WHITMAN — With barely a month left in summer vacation, one might expect an elementary school to be a relatively quiet place — and in an average year, that wouldn’t be a far-fetched assumption. There would be classroom furniture stacked in the halls as the hum of buffing machines and the smell of floor wax tell of preparations for the start of a new school year ahead. Teachers would stop in to work on bulletin boards and lesson plans.
This, however, is not an average summer for the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District. In addition to the usual summer cleaning and building maintenance there are: new preschool classrooms, a playground and drop-off driveway being built at WHRHS, and classroom and bathroom work have been ongoing in preparation for moving grades and programs to Hanson Middle and Indian Head schools and Whitman’s Duval Elementary as Maquan Elementary has closed.
At Duval, meanwhile, new Principal Darlene Foley is one of the several administrative changes in the district this year, while her school building will feel also a bit different the minute one enters the door.
“A lot of work happens over the summer to prepare for a new year,” she said on Thursday, Aug. 2.
As she greeted this writer at the school entrance, Foley said the entrance will be locked, requiring visitors to be buzzed in to report directly to a vestibule with a service window for the office as the district works to improve school security.
“They’ll either stay here or, if they need to get into the building, they’ll go further [after checking in with the office],” she said of the work, which was still underway.
“It’s going fast,” she said of the summer during which she has already held meet-and greets with parents and students. “I’m truly happy to be here. I feel very supported, I feel a part of the school already. I’m very much looking forward to Aug. 29. Our open house is from 4:30 to 6 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 28.”
Born in Quincy, where her grandparents lived, Foley grew up in Nashua, N.H., where she graduated from high school in 1984 and then attended Fitchburg State, where she earned a degree in communications media.
Her first job out of college was in video production in Boston.
“But in college I realized I really wanted to teach, so eventually I went back to school and got my masters and teaching degree at Drexel University in Philadelphia,” she said.
She then worked teaching third and fifth grade — both in a self-contained classroom and as a co-educator with a special education teacher — in New Jersey for a few years before she stopped working for a time after she and her husband welcomed their twins, Madison and Matthew (now entering their senior year in high school), and the family moved back to Massachusetts in 2004. They now live in Scituate, where Foley went to work as a teacher in fifth-grade and kindergarten classrooms.
“I really wanted that experience,” she said of teaching kindergarten, a grade in which she had been a long-term substitute in New Jersey. “I loved it. It’s a lot of work — very different than teaching fifth grade. It’s exhausting,” she said with a laugh. “The reason you go into teaching, you can really see it with kindergarteners.”
She also worked as a technology integration specialist in Scituate, covering four buildings in her involvement in district initiatives, and as a curriculum coordinator before coming to Duval. She holds a PhD in educational leadership from Lesley University.
Q: What spurred your interest in a career in education?
A: “One of my video communications professors [at Fitchburg State] had breast cancer and needed help running workshops for students while she was undergoing treatments. I ran those workshops for her and I realized then that I really enjoyed that work — working with others, even with peers, and helping them learn things and explore things. That’s kind of what started me down that road and I always thought I would be teaching adults … but as I was working in the video production industry, I realized I really wanted to try something else.
“I visited my cousin’s third-grade classroom, and spent a few days with her and realized this is what I wanted to do.”
Q: What was it about the elementary experience that hooked you?
A: “I just love working with the kids — their energy and introducing concepts to them. If kids are struggling with a concept, to help them understand, I love that.”
Q: What brought you to W-H?
A: “I reached out to people that I knew, who worked here or live here, and from what they said about the community, I knew that it was a place [where] I would feel very welcome and we could work together.”
Q: There are a lot of changes in the schools for the coming year.
A: “There is a lot of change going on here, but I have to say that the vibe is so positive, across the district. That was one of the things — even in my interviews — I sensed that among the team with the new leadership. Everybody’s really excited and I think that a lot of the principals who, like me, are new to the position [have] spent a lot of time together — we went to a conference last week as a leadership team — so we’ve gotten to know each other and it’s a very collaborative feel. … I feel like it’s under control, even though it’s a lot of change. It’s covered.
