling my hair out trying to find space for, not only the kids, but the mandated programs from the state that were new, particularly special education, and that put us in closets, and on and on. At the same time the building was used relatively speaking every night of the year during the winter for small committee meetings. It was the most heavily used public building in town. All summer long it was used for recreation programs. You couldn't keep ahead in terms of maintenance, and it was aging at the same time. The building was built in 1950 with an addition in 1957. The building was simply getting to be an embarrassment. I can say this now as I look at retirement, we ran a heck of a good program here. I was blessed with a good staff that became a great staff and today in my opinion second to none, and we did well by kids.
I ought to point out that after Leon Pierce was invited to leave, his assistant, Irwin Blumer who came from nowhere, a principal in Newton, became the Superintendent of Schools. He was the most focused, clear-thinking, ethical man I've ever met in my life. We didn't agree on everything by any stretch of the imagination, but I never doubted his sincerity or his commitment to education and little or nothing else. His message was we're going to be the best. I know where we're going, I'm going to take you there, and we are going to target being the best. Anything else is unacceptable. And he pushed us all. And clearly at the administrative level we didn't necessarily like being pushed, but it did make us better. We did become a lighthouse school system. Why did that happen? I think that happened in large part by the embarrassment that had been caused around the tragedy on the river, and Irwin was given a lot of money and a lot of freedom and flexibility to do the job. Frankly, he was very successful at it. The town will always be in his debt. We would not be the town today that we are if it hadn't been for him. He served I believe for about 9 years. Tom Scott who had earlier on been principal of the Middle School became his Assistant Superintendent. When Irwin left, Tom became the Superintendent. In large part he built on the work that Irwin started. I think Tom was here for II years as Superintendent.
So you have this large Sloan/Whitaker chunk of time, this short Leon Pierce period of time, and now 20 years of the Blumer/Scott era. That is incredible stability for schools. And I think we were able to make real good progress. But all the time this was happening, new developments were being constructed, the average annual income of families was going up and up as the population changed, we were attracting people who were committed to education and serving as owners or chief executive officers, we were attracting a wealthier clientele. That I think led to some divisions in the town. It sort of exacerbated anger in lots of folks. Dog gone it, I paid for schools and my kid cannot even afford to move into town when he's got a good job. So friction, real friction, began to bubble to the surface as to what the system should be. Should it be good as Ralph Sloan had hoped, let's not draw any attention to ourself, or should it be absolutely the best as Irwin Blumer had argued? Those are two interesting positions. And as you can tell, they do lead to some conflict right across the boards, neighbor against neighbor.
I think Tom read this. I think he understood it. I think he understood that (a) hard times were coming, and (b) the town was divided. At the same time I ran out of youthful joy and the energy and the space to make this sinking ship work any longer and just couldn't do it. I was invited to speak at the Colonial Inn at a morning breakfast for preschools and preschool supporters. I remember Ruth Lauer who was a member of the School Committee was there as were other local dignitaries and town leaders. I remember saying nobody moves to Concord because of its schools. I remember Ruth's neck sort of snapping back. They move to Concord because of what goes on in its schools. The schools are a disgrace, and then went on from there to highlight the shortcomings of just not the Alcott building but of other buildings as well. Frankly that opened the flood gates because again that old emperor's clothes sort of thing. We had been telling ourselves that everything was all right and it wasn't. Then the whole issue of the quality of instructional environment, whether or not the buildings in fact enhance education or undermine education, all that became a public question.
