Before a 9:30 meeting on a recent morning, new Andover High principal Christopher Lord has already been to 10 classrooms. Building connections with teachers and students - “getting everyone pulling in the same direction” - is Job One.
As Lord begins his first school year, seniors are looking at their third principal during their high school years. Teachers are recovering from a bitter contract negotiation that damaged the union’s reputation with some parents. Lord doesn’t shy away from the elephant in the room.
“This [high school] community needs a positive series of events. They’re so down,” he said. “There’s certainly a lack of trust in the community. It’s building, it’s getting better. I think the summer was a good time for people to heal.”
Lord spent the summer months meeting parents, students and teachers. Before the first day of classes he had spoken with 50 or 100 kids. He spent a morning with some of them cleaning Lovely Field, the football field, establishing ownership of the school. He had a two-hour meeting just with members of student government and their advisor, teachers union President Kerry Costello.
In his first few weeks, there have been visible changes at the school.
He mentions a few times the amount of new paint on the walls. “Covering the walls with 90 gallons of paint, that’s a lot of positive feeling - it looks different,” he said.
But any lingering bitterness over contact battles cannot be covered over so quickly.
“I feel as though we’re during the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War. The South lost, you know. There’s pros and cons about the South losing the war,” he said. “I hope that in time we’ll illustrate to the world that the way the Civil War ended was the right thing for the United States at the time, and I’m hoping that based on what happened here the last couple of years that this is the right thing to do for this community. I believe it is. I’ll do anything I can to help support this transition and this reconstruction.”
At his former school, Shea High School in Pawtucket, R.I. teachers used a 3-3 block, meaning they taught three classes each semester. This is the schedule that was at the heart of the contract disagreement between the School Committee and many union leaders at the high school.
“I want to help the staff find the success that you can have in this kind of structure,” he said. “Everybody says they want to move forward. They want to be positive, they want to be constructive...I’m trying to help them make it happen. They want to put it behind them.”
Goals: building relationships and establishing a plan
Lord has started the Warrior Word, a Friday email to build school spirit; he established a master calendar that will show everything that’s going on in the school, so people can be learn about interesting events. He believes the school is more secure this year, with all doors locked during the school day, monitors in the halls, and a police officer in the school connecting with students.
Lord said he and a new assistant principal plan to attend every sport and club at least once this year.
“I don’t think there’s any one magic bullet. It’s a series of things. It’s listening to people,” he said. “Part of that is their therapy
“Going forward, it’s bringing an attitude to the school,” said Lord. “I can’t control perception. However if I’m consistant with being as candid and upfront about my desire to be there for people, to support the teachers, to support the kids, to support the parents, to make this a really special school that people can feel good about, people can be proud of, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be delivering that constantly over time. I’m hoping that will build the he socio-emotional capacity that people can draw on to do great things.”
He acknowledges that improving morale is a goal that is hard to measure. But he doesn’t shy away from using numbers to judge his effectiveness. He believes AP and MCAS test scores and the number of kids involved in after school activities will increase as the positive feeling in the school grows.
“I got this plaque that we’re in the top 50 [Mass. high schools],” he said. “That’s nice, but this school can be more than that. And when [we] want to be, then we will be.”
He talks about listening, but has ideas of his own, such as creating academies within the school for students interested in specific fields. In Andover, students interested in environmental science might visit scientists at Andover companies once a week to apply what they learn in class to the real world.
“If people want to get behind that, let’s go,” he said.
Lord expects Andover to take criticism as part of the reaccreditation process this year. He believes Andover High will be told it needs to move toward standards-based reporting and toward creating teacher advisories.
This will mean creating a new report card, one that still gives students As, Bs and Cs, but also provides additional information, showing people how well students are doing at reaching specific, identified skills. Lord said this may be one of the reasons he was hired, because he has this type of augmented report card at his former high school in Rhode Island.
“An A in three different classes can mean two, three different things. This (new approach) kind of gets everyone aligned,” he said.
If created, the advisories would connect each student with a teacher-advisor who will stick with them throughout their high school years. They could create an Individualized Learning Plan for each student “to make their dreams come true,” he said. But first Lord must get buy-in, and find time within the school day for students to meet with teacher advisors.
“There’s things associated with the teachers’ contract and extra preps, but it’s the best way to run high schools. Nationwide, there’s all kinds of evidence about establishing advisories for high schools and personalizing the learning environment-getting kids known by an adult at a ratio of 10 to 15 kids to 1 [teacher].
“At my former school we did performance-based diplomas, so their advisor would help them build their portfolio of work. They had to show 26 pieces by the time they graduated. To a panel of judges, they had to present their work, like defending a discertation, or your thesis,” Lord said. “I would love for Andover to jump into that...If people want to start the conversation, and they think performance-based diplomas that would complement the MCAS results for a graduation requirement would be of value, I could help set that up.”