Tony Bent is looking forward to his real first day of school. Maybe not as much as some of the kids in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, because he’s had a lot of “First Days,” but a goodly amount.
“I’ve been superintendent since July 1,” the district’s interim superintendent said. “So I’m coming into six weeks, and the schools are all closed. It’s not my favorite time to be a superintendent, quite frankly. It’s not the highest stress time, but it’s not the most fun time either because the operation is dormant.”
Dent’s office reflects the interim nature of his job. The G-DRSD superintendent’s office on the second floor of the Prescott School building is still mostly clean, uncluttered, and bare. Too bare. He’s brought in a few portable-size personal pictures and key files, resources, and books. The desk and sideboard are starting to gather the first sheets of a blizzard of paper that will pass over his desk this year. But the space isn’t really personal yet — a small office refrigerator is on the “move” list from his house in Wellesley, but the big office and meeting space is still mostly a blank canvas.
It’s unlikely to stay that way, just as the school district is unlikely to be unchanged by Dent’s year-long run as superintendent. He’s going to be busy; actually is already busy, working on three big tasks. Talking with Bent, you get the feeling that when he was teaching, he was one of those rare teachers that could convince students that learning how to learn was lots of fun. Also, that he was one of the equally rare teachers who could be writing on the chalkboard and see who was spit-balling or passing notes in the back rows because he has eyes in the back of his head.
“This is the third time I’ve done this (being an interim superintendent), so I’m getting a sense of what the job actually means. It’s primarily about fitting in. It’s primarily about keeping all the critical functions going. And I don’t just mean keeping the buildings warm in winter. I mean keeping all the systems in place and doing good hiring, making sure that you’re responding to the requirements that the Department of Education puts on us, which are substantial. And keeping the standards high usually involves developing some reasonable goals for the year,” he said.
“Another piece of it is related to fitting it, and that’s stabilizing things. Sometimes when a leader departs, at the end of the year, and it’s almost by definition precipitous, when it’s announced in April, or May or June that a superintendent is going, there’s a certain agita associated with that. So part of it is to bring in a sense of calm and confidence that we will certainly make sure that everything that is needs to be done during the course of the year is done.”
“And then the third piece of being an interim is the one that I like the most, and that is to zero in on some discrete things that, based on my own experience and expertise, are things that I can fix and work on within a given year. I’ve already started to think about those things. So that, in broad outline, is what I see as the role of an interim superintendent.” he said.
Still, the school system hasn’t really come to life yet. The yellow busses have been tuned up and there have been practice runs. Teachers are moving their gear into classrooms and meeting in the schools. But the kids aren’t filling the hallways and cafeterias yet. Until they arrive, the schools aren’t really alive. Bent seems really eager for that aliveness to fill the schools and his office with a shot of energy.
Because Bent has become a specialist at serving as an interim superintendent and can function somewhat as a consultant, he has to live with both the good and bad that brings — while he can start balls rolling, he won’t be around to see the end results of his administrative ball games.
“It’s also a wonderful thing because I don’t have to think in terms of five-years segments. So it’s a wonderful opportunity and I’ve enjoyed it so much in two previous locations that I’m doing it again, this third time,” he said. As he talks about his missions at Groton-Dunstable, he gets enthusiastic and animated, talking with his hands.
Bent began his career as a language teacher. Then became a human resources administrator, and finally segued into being a superintendent. His HR background plays into one of the changes he want to make at Groton-Dunstable, in the hiring process. Since July, he’s been personally involved, talking with about 15 new hires for the system. But that’s just the start.
“I have my strongest passion around the value and preeminence of the human resource, the human capital function in the organization,” he said. “That means that we will be focused a lot this year on the way we hire staff, including the way we advertise, the number of applicants we bring in, the number of applicants we actually interview, the people around the table who are interviewing, making sure we have more voices rather than just the principal.”
But the biggest change in Groton-Dunstable’s hiring process will be watching job applicants teach, a step that hasn’t taken place here.
“Insisting — this is probably going to be the biggest change and I think that hopefully, three years from now that I hope people say: ‘I’m glad that happened when Bent was here,’ — and that is that we have demonstration lessons for every full-time teaching position. So that anybody who wants to be a teacher in this district will be live, in front of children, doing a demonstration lesson. There’s a chemistry that can take place among adults… but there’s a different chemistry that takes place with an adult and a bunch of kids. I can think of so many times when the number one candidate after the interview with the adults did the demonstration lessons, and oh my goodness — they just didn’t click with the kids,” he explained.
Over the summer, Bent and the district staff in the schools have been working to plan and implement two large district-wide programs. Both will directly affect administrators and teachers in all the schools and trickle down through them to the students.
“The first one is that we have to implement a new education evaluation program. That’s a very big piece. We have to train staff, we have to understand the new rubrics that talk about what it means, we have to understand the rubrics, we have to work on interpreting those so that the principal at Swallow Union thinks about good teaching the same way that the principal at Florence Roche thinks about good teaching and the same way the other principals think about good teaching. So that we have consistency, or the whole thing won’t make any sense — the classroom evaluation of a teacher at Swallow Union has to be very close to the classroom evaluation of a teacher at Florence Roche. That’s really important because eventually this kind of data is going to be higher profile and sent to the state,” he said.