That led to the creation of the Master Plan Committee that I was asked to chair. I didn't want to. I never like chairing a committee because I always thought it sort of shut me up and I had to be more democratic than if I was just a member when I can yell or carry on. This was 1999. We hired an architect cheap who was asked to do a monstrous job and that was evaluate all the school buildings in the K-8 system, not the high school, and make recommendations for changing them. The school system and Finance Committee wanted an entire picture. I think we came up with a brilliant plan. Unfortunately, some of the critical garbage in-garbage out kind of thing, some of the critical pieces of information that the architectural firm had provided us with were inaccurate. Things like we knew we wanted elementary school classrooms of 1100 square feet. The state minimum is 900. They calculated 900 and not 1100. They applied the same formula to the middle school where we had much smaller houses and lost six classrooms in that configuration. How that got by us, I'll never know. It is one of the great disappointments of my life, to tell you the truth. We were told we could do all four buildings for $55 million. The town said go ahead. There was a rush because we knew there were changes taking place at the state level in terms of reimbursement. We wanted to get under the wire because we would get 57% reimbursement. Every day from that point on it seems to me, I got up and it seemed like trying to run through the surf A new wave, a new pronouncement came out of Boston that knocked us over. We would get up and fight past that in terms of the building project, and another wave would knock us down - "We're thinking about reducing the amount of reimbursement. We want you to work on restoring as opposed to completing a new building. We want to evaluate every building for its architectural value and protect those gems of design and rehab and not rebuild." All the buildings were redesigned. A special committee, the town wide Building Committee with citizens was created and they oversaw the entire thing and the cost began to go up and up and up to roughly $75-77 million as opposed to $55 million as agreed to by the town
Then there was an announcement that unless all this was approved by a certain date that the reimbursement rate was going to go from 57% to 37% which is an enormous amount, and there was a question that we were rushed. At the same time there was a philosophical debate about whether we needed two small middle schools or one large middle school, that debate had never been carried through to its conclusion, and the people in the Willard School neighborhood, I think in a very unwise position, Willard being the newest of the three elementary schools and the one with the recent renovation, argued on the floor at town meeting that for only a couple million more they could have a brand new school as opposed to the rehab school. It passed at 2000 Town Meeting by 2/3 but I knew we were dead at that point in time. I knew we weren't going to make it at the voting booth, and in fact it failed.
The end result of that was we all stumbled around for a while. I was inflamed by that. I knew the environment was below anything that was acceptable. I simply wouldn't allow the town to forget the Alcott School, and did everything I could in terms of coffees and public meetings and open houses, visitations, video tapes, appearances before the School Committee, appearances before the Finance Committee, I didn't let it go. I really didn't. To a certain degree I'm proud of it. I simply said I'm not going to let people forget this. This isn't going to go away. The emperor's clothes year is over. And there were terrible things going on. The words were the three "m's", mold, mildew, and maggots, all of which we had to wrestle with here because of the age, and the construction of the school and forgotten vents that squirrels crawled into and died and on and on and on. And so we trimmed back the proposal to just be the Alcott School and we went forward with that. That was under the regime of yet another Superintendent of Schools.
When Tom Scott resigned, it was late in the ball game for hiring superintendents so we went to an interim with a guy named Gene Thayer for the 1998-1999 school year. For years he had been Superintendent of Schools in Lawrence and in Framingham. He was a complete joy to work with. If I respected Irwin Blumer because of his focus and his honesty, I respected Gene Thayer for his humanity. He was and is a magnificent human being. And we have him back. Gene was an interim and not a "sit on my hands" interim. He was very encouraging around the building project, but he was on loan. He was a rent-a-superintendent and an interim. The school system went out looking for a new superintendent of schools and hired a fellow named Ed Mavrigis. Again, Ed had a successful career prior to his arrival in Concord but his three year tenure in Concord was less than successful. Anything he personally tried whether he earned the right or not was a lightning rod for a lot of those differences of opinion about what the school system ought to do. I think Ed wisely read the tea leaves and threw in the towel after three years, but they were painful three years. They were destructive three years. Once again Ed came from a successful career and everything I know says he's gone off to another one, which underscores the unique quality of Concord again. Once again we bring back Gene Thayer whose humanity just spills out and has everybody sort of calm and relaxed and feeling good about the work they do.
We go ahead with the Alcott project and nobody frankly ... I think the only reason people voted against it because they saw genuinely as a threat in the terms of their ability to pay taxes. You can't hold that against people. They weren't just being cranky. And they weren't just being misanthropes. They had some real fears. We have to be sensitive to that. But there was not a single question that came up over that entire period of time all through the master plan and then the single plan for Alcott School that we didn't have really good and solid answers for. In the final analysis I think the people saw the wisdom in going forward with a new building. Unfortunately we lost 20% reimbursement and had to deal with escalating costs over about a three-year period of time of construction. We have a fine new school on the boards that is coming up underground as we speak. This old building will serve I hope as a swing school for the Thoreau School which absolutely needs to be replaced and as soon as possible. That alone will save the town $4 or 5 million in housing costs because therefore how do you replace the Thoreau School unless you've got a spot for the kids. If this building were to disappear, that would be a very costly addition. I hope the town sees the wisdom of that, and we can operate two schools on one site for a year. We can do it.