“We’re very excited [about the programs that are coming into the school]. I’ve been in contact with the special ed teachers and we met a couple of weeks ago just to talk about the transition, to make sure we have all of our bases covered and plan for a welcoming, inviting first week of school.
“We’ve nailed down a theme that embraces all of our students —You’re Incredible — and we will have an all-school meeting at the beginning of the year to kick that off. The teachers will have time in the first couple of days of school to get together and figure out ways it can connect all the kids and have a positive experience. It is still under development.
“We’re going to capitalize on ‘The Incredibles 2’ movie that everyone seems to have seen and loves, and drawing on that, everybody kind of has their own superpower, you could be that you’re great at reading, you’re super kind or great at math or an incredible artist. Whatever [a child’s ‘superpower’ is] we’re going to celebrate you and also make other kids aware of what you’re superpower is.”
Q: One often hears there are not enough male teachers in the elementary grades. Are you hoping to bring more of them to the school?
A: “Yes. There’s not a lot of applicants, actually. We’re looking at résumés now and there’s not a large pool [of male applicants]. The majority of the pool of applicants are women. I don’t know if it’s a pay thing or what. I’m not sure. It’s not only a gender thing. We have a diverse community here. Having people work here who resemble those diverse communities is also important.”
Q: How important is it to have an active Parent Advisory Council (PAC) supporting the school?
A: “A school-community-family partnership is all very important to the success of the school. It has to be two ways, where we’re reaching out to families, but families and community members are also reaching in and that we’re working together to solve issues. The Chromebooks are here because of the relationships — because there’s that sense of community and problem-solving that exists, so I will continue where Julie [former Principal Julie McKillop] left off. That was all the previous principal’s legacy.”
Q: Your tech background should help with that.
A: “Yes, but it’s awesome that every teacher here [already] has a Promethian board, that we have so many Chromebooks in the building. It’s impressive that that’s where I’m coming in and we can take it to the next level.”
Q: What is your favorite part of the school day?
A: “I love going into classrooms and seeing what’s going on. If a teacher is working with a small group and there’s kids working independently, I’ll check in on those kids and see if I can help them in any way — I love that.”
Q: How are you meeting the community over the summer?
A: “We’ve had four different meet-and-greets. Two were in July and we just had two sessions [Wednesday, Aug. 1]. Different families have come in and it was really nice to meet people one-on-one before 500 kids enter the building Aug. 29.
“Yesterday a little girl named Lauren [came in] and her mother said the student was nervous but she picked out a nice dress to wear and I thought that was incredibly sweet. I was very grateful that parents took time out of their busy schedules to come in and say hello to me.”
Q: How will you go about putting your stamp on the school?
A: “It’s hard to say what will happen. I’m a friendly person and I hope people will know me to be visible and greeting kids and out there. That’s certainly something I will aspire to on the first day of school and throughout the year, but beyond that, I’m very much a person of ‘What are the needs of the building, what’s going on here and where do we need to go?’ Everything remains to be seen.
“The same with the programs that are coming in. I would like to develop a vision for those programs with the special ed director and the team of teachers and community members: ‘Where do we want to see those programs go in the future and are there opportunities to develop them further?’”
Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing elementary school principals?
A: “Discipline is a small percentage of issues here, I think — we’re an elementary school — my bigger issue is getting kids in and out of the building safely every day, making sure the transitions are safe for kids throughout the day. Keeping kids safe is the ultimate priority, so the focus of my work right now is jus tthat.”
Q: What is the most important thing families should do over the summer to make sure students are prepared for the first day of school?
A: “If kids could just always have a book by their side for reading — whatever book or magazine, whatever it is — that they just keep plugging away at that. Maybe working in a math fact. And just getting kids out to play and be sociable with their friends and family.”