While all school buildings in Massachusetts have completely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, learning continues throughout the state either online or via home-schooling. But it’s definitely not business as usual as many communities cancel proms and graduations. May, a time of excitement for many as the school year winds down, has now become a time of uncertainty as no one really knows what lies ahead.
This means most schools have pressed pause; however, one school continues to move forward, making changes to its faculty and, in the process, angering many in its community.
In the last week alone, Shawhseen Valley Technical High School in Billerica, which serves students from Bedford, Billerica, Burlington, Tewksbury, and Wilmington, has made two very important decisions: its decided to let go of Principal Jessica Cook and hire (contingent upon a successful contract negotiation) Brad Jackson as its newest superintendent.
Neither move has exactly rubbed the Shawhseen community the right way. Cook was a very popular five-year principal at the school. She announced the news early last week after word got out on social media. In an email to parents and students, she thanked them for the opportunity to impact their lives.
“I love Shawsheen Tech,” she wrote, “and I have been more proud of being a principal for our talented students than anything else I have done or accomplished.”
In the statement, Cook acknowledged the school chose to let her go.
“The district has decided to go in a different direction with the leadership of the building,” she stated, adding her last day will be June 30.
The saddest part of the ordeal for the soon-to-be former principal concerns the prospect of missing out on a graduation ceremony for the seniors, students she welcomed in to the school as freshman. While some kind of Zoom ceremony may be possible, it certainly can’t replicate being on stage and shaking everyone’s hand as they receive their diplomas.
During the most recent meeting of the Shawsheen Tech School Committee, a number of callers attempted to inquire as to the reason for Cook’s departure, but they were rebuffed by vice chairman Robert G. Peterson Sr. who said the committee wouldn’t give specific details nor did he elaborate on who exactly made the decision, the School Committee or interim-Superintendent Melanie Hagman.
Peterson said the reasons for the decision shouldn’t have to be explained.
(Emails to Hagman weren’t returned as of press time.)
It’s clear Cook has the support of the Shawsheen community, as once the news broke many people jumped on social media to air their frustrations. One, Amanda Samaha shared a link to a petition she started on change.org entitled “Stand in support of Jessica Cook-Principal of the Shawsheen Tech School Community” that says, “Please join me in opposition to the recent non-renewal of Jessica Cook’s contract as the principal of Shawsheen Tech.”
Nearly 3,000 people have signed the online petition.
Samaha writes that “Ms. Cook has shown the dedication and ability to both continue the proud traditions of Shawsheen Tech and provide the forward thinking direction that allows our school to be the preeminent CVTE school in Massachusetts.”
Some signees left a message stating why they chose to support the petition including Tina Conley who wrote how Cook has “always been an amazing leader and role model” and Faith Stevens who wrote Cook is a “strong and supportive leader who has done so much for the entire (Shawsheen) community.”
Meanwhile, as Cook departs, the School Committee voted to offer a contract to Brad Jackson to become the new permanent superintendent. He would replace former Superintendent Tim Broadrick who resigned in March of last year. However, this became another move that the Shawsheen community disagreed with, mainly because his appointment seemingly came out of nowhere.
At a previous meeting of the School Committee in early April, members brought two names forward for a vote, but neither received the required six votes for appointment. In all, the School Committee received four candidates from which to choose: Jenna Lesko, assistant principal of supervision and professional development at Shawsheen Tech; Thomas Aubin, former superintendent-director of Diman Regional Tech High School in Fall River; Kelly Fay, coordinator of curriculum and staff development at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School; and Susan Kustka, former assistant superintendent for administration and personnel at Weymouth Public Schools.
The committee nominated Lesko and Kustka, but neither received the required amount of votes. Therefore, the committee decided, in a 7-3 vote, to suspend the search. It appeared they would start from scratch; however, in a surprising move to many, the committee just four weeks later, announced they would offer the job to current superintendent in Holliston, Dr. Brad Jackson.
What some parents may not realize, Jackson had been the screening committee’s top choice, but he withdrew his name from consideration because he didn’t want to commit to being a long-term superintendent. As a Wilmington resident, Jackson has served in Holliston for 16 years.
When the committee notified him of their willingness to offer a short-term contract, he reconsidered and decided to interview for the position. At the latest School Committee meeting, Jackson said he hopes to lay the foundation for the next superintendent.
“I’m not going to be the superintendent of Shawsheen for the next 16 years,” he admitted. “I see it as my responsibility to find and mentor leaders that can take Shawsheen into the next generation.”
Aside from his current position, Jackson has nearly three decades of central office experience. He even spent time in Wilmington overseeing business and administration.
While he brings decades of experience to the position, and the committee voted 9-0-1 (with only Tewksbury resident Lisa Puccia abstaining), his prospective appointment still comes with some controversy.
Some members expressed dissatisfaction with the abruptness of the search process continuation with School Committee member Robert Peterson, of Wilmington, saying, “I, too, am not happy how we came to this place.”
Even still, many felt Jackson stands as the ideal candidate, even in the short term. Plus, as Peterson noted, starting over again “would be a long, arduous process.”
(Material from Lizzy Hill and Cassia Burns was used to compile this report.)