My wife and I had always promised ourselves that I would hang up my sneakers at age 60. If the master plan had gotten out of the starting gate and gotten traction and gone on to pass, I would have stayed until it was time to put the keys in the hands of new leadership. But the town in its wisdom chose not to do that, and so I'm leaving about a year before the building will be open and ready to accommodate new students. I don't feel badly about that. I'm deeply involved in the construction project now. I'm obviously going ahead with the retirement. I have no second thoughts about it. Both she and I intend to stay in Concord just as long as we possibly can and longer perhaps.
To back up to when the Alcott School plan was passed at the 2002 Town Meeting, everybody was a little nervous and everybody was prepared to wait. I think the individual that deserves enormous credit there is a gentlemen named Ian Gillepsie, who served on the townwide Building Committee. He's a developer and he understood the wisdom of this thing. His kids were out of the school, so he had no personal sort of investment. But he knew that the proposal for the new Alcott School was a rational, reasonable way to go, and he put his own article on the Town Warrant. In effect, I think he painted the Finance Committee, the Selectmen, and the School Committee into a corner, and they were forced to "fish or cut bait". Ultimately they decided to get on board. And, Ian was encouraged to withdraw his article and the town went forward with it's own, and here we are looking at a new building. But if it hadn't been for Ian Gillespie, I'm not sure it would have happened. It would have happened ultimately, but it sure as a dickens wouldn't have happened anywhere near on my watch. It would have happened further on down the line when we would have faced higher costs, and it's clear right now we're going to face far more difficult financial times at the state level in the future, and less reimbursement. We've got 37+% reimbursement, because of added percentages for certain quality of work. For example, you present the state with a five and ten-year maintenance plan as to how you're going to maintain the building. They'll give you a couple of extra percentages for that so we'll get it up to 50%. Now what's happening right now is they're saying, oh, no, for anything that comes down the path later, 37% is going to be it. So there's even more money we lost by waiting, and it puts the town in a very difficult position. I've said for years, since the administration was in the Peter Bulkeley Building and sitting in front of the School Committee, we don't want Concord to be a town without grandparents. We want folks to be able to live here. It's an important part of the community. What happens in schools is schooling, and what happens in a community is education. Now that's paraphrasing Thoreau but it's the truth. We need a vibrant community and it can't all be people between the ages of 35 and 55 who are millionaires. It's just not good; it's not healthy. So we've got to make accommodations along the way. But we cannot house our kids in buildings that are frankly decrepit. It's not in making with who we are. We need to keep faith in the words of Thoreau, Emerson and Alcott. They ring as true today and they did then.
As to the Building Committee, I think it is as good if not better than any Building Committee you could put together in this Commonwealth. These are good people. They're looking out for the well-being of the community. They're not going to allow the system to do this on the cheap, but they're not going to be extravagant either. They've really found a fine middle ground. They challenge each other, they debate with each other, and what comes out of that is a product that we can all point to with pride when it's finished. There are three people who have been on this thing since the very inception in 1998 and they have worked day in and day out on it. Talk about civic responsibility - Jim Terry who has been a selectman and is now working very hard on this, Fred Wersan who is a parent here and was a member of the School Committee and has been on every one of the building committees up until today, and Kitsy Rothermel who was a parent here, a teacher here, served on the original master plan and has served on the building committee and now on the Alcott building committee. That is a lot of time and energy on the parts of those three people. There are others obviously but those three are the ones that I really tip my hat to. I learn every day from the citizens of this town how to become a better person and they represent really the best of Concord.
Our proposal originally in the master plan for the Alcott School was $14.5 million. It's up to $17 million now. So the "delay" cost us $3 million and the reimbursement is going to cost you minimally 9% if not more. You can do the math on that in terms of how much it's going to cost us. But it's the towns. Sometimes people have to say no before they say yes. I love this town as genuinely as I love anything in the world. My wife says the town is my mistress, and I know I'm a better person for having spent the past 30 years here. Any strengths I might have had have been enhanced by the town. Personal weaknesses, self-centeredness, ego-centricity, all those things have been moderated by the town. If folks go back to the beginning of the tape and think about the pain that we experienced early on in the career and where we are now, you understand why I love the town. I think both emotionally and constitutionally my wife and I need a center that holds us. That doesn't exist in every place. That's why we feel blessed. That's why it underscored my belief in God.
