Q&A with Superintendent Finalist Dr. Christopher Chew
March 11, 2021
With Bill Olsen’s Superintendency coming to an end, the school committee recently announced that Stony Brook Middle School principal, Dr. Christopher Chew, is one of the four final Superintendent candidates. The Ghostwriter had the opportunity to interview Dr. Chew for a holistic perspective on his goals and solutions to major issues in WPS.
The questions asked were given to all the candidates for a fair representation. These answers were cut down to include the highlights of each candidate’s responses.
For more information on the Superintendent Finalists, please visit the WPS website to check out virtual opportunities for the public to meet with each candidate.
Q: Tell us about yourself. What makes you passionate about education, and how did you first get involved in this career path?
A: I think what makes me passionate about education is what got me into the career path in the first place. […] When I just got out of college, a friend of mine asked if I would come and help him start a theater program. […] I totally just fell in love with working with students, and it wasn’t something that I had thought about when I was going to school. I always liked school; I thought that when I was in college, if I went into teaching, I would want to teach at the collegiate level. [But] working with these middle school students [and seeing] their passion for what we were doing, it was the first time that I really understood how important being a teacher can be in the lives of a student. I knew as a student how teachers had impacted me, but I didn’t necessarily think of it in the reverse; I absolutely became mesmerized with the idea of trying to have a positive influence on students’ lives. […] That’s what’s driven me throughout my whole career, knowing that as an adult I have the responsibility of shaping an environment that can have a positive impact on students. School should be a very positive and enjoyable experience for them, [and to achieve this] I’ve always been looking for ways I can increase and improve the environment for the overall experience. [So] studied a whole bunch of different [educational] strategies, whether it’s in the classroom, or when I became an administrator, and so on.
Q: What inspired you to apply for this position?
A: I really love it here; I love it in Westford and I really believe in the work that we’re doing. With Superintendent Olson retiring, I honestly became very concerned about a void. I became concerned that nobody was going to step up within the district, and I felt like it was very important that somebody does that. While I’ve never been one to think about titles, […] I feel like now what I really want is to do my part to improve the opportunities in the [community] district-wide. […] I think Westford is a great school district, but there’s still room for obstacles and barriers to be removed. I am concerned about what might happen if somebody who doesn’t share the same value system as [our community does] in Westford was to come into the district. Would they want to make changes for change’s sake, or would they want to try something out that is reflective of the desires of the students, teachers, and families here? And so I’m really eager to keep moving forward. I feel like if I was selected to be the superintendent, then our momentum can continue to move forward. […] But I’m very passionate about being part of the larger conversation and feel like I’m ready due to the work I’ve done successfully at Stony Brook, and extend that [work] to serve a larger portion of our district.
Q: What are your goals as superintendent if elected?
A: The first thing that we need to look at is how we’re doing with the budget in order to maintain the programs that we have, and our priorities of having our class sizes [small]. […] I think [we] have been very productive so [I’m] very passionate about doing everything we can to maintain the class sizes in a way that allows the students and teachers to have the most positive relationship possible. […]
Second, there’s some discord with stakeholders within the community. I feel like it’s important to do everything I can to help bring everyone back together in how people look at the budgets that are on here and I suppose ease some of the tensions that have been created this year because of the dynamics of COVID. […]
Then the last piece, which is part of those other things, is the successful transition to the full return, and that needs to be something that we’re very focused on. We need to make sure that this spring and next fall, we’re paying close attention to every single grade level to make sure that the students who are not physically able to be in the buildings feel like they’re a part of that community. […] Another super super important piece of that whole transition is the idea that we are high-achieving district. But have we always been focusing on everybody’s social-emotional well-being? I feel like we have focused on it at Stony Brook, and I feel successful about what we’ve been able to do. […] But I think we need to support all of the other schools [and provide] the same resources to make sure that they have the same ability to do that this year district-wide. There was a great focus on social-emotional well-being as we transitioned into this school year. We can’t go into next year just assuming that everything’s coming back to normal. My priorities have always been safety, first both physical and emotional, then growth, and then happiness. So those are the things that we still need to be focused on as we go into next year. That’s going to include equity and everybody feeling like they belong. You know, does everybody feel not only that, that they’re invited, but are they enthusiastically encouraged to participate? It would be a good thing district-wide for us to say are we doing an equity audit, to look and see [if] our resources [are] truly equitable across the board, pre-K through 12, for all of our stakeholders.
Q: What do you think are WPS’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
A: I think that the biggest strengths are the people. The commitment that the students and the families have to their education is very strong here, and it’s also unique. It’s not always cool to like school in other places in the state and the country. And I do think that families and more importantly students and teachers for that matter really enjoy it [here]. […] Now, I think, a weakness is that we can all be guilty of being stubborn to think that the [status quo] is best the way it is and that we’ve reached such a high level of achievement that there’s no room for improvement. And that can be very dangerous. And so while I’m not an advocate for change for change’s sake, I am an advocate for constantly reflecting. It is possible to be blinded to areas where we need to improve and that I think is honestly the biggest danger.
Q: How do you plan on making a smooth transition into the position, if elected?
A: I’m going to make sure that I don’t assume that I know everybody, if I’m successful in this quest I’m going to make sure that I do spend significant time in other buildings. […] I already know the system of middle school and Stony Brook very well and I think it’s important for me to know all of the other buildings too. But I would want to make sure that I’m visible and available to all of the other families in the other school district. I feel lucky, in a sense that I am familiar with, or at least they’re familiar with me 50% of the six through 12, the student population and families so I do know the majority of the kids and the families. […] Even though I haven’t had a chance to meet all the families they certainly have been interacting with me. And so, I feel like I need to make myself available to listen to and to get to know the other half of families I have not had a chance to meet yet.
