Schools Superintendent Holland looks back on 20 years

This is the first of a three part post featuring an interview with outgoing Schools Superintendent Peter Holland. You can view the second part of the interview by clicking this link.

As many of you already know, Belmont is losing one of its foremost figures: Schools Superintendent Peter Holland, who will be leaving his post in August, just over 20 years since he took the helm, in July 1988. His departure deprives the town of a seasoned administrator and leaves the School Committee with a daunting task in finding his replacement. There’s already been squabbling over that (which we take up with Peter in a subsequent post). But with the school year ending, BloggingBelmont thought the time was right to sit down with Superintendent Holland and get his thoughts after two decades of service to the town.

Outgoing Schools Superintendent Peter Holland

This interview was conducted on Friday, June 13 in Superintendent Holland’s office.

Peter: things get hectic. even today, there’s a funeral down in Braintree of former director whose wife died. i’ll have to send a card.

BloggingBelmont (B2):
I guess a good question to start would be to ask you to look back over the last 20 years. How was the district different was when you inherited it? What were the challenges then and what, looking back 20 years, have been your major accomplishments?

Peter Holland (PH): When I came to Belmont, it was an interesting school district because it was fairly isolated. That was surprising to me because I had come from Lynnfield and lived in Lexington but i knew people in a number of surrounding districts in Weston and Wellesley and they were much more involved. The only thing Belmont was a member of was METCO. They were not a member of EDCO which does staff development and public policy discussions for administrators. It was mainly the western suburbs. Belmont was a very similar district– it fit right in, but they were not a member. The town was not a member of the anti-racist teaching and training and multi cultural initiatives. So generally, even though we were members of METCO, we were not active members. So one thing I wanted to do was get involved in those organizations. Over time, probably in last 10 years, I’ve been the superintendent that has convened all the meetings and been the head of the METCO superintendents’ group and has tried to advocate for more funding and for support of those programs and part of the METCO advisory group that meets with the commissioner and talk about how to get more funding and make sure the program works for kids and school districts.

As a matter of fact, Belmont was a really good school district (when I arrived). But I think we’ve taken it to a different level. At the time I came there were 5 AP courses, now we have 26 at the high school level. Back then we typically would have 3 or 4 national merit (scholarship) finalists. This year we had 7 and last year we had 10. Our SAT scores were quite good, but now they’re considerably higher. We had 22 sophomores and juniors with one or more 800 scores. Among seniors, we had 28 seniors get 48 800 scores, and that’s out of a class of 280 — so you had 10 percent with at least one 800 on their SAT. It blows me away. The level of academic work is terrific. I think a lot of that has to do with the teachers, alignment of the curriculum, good staff development, and that’s all under the direction of Pat Aubin. She’s done a masterful job with instruction and assessment. All four of those areas have to be aligned. Pat’s accomplished that.

In other areas, we’ve seen a huge growth in community service area. At the High School, kids did a total of 32,000 hours of community services. We had 119 kids receive the presidential honor, which goes to those who have done more than 100 hours of community services — again, around 10 percent of those in the school. And that’s great. It shows an interest of the school community in the larger society. So those are some of the things I feel good about.

B2: Has the job changed or have the expectations changed in the last two decades?

PH: I think it has, Paul. I’m giving a presentation tonight to a colleague superintendent who’s retiring in Weston. He’s a good friend of mine. One thing I noted and why it comes to mind, the regulatory issues are much bigger than they were.

B2: Because of No Child Left Behind?

PH: No Child Left Behind in 2001 and the Massachusetts Education Reform Act in 1993. Both asked for greater accountability, increased expectations for teachers and administrators to be qualified, testing of students, increased length of the school day and year. All those are much more regulated than they were 20 years ago.

B2: Is that a good thing?

PH: Well…you know…its a good and a bad thing. Some of these things have really improved what we do. Quite frankly, in the past, we looked at averages and means and medians. Now with No Child Left Behind and Mass Ed Reform, we have to get ever kid over the wall. In the main its been an improvement. But the paper work, state and federal reporting has increased a tremendous amount and in ways that don’t seem that productive. A lot of that reporting is not that valuable.And, as one former school committee member said “You’re never sure if anybody reads all this data we submit. But on the whole it’s had a positive effect. But its brought with it a flury of reporting and a tremendous amount of accountability. The amount of testing we do now is 2 or three times what it was a few years ago. So there are the regulatory issues. The second thing, as you suggested, is that there are much higher expectations on the part of parents. And that’s understandable. You buy into a community where the average home price is bet $700,000 and $800,000 and the average tax bill is $8,000 or $8,500 — that’s a tariff you pay to come to a community like Belmont. My sense is, quite reasonably, that parents expect high outcomes on the part of their children and the public school systems. So there are demands and expectations there that we have to meet. That’s sort of ratcheted up over the years. The financial pressures are tremendous. Prop 2 1/2 and the pressure on property taxes in Massachusetts, which is a property rich state…

B2: And also a high wage state.

PH: Yes, exactly. It puts a lot of pressure on local finance committees and selectmen and the school boards. And that’s certainly true here. And then I think the political piece has gotten more difficult. There’s just more wrangling about it. On one hand its understandable: there are fewer resources and more competing needs for resources. It’s understandable that there will be continuing debate and discussion about how to allocate those resources. But in some cases its gotten to be mean spirited and angry. That’s not helpful. what you need is good discussion and rational debate.

Up Next: “I think the tenor of the debate has degraded. I think instead of being at issue level with some people, it gets to the personal level. It becomes attacking and they denigrate other people.