This has a sense of community. There are people who can relate to a shopping mall as the center of their life. I can't. I don't understand how people live in places where every fourth house is the same. As homogeneous as Concord is, if you look below the surface there is a lot of differences, some of it good and some of it not good. This division between Concord and West Concord, which I thought was humorous in the beginning, is a real tragedy. One praise that there might be yet another big dig and we could submerge Route 2 in a tunnel and kind of get past this historical and economical perceived difference. It is ill founded and perhaps one of the biggest albratrosses around the neck of the town. The image that somehow the average income on the other side of Route 2 is less than the average income in Concord. I don't think that's true. But it's sort of this paradigm that people operate under. If anybody has ever seen the movie "Being There", like Chauncey Gardner I like to watch. It is sort of fun to sit back and watch Concord evolve in front of our eyes.
The parents and students have changed over the years. I would say sadly and I don't think it's necessarily a change for the better. I think as people they are good and decent and cooperative and well meaning folks. The staff here at Alcott gets angry with me when I say the best thing about the school is the parents. We wouldn't be near as effective if it weren't for the fact that they demonstrated patience, insight and support and cooperation and respect. But that said, something is going on with the youngster who comes to our door in kindergarten as opposed to the youngster that came to our door 20 or 25 years ago. They are nowhere near as well prepared for the conventions of learning as kids were some time ago. I think parents are confused about parenting. I think kids therefore are confused about their role as children. In 1975 if you took the chunk of time out of my week that I spent doing discipline, 80% or 90% of that would have been at the 4" and 5d* grade level, and more often than not it was mischievious sort of stuff. It was the kind of stuff that you could chew out a kid for and send him out of the office and chuckle about what it was that the kid had done. Today 80 to 90% of my time in discipline is spent in kindergarten, 1 and 2" grade. That's astonishing. And it's not mischief. There are really a tragic number of kids with social and emotional baggage that they are having great difficulty casting off. And it's the part of the school to help them cast it off. Notice that when I say that the 90% is at kindergarten, 1" and 2" grade, by the time at 5* grade they have generally straightened themselves out. But it's taken away from our ability to do early instruction to do what we think we are here for which is sort of that academic stuff. I think parents have bought into the business about, the sooner my kid learns to read, the better they're going to be. If my kid learns to read by age 3 that's a direct line to Harvard. That's absolutely nonsense. There are so many more important things that need to be learned before they get to us, You know that business, "everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten" to clean up after myself, to share, to listen to others, to wait my turn, not cut ahead, all that's true. Generally speaking kids had much of that in place before they arrived in the door.
They don't have it now and I think it's because of societal changes and an increased number of single parent households, and a number of households when both parents work either out of necessity or truth be told mom is extremely educated and is torn about working or staying home. I feel sorry for women in this day and age. They are torn between career and home. It is a terrible dilemma. Some people can do it and God bless them, but there are an awful lot who can't and sort of err on this side of practically being over-indulgent of kids. Whether that has its roots in guilt or whatever, I don't know. But what I do know is that kids are not coming to school in kindergarten as well prepared to take advantage of what it is we are offering than they have been in the past. That means we have to modify what we are offering.
At the same time the advances in medicine have allowed youngsters to arrive at our door who would have not made it through the pregnancy 20 years ago. Now does that mean that is a mistake? It's not a mistake. What it means is from a neurological point of view that youngster may not come to school as well intact as kids 20 years ago but that doesn't mean they can't learn to be very successful. What it means is we need to learn how to instruct differently. And by the way taxpayer that means more sophisticated, it means smaller classes, it means special sorts of training, all those kinds of things. Now grandparent do you want to toss away that little granddaughter of yours that was born at 7 months old? You wouldn't do that. You adore that kid. But the advances in medicine carry with them costs that show themselves in other places. Don't feel bad about that, it's just the reality. Perhaps that 7-month old has got the secret to cure cancer in there and we need to nourish that. But it ain't like the old days, and maybe it never was. There aren't jobs for people with just a high school diploma. You can't have 25 kids in the classroom, not when you have kids in wheelchairs and all that sort of thing and specialists coming in on a regular basis. You can't do it. Kids are complex. We knew they were complex 40 years ago but we ignored it. Correctly we have both been encouraged and have chosen not to ignore it any longer.