In the pre-K to five grades. […] I need to acknowledge that there are things that I don’t know, but yet there is a significant amount of information that I do already know, in terms of relationships with people. So I understand the history, I understand the things that we’ve tried to do and the things that we want to. And so I feel like that work is about making sure that I reach out to all of the people that I might not have as specific relationships with.
Q: What are your credentials and what makes you qualified for this position?
A: I’ve been in Westford for seven years, and I’ve been working diligently to support the high standards that we have here and do that reflective work. I’ve been involved in all of the different major discussions that we’ve had [about] if we start with reopening schools of this year, and dealing with the pandemic and the development of these models, starting there and moving backwards. […] The work to really focus on bringing a trauma invested approach to education, which is just getting more specific after we’ve done our challenge success work and focusing on mindfulness, and after we’ve been focusing on social-emotional development. It’s all been grounded in our focus on relationships, and in that [regard] I’ve been doing it. […] I’ve always been doing the working in terms of trying to create positive environments. […] I did a lot of work investigating and moving towards International Baccalaureate work at the high school, which was tremendous professional development and a lot of work that we were doing. And then before that, I was an administrator. […] I believe in being very invested in the community in which you’re working as well. And so that’s sort of been reflective that you don’t necessarily see on the resume. I’ve also had a lot of experience in the nonprofit sector, working with professional theaters, whether it’s as an actor, a director or working. I founded my own theatre company that was an ensemble company for a while. I’ve worked on the administrative teams of some theaters as well. The education and the training [I have] was very much educational leadership and it was very focused on preparing to be a superintendent or an assistant superintendent of some kind.
Q: How do you plan on dealing with Westford’s continued budget crisis?
A: This year [was] really impacted by the revenue, or lack thereof, from closing everything down. It’s not quite the same thing. I think one of the things that we know is that a massive percentage of it [the budget] is all of the different salaries because we invest in people here, which I think is the right thing to do. And I think that that’s great because it is the people that make this district, so incredible. […] Even though it’s not a large percentage, we need to look at the money that is not tied to salaries and collective bargaining. We need to look at the different supply lines and the different resources that we have in each building through looking at developing a budget from zero. Instead of looking at rolling over the budget actually go through the process of saying okay taking the salaries, out of it, looking at all of the other different resources what do we need, and it’s an extensive process. It’s not an easy thing but I think it would be a healthy thing for the superintendent and the principals to look at, with the director of finance at the building level, to see [if] there a place where it is still possible to rethink some of the resources in terms of things.
And I don’t think that we are wasteful. […] So that’s a depth of an important piece in there. I think the other major piece of the budget is creating the opportunities again for all of the stakeholders, everybody to understand everybody’s budget. But the information doesn’t necessarily get to all of the voters, so what happens is, a lot of people make assumptions and rumors spread and people will talk about it on social media, and they don’t necessarily get redirected to the presentation that was recorded. […] So as difficult as it is I think we need to do more and more of the presentations, even if it’s like a tour to make sure that we’re able to answer people’s questions in real-time so that people have a better understanding of it when they see that, oh, that’s why you can’t just do this. One thing that to me seems so obvious because they don’t understand the complexity of the way in which one change in the budget is going to impact all of these other pieces. And so those are long conversations, but they need to happen and people need to be able to ask those questions, because when they feel like they can’t ask the question, then I think frustration builds and then they’re seeing seems to be a lack of transparency, even though. […] Transparency is the goal, and that’s the intent, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s received that way and it doesn’t mean that all of the people feel like they’re getting the information, but I feel like we need to partner with all of the other department leaders in the town to share and have this same type of open dialogue.
Q: How do you plan to move forward with the many changes that COVID-19 has brought?
A: I believe that if we’re going to be able to have a full day of school in the fall, it’s very important that we reflect on what worked in this environment because there are a lot of things that that did work that we should not abandon. […] And we should have more opportunities for online meetings there should be more meetings between people, yes we need face to face meetings that needs to happen. I think students they’re going to still be areas, whether it’s for all classes, [or] one class where it could be very beneficial for either groups of students or even individual students to utilize remote learning, either for a significant period of time or a temporary period of time. […] There’s a lot of [good] things for that right now, [such] as people are quarantining. They can still access a great deal of information. And so, maybe in the future, there is a more manageable way for if a student or a teacher is sick, that they can still access stuff, and not necessarily have to physically come into the building and either risk other people getting sick or just even, you know, potentially get worse.
Q: How do you plan to interact with students, if granted the role?
A: There is less time to do that and I know that with each administrative shift, you end up with less ability to interact with students. However, it has always been my priority, and I have always tried very hard to get to know as many students as possible, and I will continue to do that. The challenge will be to get to know more students. […] But I think that it’s incredibly important to remain available, and to be approachable, and to make it very clear that I care. I really want to be in and aware of the different things that are going on so that I can be supportive as possible. […] I want to be able to come into a room and nothing stops. I want to be able to visit and just walk into a room, and it becomes so commonplace that different people are coming in and out, that students just are comfortable with it. I think the approach is to really do.
Q: What’s something fun students should know about you, was something fun that they should know about you?
A: I started playing really serious Dungeons and Dragons campaign during COVID with my family. When my son started the whole thing, we got really into it and we want to keep doing this. It was something that I did that I enjoyed, but I didn’t do seriously when I was younger because it was my brother’s thing, so I was like ‘okay I guess we’ll do that,’ and we got super, super into it. So that’s kind of fun. […] Again, all of the students who know me already know how kind of wacky crazy I am so they kind of know about a bunch of different things. So that one’s kind of tough for other people who don’t yet know me, but they might have already heard about the really strange man with long hair and a long beard.