WESTFIELD – In her fifth year as superintendent of Westfield Public Schools, Dr. Suzanne Scallion has announced that she will be retiring at the end of the school year. Scallion made the news public at the Nov. 2 School Committee meeting.
After 39 years in the field of education, Scallion said she knew it was time.
“It feels right … I brought my best game to Westfield, and it’s time for a fresh pair of eyes and ears to move into the role,” Scallion said. “Personally, just a growing sense of needing to pursue other areas of interest because the role of superintendent, as well as principal, consumes your life energy. I’d like to reclaim some of that and figure out what I want to do next.”
Travel, writing, photography and spending time with her family are on the top of her list, but other than that, Scallion is not sure where she will land. Before her time in Westfield, she spent time teaching on Cape Cod, two stints in California as a teacher and a principal and as principal of Leeds Elementary School in Northampton.
Though she has spent much of her career bouncing from coast to coast, Scallion said she does not anticipate another move any time soon. She does, however, expect to work again, but she does not yet know in what capacity.
“I just need to take time to figure out what’s next, and there will be a what’s next. I just know that I am in no place to decide right now,” she said. “I am so consumed with the work at hand, making sure that the system is ready for change. We’ve had a lot of change in the last five years, but I want the new superintendent to feel folks have an open mind, that they’re respectful and appreciate where we are.”
In her time in Westfield, Scallion said she is most proud of the early release staff development program, which allows teachers to take classes to learn “the Westfield way” in areas like literacy and math. They are able to take electives once the core classes are completed.
She also said the work in “programs for kids who don’t fit the common classroom” another point of pride.
“We’ve created both regular education and special education programs that I think better meet the needs of our kids, and I’m very proud of those,” Scallion said.
Moving forward, Scallion said she thinks the district’s curriculum and instruction are “in great shape,” but the technology, maintenance and facilities are areas that are begging for improvement.
The school district has been at the center of some of the city’s most controversial issues in recent years, including the stalled construction of a new elementary school, sending students to Russell in the meantime and deteriorating science wings that have not been updated in decades.
Without taking a side on the issue, Scallion simply said “it’s time” to build a new elementary school.
“Our facilities are very outdated. Our kids deserve better. Actually I’ll take it to the next level: they need better. They’re not going to compete. Kids in schools districts within 10 miles of us are already infusing technology into their classrooms,” she said. “Second graders are using tablets and laptops routinely. Smart Boards are already in all of their classrooms. That’s the world we’re living in. It isn’t about the device that you have. It’s about knowing to use it as a tool in your learning. Does it enhance learning? We know it does.”
While Southampton Road Elementary School has Smart Boards in its classrooms, Scallion said the parent-teacher group organized that, but it is not their responsibility to do so. It is the district’s job to advocate for and provide those pieces of technology.
“We’re using interactive tech programs, but we don’t have the tools to use them. We need new facilities and we need to upgrade some of our tired facilities,” Scallion said.
When she first came on board in Westfield, she said she took pictures at Westfield Technical Academy and was “embarrassed” about the mismatched furniture and the state of the classrooms. That classroom environment, she said, impacts the self esteem and learning of students.
“It distresses me that we have been unable to find common ground, that there has been such mean-spirited behavior around this issue,” she said. “Let’s think about our kids … I don’t ever want to hear again from a family that their son couldn’t get into MIT because Westfield is a tier two system. No, it’s not because tier one kids live here.”
In spite of issues surrounding facilities, Scallion said the core of Westfield – its teachers and administrators – is united for a common goal in helping students succeed.
Throughout the district, teachers are building and using the same basic curriculum to ensure consistency across the board, but Scallion said teachers still have the flexibility and freedom to bring their own unique styles to their classrooms.
“We’ve done a lot of great work together. We’ve got a great team of administrators. Our teachers have worked incredibly hard because we’ve made changes where we’ve aligned the curriculum with the 2011 state frameworks,” she said. “Fifth graders across the district are getting the same foundation. They don’t have the same teachers. They don’t have the same personality … and we want our teachers to retain that individual flair and creative juice.”
This unity has helped build a strong foundation throughout the district, and she said her hope is that the superintendent who follows her continues to draw each individual school in the district closer.
“The most important thing to me personally is that we deepen and sustain the progress we’ve made. I don’t want us to go backwards and how that could happen is that the schools become splintered and fractured and moving in their own direction. The vision that we hold is that we are now a flotilla of ships moving toward the same port,” she said. “No one can turn off and take a different path. We have to move together for the good of the flotilla.
“Different stressors cause schools to break off. In our system I think we have remedy those. We had schools that had no intervention programs because they weren’t Title I schools and we had schools that had an abundance. We’ve really tried to balance with according to need.”
Though Scallion has the remainder of the school year to continue working, she has made it a priority to prepare the district for a change, to provide it closure and an easy transition. While it will help the district for prepare for her leaving, Scallion said her last day would not be easy.
“It’s very poignant. I don’t feel excited about leaving at all. I don’t feel excited about my last day,” she said. “Maybe I will when it is my last day or the day after but right now, I feel... it’s poignant. I care so much about the people that I work with and the work that we do together for the kids of the city. It’s going to be hard to leave.”