Q&A with Superintendent Finalist Dr. Michele Shannon
March 11, 2021
With Bill Olsen’s Superintendency coming to an end, the school committee recently announced that the Executive Vice President of Client Services for the New York Leadership Academy, Dr. Michele Shannon, is one of the four final Superintendent candidates. The Ghostwriter had the opportunity to interview Dr. Shannon for a holistic perspective on her 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 that I have known that I was an educator since I was five when I first started going to school. [Starting in] Kindergarten, I would come home and set all my stuffed animals and my dogs up in the living room to teach them all the stuff that I had learned [about at] school. I did that every single day. When I was eight, and I started dancing, I would come home from dance class and do the same thing. So, I’ve always been a teacher even [when I was younger].
What makes me passionate about education —and in particular, public education— was realizing how public education failed me. I was a really smart student. When I was in the third grade, I was reading on a 12th-grade level, based on the test they used back then. I was always on the honor roll and getting really high grades. I graduated pretty strong in my graduating class from high school. At college, I was sitting [in my] college algebra class on my first day of school. The professor said he was going to review some high school math. He was writing on the board [some] trigonometry, precalculus, and calculus formulas [which] I had never seen before. I visibly sat there in tears. I was the only Black girl in the classroom [as] it was mostly Asian and white students and mostly boys. I was feeling really stupid.
I actually ended up dropping out of college after my first semester. So, several years later, when I did finally go back to college after working for a long time, I went back to be an educator. I went back to make sure that no students [would] ever experience what I experienced, which is to think that they were educated but to then show up and realize that it might be true that you’re smart, but you didn’t even get to learn the stuff that everybody else learned.
Q: What inspired you to apply for this position?
A: So, it has been my mission […] to make sure that students, no matter where I’m working, are ready for college and career. That’s been my life’s work and I’ve been doing that for over 30 years. […] [Even after over] 30 years, we’re still dealing with the same inequities […] and gaps. We still have students who aren’t getting access to everything that they need. Even in a town like Westford, where we are high performing, they’re still falling through the cracks. So, it is even more important that we are focused on making sure that every single student […] sees themselves in what we learn. […]
We don’t learn about everybody. We learn just about some. I have been committed to making sure that we learn about everyone and that students actually have a chance to grapple with real-world issues, [so that students] have a chance to apply [their education] and try to do something about it. What can you, as students, do right now? Right in the midst of this pandemic, what could you do to help us address the problems in society? What are the problems that we have now in Westford, and how could the young people in our community be a part of the solution? […]
This is what I’m passionate about and I really am excited because I’m a firm believer in culturally responsive instruction and culturally responsive leadership. In places like Westford that are predominantly white, we often think that culturally responsive teaching is for the communities of color. […] But, we actually need culturally responsive practice in Westford. Every single person in the world should be committed to becoming a global member of society and the way that we do that is by teaching the truth of the world, and the multiple perspectives about the world. […] I’m just excited to try to bring all that I know from my thirty years of teaching. I’m also a social worker by training, so I bring my social-emotional learning hat, my academic instructional hat, my culturally responsive leadership hat […] to my new home. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually give back to a community that is now, my home. That’s why I’m here and that’s why I put my name in the hat.
Q: What are your goals as superintendent if elected?
A: So, number one, my first and foremost goal is going to be to listen and learn right because I am new to the community. I have a lot of experiences from around the country and the world. I have studied educational systems and so, the thing that I need to do first is come in and look, listen and learn. Because when you look at the data, Westford is doing really well. We have a really high graduation rate, a really high college acceptance, and a college [attendance] rate. Our student achievement in terms of how students perform one assessment is pretty strong. So, first, my job is to come in and understand what’s working in-depth. […] Then, I need to listen and ask people what we need to do to become even greater. In the listening, I think that there’s a real focus on equity and really trying to understand […] the equity issues that might be present in our district. Whether it’s about the curriculum or whether it’s about access to places, I don’t know what those issues are right now. [I am] going to be visiting every school, talking to students, talking to teachers, and talking to principals. So, my number one goal is to fully know all of our strengths and areas of [weakness], but also [to map out] a really clear 10-year plan for moving us towards our new vision for the future. The district’s strategic plan came to an end in 2020, so this is actually a time to create. This is the time to now create a new strategic vision. I would work with the school committee and the entire community to create a vision. […] The first year is about really understanding the current state and [identifying] the North Star [of] where are we going.
The second thing that I will focus on is really the financial piece. The first thing I will be asking for […] is an audit to understand what resources are available to achieve our goals. How have we been in money? How have we been using time? How have we been leveraging people? [With this], we [can] create a financial plan that supports the North Star [ideal end goal].
