PAWTUCKET â With news he received this week, Shea High School Principal Christopher Lord is living the phrase âwhen one door closes, another one opens.â The administrator has been selected as the new principal at Andover High School in Andover, Mass.
Lord, who has been at the helm of Shea High for nine years, will start his new position on July 1, the beginning of the upcoming school year. The suburban high school, located north of Boston, is about twice the size of Shea, with approximately 1,800 students. He said he is excited to be taking on the new challenges, although it is with the bittersweet knowledge that he had not intended to leave Shea, where he had made his mark in a number of significant ways and established comradery with scores of students and their parents.
Lord, along with Tolman High School Principal Fred Silva, are forced to find new jobs in the wake of both Shea and Tolman being deemed in need of state intervention due to persistently low graduation rates. The intervention is part of federal education reform mandates that have been adopted by the Rhode Island Department of Education.
Under the reform model called âtransformationâ that was chosen by school officials, replacement of the principals is required, along with the implementation of numerous other measures that are part of comprehensive improvement plans. The key goals under the transformation plan are to improve graduation rates, increase test scores in reading, mathematics and writing, and changing the school culture to foster a better learning environment.
Lord noted that over the past school year he has had âextraordinary life experiencesâ which included the feeling of elation that came on Oct. 1 when he learned that Shea had been given an overall positive rating for its accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges followed by the crushing news just six days later that the school had been cited by the RIDE for its graduation rates. âTalk about extremes!â he commented.
Shortly after this, he learned that his job would also be a casualty of the reform efforts and he worried about where he would go next. âI didn't think that anyone would want a principal with that label,â he stated. Yet, much to his surprise, many schools did, as he found himself a finalist for a principal job in the top five high schools in Massachusetts.
The interview committee looked beyond the reform mandates and focused instead on the positive things that had occurred on Lord's watch: the portfolio project required for graduation, the highly respected government and public administration academy, individual learning plans for students, the Japanese student exchange program, and more. âThe top schools in Massachusetts that I interviewed with seemed to be 'sniffing out' what we were doing here in Rhode Island,â said Lord. âJust the fact that those schools are interested in Pawtucket is extraordinary.â
Lord said that while Andover is considered a high performing school, it has faced some recent challenges, including a teacher strike and a much-publicized hazing incident. The school has also lost some ground academically, which will be Lord's main focus.
The job will require that Lord and his family relocate, something that Lord acknowledges that his sons, ages 10 and 15, are âless than psychedâ about. Yet, he said that a longtime friend who also has a 15-year-old son lives in Andover, so that will help ease the transition.
Lord said that whenever he has had to make a big decision in his life, he would try to take a quiet moment and consider âif this is where I want to be.â He said he had gotten a good feeling upon walking into Shea High School back on Aug. 3, 2003 that this was where he wanted to be, and he got that same feeling again when he met with Andover High's outgoing principal Thomas Sharkey. âI'm feeling like it's going to be a great place to be,â he said.
Lord credited Schools Supt. Deborah Cylke for taking an active role to help him in his search for a new job. He also said she had presented what he called a âmasterful planâ for improving Shea and Tolman according to the reform mandates (the plan was to be presented by Monday morning to state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist for approval).
Ironically, the state intervention was based on Shea and Tolman having three consecutive years of less than a 60 percent graduation rate. Administrators later said that the numbers used for Shea were inaccurate and the school's graduation rate for 2010 was actually above 60 percent, but a deadline for making changes had passed. Lord said that with the revised figures now submitted to the state Department of Education, it shows that Shea's graduation rate was higher than originally reported.
As to Lord's replacement, Patti DiCenso, secondary performance officer for the Pawtucket school district, said she expects new principals to be named for both Shea and Tolman by the beginning of April. She said that more than 30 candidates have applied for the positions, and their resumes are in the process of being screened by a search committee made up of parents, teachers, students and members of the community. The finalists will be interviewed by Cylke.