TEWKSBURY — Purnima DeMorais has a room with a view — her front office at the North Street Elementary School faces out onto the bus loop where students arrive every morning. A longtime educator, DeMorais joined Tewksbury Public Schools as the North Street’s interim principal on Nov. 1, following the departure of principal Karen Cronin after four years.
DeMorais has 27 years of experience in classroom instruction and educational administration covering grades K-12, and holds degrees from Boston University and Harvard University, in addition to a pending doctorate degree from the University of Massachusetts. DeMorais’ last post was as the principal of Framingham’s Harmony Grove Elementary School, a position she held for three years.
DeMorais said that Tewksbury is in a very similar situation to the one she just left in Framingham — students and families are still facing challenges from the pandemic and there is a high need for social emotional learning and skills. Joining the North Street several months into the school year, DeMorais wants to support students exactly where they are right now and has worked with district administrators to share information and data.
She acknowledges that it has been a “crazy year” for staff, but that the North Street team has facilitated a “seamless transition,” allowing her to focus on supporting staff, getting to know people, and understanding challenges.
“Walking into Tewksbury, the challenges and opportunities were very clear,” she said, adding that she seeks to be a listener first and foremost.
DeMorais prioritizes making herself accessible to staff and students. Within her first weeks on the job, DeMorais established a program through which teachers can sign up to request her attendance in their classrooms for a storytime, observation, or other activities.
On that day alone, DeMorais was planning to help with a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) activity, followed by a multiplication skeleton-themed project. DeMorais says the program has a two-way benefit — teachers get an extra hand in the classroom and she gets to know the students.
Being in the classroom has been helpful in her efforts to support teachers, DeMorais said, because she can’t support them if she doesn’t know what’s going on. She attends common planning blocks to help bounce ideas and offers critical feedback through observations.
DeMorais explained that paying attention to teacher development is an important component of student achievement. Recently, a faculty meeting focused on building grit and stamina in students and preparing them for future grades.
DeMorais says that her goals are “to support academic and social emotional needs of staff, students, and families; to create a culture and environment where students feel safe and respected and want to come to school and learn; and to build healthy and positive relationships.”
DeMorais also wants to make connections with North Street families, and is working on options for virtual events. To celebrate National Literacy Month in November, families were invited to record themselves reading books, which were then played for students in class. Teachers were also able to hold virtual conferences with parents. DeMorais is hoping to share more resources for families to continue learning at home, and is planning to explore outdoor events for the spring.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion have been pillars that DeMorais has prioritized throughout her career at schools in Framingham, Somerville, Newton, Maynard, Norwood, and now Tewksbury.
“I want to make sure that all students have equitable access to a high quality education,” she said, adding that it is important to factor a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens into education because not all families are the same.
DeMorais emphasizes the importance of understanding families and meeting students where they are. DeMorais also hopes to work with teachers and parents to support special education students to the highest possible degree and make sure that teachers have the tools necessary to make every student feel part of the classroom by promoting inclusion and growth in all students.
DeMorais is not only an educator, but a learner as well: she speaks six languages, including English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Hindi, and Punjabi. She recounted a recent experience she had with a English language learner student who speaks Portuguese as a first language — he was reluctant to come to school, but has shown a big shift in confidence since talking with DeMorais, who helps him practice English vocabulary.
“He’s got a bright smile on his face... to have someone who speaks to him in his language,” she shared.
DeMorais added that many Indian students have been surprised that she speaks the languages that they speak at home, underscoring the importance of reminding students that they’re valued at school and to be proud of their culture.
DeMorais says that her biggest dream is to be able to offer a “rich curriculum for social emotional learning and a support toolkit to be integrated into all learning... those needs trump everything else — with these skills, students will be in a much better place to learn.”
DeMorais views social emotional learning not as a separate learning block in the day, but a cultural integration. She wants students to learn the skill of self-advocacy to grant them greater independence.
DeMorais thanked the Tewksbury community for a warm welcome to the town and looks forward to her time at the North Street.
“I’m here to support positive growth of students, staff, and families.”