“Goal two is implementing the common core state standards which are the next level down from the curriculum frameworks that were developed by Massachusetts. The common core state standards is a construct nationwide. Goal two requires us to align our curriculum with the common core standards because those standards are going to be tested in the spring on MCAS,” he said.
“These were easy goals to develop because these two are raining down on us. I don’t want to sound at all negative about that, but it’s required of us. We’re a Race To The Top school district and that means we need to implement the educator evaluation program this year. So that was clearly a focus for us,” he explained.
Long-term, another critical task will reach back into Dent’s HR background again. He has to help the school committee find the best possible permanent superintendent.
Groton-Dunstable has quickly shuffled through four superintendents. Bent hopes the next person stays for a while.
The fairly rapid turnover “Is not particularly good,” Bent said. “It’s not a death sentence by any means, but I doesn’t think it’s particularly good to have changes in leadership that frequently. The reason why I say that is because every superintendent who comes on board is the CEO of the organization and has his or her proclivities and value systems. While the broad umbrella should be similar because we’re all educators, there are differences enough.”
“I’ve already spoken to the school committee about that and I think it would be terrific if — and I know they will — to have a focus on hiring the new superintendent and putting a lot of good work and good thinking in that so they hire somebody who will stay a longer period of time. In stark difference to what happened here, I finished 15 years in Shrewsbury. My predecessor, John Collins, was there 16 years. And his predecessor was nine. So Shrewsbury had three superintendents in forty years. You could see the effect in the stability that it brings. It would be very helpful if Groton-Dunstable can find itself in that kind of a situation, I think.”
The amount of districts looking for a superintendent is surprising large. “We have about 272 superintendents in the state of Massachusetts, and we turn over 50 to 60 every year. It’s a sobering number,” Bent said. “It’s for a variety of reasons. Superintendents by the time they become superintendents are often nearing retirement, so they’re senior in their career. And some of us get into trouble. And some of us decide to move to other school superintendencies. Like Joe Mastrocola — he decided to move to Peabody and that means there were two openings around that, one here and one there.”
Even with those goals and changes on his “To Do” list, Bent said, he doesn’t forecast any huge changes in the district.
“This is a wonderful place for children to get an education, I’m finding. I did have an opportunity to come here a couple of times, once when I was candidating, and once after that during transition days, just to have an opportunity to see the schools in operation before they closed down, and I was struck by the focus on learning, the culture and environment inside the schools, the climate inside the schools.”
“I remember very well being at the high school and walking in about 10-11 o’clock in the morning. As I was approaching the high school office, which is on the left as you come in, there was a large group of students in that common area, and they were talking, seated at tables, doing homework, and so on. There wasn’t a supervisor. There wasn’t an adult in that immediate section, and I commented on that to Mike Mastrullo. I said: ‘Mike, where’s the supervision?’ and he said: ‘You know, Tony, that’s the way these kids are. They’re just terrific kids who tend to behave well and come from families who are focused on having them get a good education.’ And I could see that throughout the building. There was not that tension in the air that sometimes one can feel — I’ve been in those high schools where you can feel it. Where you don’t feel quite, 100 percent comfortable. And that was definitely not the case.”
“Another thing. You have a building there that’s about ten years old, and it looks as though it just opened. From a physical plant perspective, that tells you a lot about how the kids treat the building, which tells you a lot about the kids themselves. They don’t beat up the building; they respect the building. From the few classes that I observed, I saw kids very focused. I met a young man on his way to West Point, so there are clearly high standards. I know for example, in our AP calculus test, we had 37 kids take the test. And we had 37 kids get a “5.” (5 is the top score.) It’s funny because I jokingly said to some people ‘Well, we’ll try to do better next time,’ and they didn’t know exactly what I meant. They didn’t realize that I was joking. I’ve never seen those kinds of results before — 37 out of 37 receiving a five. It wasn’t all like that, there were some that were weaker, but that’s pretty outstanding.”
One potential dark cloud on the horizon is next year’s budget. With only a couple months on the job, Bent was still probing for facts and looking at options. But some deferred items from previous years’ budgets are increasing in importance and need attention.
“I do know that we’ve had a flat budget for a bit. I think there’s going to be the need for additional revenue, and at this point in time I don’t have a good idea how much additional revenue is going to be needed and whether it will fit in the two-and-a-half guidelines and also within the guidelines of what Groton and Dunstable can produce. But I do know it’d be a pretty tall order for this district to continue with a flat budget in ’14, given the fact that we now have a teacher’s contract, even though there are modest raises for the teachers. We always have special education increases. And we’ll have transportation cost increases. Those kinds of things. So it’ll be an important discussion,” he said.
But that all happens after the First Day.