HANSON — Paving crews were at work on part of the parking lot as another work crew was installing new playground equipment outside, while work continued on the new security entrance and her office had just been finished inside, as new Indian Head Elementary School Principal Jill Dore-Cotreau worked in a conference room Thursday, Aug. 9.
Things may still look a bit jumbled, but Dore-Cotreau said, real progress is being made at the school most directly changed by the closing of the Maquan School across the street.
She has been meeting with parents and students and added that classrooms are finished with teachers already coming in to get them ready for the first day of school on Wednesday, Aug. 29. That means the annual open house will go on as usual on Tuesday evening, Aug. 28. A kindergarten pot luck is also planned for Thursday, Aug. 23.
Concerns about the completion work for classrooms had raised concerns earlier in the year that the annual open house would have to be delayed. Work crews have earned Dore-Cotreau’s kudos, however, for getting renovations done quickly to allow teachers to gain access to their classrooms beginning Aug. 1 to prepare for the open house.
This is an educator who values the team approach to educating the youngest students as well as keeping them safe in school.
Born in Peabody, her family — which moved a lot due to her father’s business demands — moved to upstate New York when she was a year old. When she was 7, they moved to Connecticut where she attended Sandy Hook Elementary School. At 14, the family moved to North Carolina, where Dore-Cotreau graduated high school and then earned a bachelor’s in elementary education and music from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
She moved to Junction City, Ky., in 1995 where she taught grade five in the rural community, and “absolutely loved it.”
“It’s funny, because my student teaching was in kindergarten and second grade and I was [thinking], ‘I don’t know about this fifth-grade thing,” she recalled. “But I loved it, I loved the kids.”
Four years later, she transferred to Perryville, Ky., — within the same school district — to teach kindergarten for a year, before the opportunity to do literacy coaching developed.
“I had always loved reading and writing so I moved into that role and was a literacy coach there for five years and then I came back to Massachusetts,” she said.
Dore-Cotreau was most recently a literacy coach and then assistant principal in South Elementary School in Plymouth for eight years, and then to an elementary curriculum lead in ELA/social studies in Barnstable before seeking the principal’s position at Indian Head. She is married with three children, ages 20, 17 and 9. She holds two master’s degrees in elementary education and instructional leadership from Eastern Kentucky University.
Q: What spurred your interest in a career in education?
A: “Ever since I was at Sandy Hook Elementary in second grade [she knew it was what she wanted to do]. I remember I was riding in the backseat of our little station wagon, and said to my mom, ‘I really want to be a teacher.’ She was like, ‘OK.’ I thought it would be really neat to grade papers. I wanted to get out that red pen, I thought that would be really fun. I have an older sister and she and I played school a lot. Ever since that day — and it was along time ago — that was always what I wanted to do.
“When I went into college, I thought I wanted to be a music teacher, but as I got into the program, that certification is K-12 and I really didn’t feel good about working with older kids. I really liked the younger kids, I’ve worked in a day care and I’ve always liked little kids.”
Q: And yet, you went from student-teaching little people to teaching fifth grade.
A: “I was a little intimidated at first and, of course, I’m really short, so I was thinking, ‘These kids are going to be my height.’ But I still talk to those kids who are now in their 30’s. It’s pretty neat. … That town [I started in] was very rural and I had a lot of troubled kids in my class, and it was very challenging, but I connected with them really well. In fact, the Friday before Mother’s Day, they had a surprise party for me. A bunch of them brought gifts and said, ‘You’re kind of like our mom, because we don’t all have one.’ It was the neatest, most rewarding thing. That was the year I knew this was for me. This is what I want to do.”
Q: How important is a teacher as a role model for at-risk kids?
A: “I think it’s harder [for some kids] than it was when I started. A lot of kids don’t have both parents and they don’t have the role models — and we’re in a troubled world — so I think kids really need us to show them even basic manners and how to handle situations and problem-solve when they are having problems. They need that because sometimes they don’t have the best role models.”
Q: What was it about the elementary experience that hooked you?
A: “For me, I connect with the older elementary-aged kids the most because I’m really silly and goofy and they get it. But when I first started, I had worked in a day care and absolutely loved it. I’ve always loved kids, I babysat a lot when I was younger and just felt connected to them.”
Q: What brought you to W-H?