That unique relationship between a teacher and a kid, there is no substitute for it at all. I'm constantly fighting a battle between those folks that push academics at the elementary level and those folks who push experiences. I happen to come down on the experience side. God knows I want kids to learn how to read and write and do all those things, but I doubt anybody who listens to this tape remembers exactly when they learned how to read. They do remember when Miss Brown took them to the top of the Prudential Building. Those are experiences that we need to be able to provide kids. Well, if we're choking on curriculum then those options and opportunities go away, and I think that is real sad and we need to guard against that. Even in my absence, when I leave here, and take up my role as citizen as opposed to principal I'm going to be watching very carefully and continue to argue in favor of the unique thing that happens when a particular teacher and a particular group of kids in a room for nine months at a particular point in time. There is nothing else like it. Teachers ought to be free to take advantage of it as opposed to worrying about whether the kids are going to do a point better on the MCAS. That's what makes elementary school in my point of view a wonderful educational environment. I could have gone on to secondary school, I could have gone on to central office work, and that is absolute nonsense. I have the greatest job in the world. Where else do you get paid to walk in a building and get hugged by first graders? Sometimes I feel guilty about cashing my check - not often but sometimes.
I'm not a supporter of MCAS. I'm not a supporter of quick fixes. I think there are schools and school systems sadly that don't have the resources to do the job, and I think the state should focus on those not in a punitively way, not in a threatening way but with resources. It must cost the state $15, 20, 30, 40 thousand to monitor what is going on in the town of Concord. Now it wouldn't take me more than three seconds to figure out a better way to spend that money in Lowell or Lawrence or Chelsea or Revere. You don't have to worry about what is happening here. We live in a community that is not going to stand for a second rate education and has the capacity to pay, so don't waste your tax dollars on Concord. Spend them where they are needed. Educators are by and large peacemakers and don't want to get involved in controversy. Who is George Bush to tell us what approach we ought to use in teaching reading? Since when does phonics become a presidential question? That's none of his business or any other of the politicians who hop on that line. I'm not opposed to phonics, but I'm not going to be dictated to by somebody who has not been in a first grade classroom since he left. We know how to do this stuff and we're good at it. Those cities, Chelsea, Revere, Fall River, with the right resources can do it too. This money could infinitely be spent in those places.
Do the guidelines from the state as to what kids ought to be able to do, are they worthwhile? Yes, they're worthwhile. It's hard to argue with them. But let us figure out how to get there. Don't tell us how to get there. I'll just give you a perfect example. It's quarter after 10 on the 19th of December in 2002 and I know what our 5th grade scores were on the MCAS test. I'm promising you right now that they are going to go down next year because I know the cohort of kids who are going to be taking those tests and you know what I'm going to applaud them next year when they score lower because I know where they started and I know where they've gotten to. And no MCAS test understands that. No MCAS test can rise up and say good job, kids. The state looks and says oh, my goodness you're down 2 points on the MCAS. Are you kidding me? Given what I know about this cohort of kids and the difficulties they have learned, we ought to rise up and give them all a big kiss on the forehead. They've done a great job and the test doesn't have that ability to see that.
My plans are to take about six months to a year and do nothing. I think I may have said earlier I've had no second thoughts about retiring. I'm just going to think and kind of clear my head. I'm going to say no to all the offers of committee work here and committee work there, and then I think you'll see me back on the local scene in some capacity. I want to start giving back. Really barring some change in health, you can start to do stuff and not necessarily have to worry about keeping food on the table and so I think philanthropic in the sense there are some skills I can share that are going to be helpful, insights I might have after 40 years in this racket might be helpful. I want to stay physical. This is a pretty cerebral job. I wouldn't mind at all spending an enormous amount of time around Habitat for Humanity. But I'm committed to doing the very best I can for this town. I love this town. I almost think that you've got to come from someplace else to this town to appreciate it. You've got to come from someplace else and really know in your gut what it's like in other places and then you really appreciate it.