A: “It was actually this craziness,” she said gesturing to the building around her and the renovations. “I wanted to be a principal and I was looking around for jobs and saw this opening come up. I did research to determine the situation and I felt this was a perfect time to come in, because everything’s new to everybody and, yes, I’m new but the staff is newly together, even though they’ve been in the district. It’s a fresh start for everybody, so I felt this could be a really cool time to start a new school — even though Indian Head’s been here, it’s all new because we’re merging. It’s challenging, to say the least, but I thought that was the perfect place to start because we’re all starting new.”
Q: There are a lot of changes in the schools for the coming year.
A: “It’s almost like a new district in a lot of ways. We have a new superintendent, a new assistant superintendent, and almost all of the principals are new, as well. … I feel like I’m part of the new team and Jeff and George have been working to bring us together as a team and make us all connect and work together, which I love.”
Q: Hanson parents have been very concerned about some of those changes. How are you communicating about that with them?
A: “I haven’t talked to a ton of parents. I’ve already connected with the PTO and we had a meeting the second week that I was here and we’ve been talking about the events for the year. They are awesome. I came from a school with a great PTA but I was amazed at some of the things that the PTO is doing. I [also] had a principal’s meet-and-greet Monday [Aug. 6]. We met with some parents and children and had some goodies for them.”
Q: Where does the traditional open house sit right now?
A: “We’re keeping the open house the same. The teachers were worried about having their rooms ready and, honestly, they did a great job — the rooms are ready for the teachers and they are already setting up. We just felt it was important for the kids, especially with the newness of the situation, that they’re able to see the school and see their teachers. We think it’s going to lower the anxiety for the kids and the families – and I think it helps the teachers, too, to make that contact before the school year starts.”
Q: How important is it to have an active PTO supporting the school?
A: “I think they are essential to keeping the community running. It sounds like they have a lot of activities that bring in money, but they are also doing a lot of free things — the fun run, which the kids love and get pledges to do their laps; the October Monster Mash for Halloween and a Sweetheart Dance. They are bringing in a science program for the spring. They’re trying to find ways to help us. They are doing a cookout for the open house and a kindergarten pot luck for Aug. 23. All the kindergartners can come and they are told what color T-shirt to wear so they can know, ‘I have a red T-shirt on, you do, too, that means you’re in my class.’ A magic show and pizza will be provided and we’re asking families to bring some things. It’s a nice way for the kids to come and feel a bit more comfortable and then they can come to open house, but they’ve already been here.
“The PTO president emails me all the time with ideas and questions. They have a Facebook page and added me into that so I can post things to communicate with families. They’ll ask me [about questions posted] so they can respond to it, so it’s a nice communication already.”
Q: What is your favorite part of the school day?
A: “I like it when the kids arrive, being out there to greet them. It gives you a read if someone comes in and they’re upset, so you can make that connection so we can figure out what’s going on or let the teacher know, so they can work with that.
“I also like to do a “citizen of the month” or “star of the month” and have those kids come in and have lunch with me. I used to do that as an assistant principal and — especially as an assistant principal, where you are dealing with behavior steps — it’s a nice, positive way to interact with the kids and reward them for positive behaviors.”
Q: How will you go about putting your stamp on the school?
A: “My philosophy is that I’m all about team. I’m here to make this new team kind of gel and I’m the resource if they’re going to need something, if they need help. If they need to run something by me, if they need to vent, whatever it is, I’m here to provide them whatever they need to help things run smoothly. I want to establish this atmosphere of we’re all in this together, we are a team. We help each other, we build each other up and are there when somebody else needs us. It’s all about community.”
Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing elementary school principals?
A: “Security is a reality to me. A friend of mine, who was a year behind me in at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was the one who reached out to me [that day] and asked if I had the news on. I said no because I was at work … It’s a reality that these things are happening and it seems to be happening more and more, so safety is definitely one of my hugest things. … I love the new check-in system. I think it’s going to be wonderful. Parents and/or visitors can come in the first doors and we have a window where the secretary sits [to determine if the person will be buzzed through security doors]. If they are let in the building, they get a badge.”
Q: What is the most important thing for families should do over the summer to make sure students are prepared for the first day of school?
A: “I think reading with their kids every night, and talking about what they read, that keeps the kids’ minds intact, it keeps them thinking. A lot of times you see kids’ reading scores drop over the summer, but if they keep reading and are engaged all the time, they don’t lose as much over the summer. And giving them experiences — sometimes learn more from doing.”