My third goal will likely be the mascot unless that issue is resolved by the time I take office. I want to make sure that we bring the process of the mascot and make sure that we have heard from the community [so that we] have an image, a name, and a mascot that represents who we are right now, who we’ve been and more importantly, who we want to become. I don’t mean to not talk about instruction, but everything that I’m talking about focuses on [providing] the highest quality teaching and learning experiences for every single student in Westford. Everything we do will focus on that.
Q: What do you think are WPS’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
A: It’s hard for me yet to speak about the weaknesses [since] I’m still learning and studying the data. So, I’ll focus more on the strengths. Number one, in the meetings that I’ve had with students about the mascot, I can see the evidence of really good teaching. All the students were able to craft an argument. They were able to argue their point. They were able to argue a counterpoint. […] I could see that we are teaching to the standards, and that’s the first step. Are you teaching a rigorous curriculum? Are you really making sure that every student has every opportunity to learn? I think that there’s a foundation as evidenced by our graduation rate and our college-going rate. I think there’s also a tremendous amount of school spirit in it.
Especially at WA, I just think that there’s a lot of people who have a lot of pride. People move to Westford for the school. […] That is a strength. Although from a research perspective, class size doesn’t necessarily directly impact student achievement, the town has been very committed to really small class sizes and I think that that cultivates strong relationships. So, I’m really excited to look at the data because that data will tell me how students really feel about being in school, how they feel about their school and their teachers. I really want to understand that. It’s something that’s really, really important that students feel supported and known.
[…] I do think that there is work to do around equity. I have children and they are black. There have been incidents that have been disturbing to me. I just want to make sure that every single student feels comfortable and that every single student feels comfortable. […] No one should feel pushed to the margin. [BIPOC students being heard] would be my number one focus.
One of the things I think that was done really well is hybrid learning. Westford is one of the few districts that had that model and it actually worked. We didn’t have a high level of spread and we didn’t have to have a lot of school closures. I’m not saying that students have been learning all that they would have learned in person, but I think students are still learning. So, [I will focus on] what we can learn from how we structured [the schedule during the] pandemic. What do we want to do in the future? How do we want to innovate and even go from the goodness that we have to greatness into excellence? I don’t want to say there are weaknesses. I think there are tons of opportunities.
Q: How do you plan on making a smooth transition into the position if elected?
A: I will probably put together a transition team of people from inside the district—people that are experts in this field of district leadership, and people who have worked in districts similar to ours—to help me manage the transition. […] I would hope to start spending time in April, May, and June, having the opportunity to meet people, talk to people and listen to the community. So by the time I start, I have a solid entry plan of what we’re going to try and accomplish in my first 100 days as superintendent. That would be my vision, which is to really engage in a listening tour, and that would continue beyond even after the next couple of months into me starting the position. I really want to have a plan for the first 100 days and set metrics. What sort of data am I going to collect and what would we produce after the first 100 days? We’re going to have to set some goals and I’m not going to set the goals alone. Those goals have to be set with students, teachers, and principals. I will make a transition by developing a clear plan and building a team to help me follow through.
Q: What are your credentials and what makes you qualified for the position?
A: I have been an educator for over 30 years. I have been a classroom teacher both at the elementary and the high school level. I am a school social worker by training. I’ve been a principal. I actually started a brand new school in New York City that was very successful. I’ve worked in two pretty complicated districts at high-levels of the organization, and I’ve spent the last four years working with districts across the country that are trying to figure out how to educate all students well. I have a lot of experience, but the thing that I don’t have is that I’ve never been the superintendent. The closest I’ve been was the chief of schools, which is equivalent to the second in command of a large urban district. I don’t have experience being in the actual seat, but I’ve managed large numbers of schools. So, I really believe that my experience is deep and I hope that I am a fit [with] where the district wants to go. You know, I think that if the district is really ready to focus on equity, and really pushes for being a culturally responsive district and pushes our practice to the next level, then I might be the right person.
Q: How do you plan on dealing with Westford’s continued budget crisis?
A: One of the first things that I would ask the school committee permission for is to bring in some external partners to help understand what’s been happening financially. We have our budgets from the state and from the town, but the thing that I need to understand is how we have been spending the money. I just need to understand the crisis that we have and work with the finance team to figure out what some of the long-term solutions are because as a district, we can’t afford to operate in a deficit. We have to always try to operate in a place where we have all the resources that we need in order to make sure that every student is getting what they need.
I’m not sure yet what those strategies are going to be, but again, that’s [going to need a] conversation with the community and the team. I really think the first step is really understanding the last three years to understand what’s been happening and really get a full picture of the budget. I know that Superintendent Olsen recently did a presentation on school finance 101, and I would really like to see a line-by-line budget. I want to see how every single dollar has been spent for the last few years so that we can then understand where we can be more efficient. I understand the four-tier transportation plan is going to save us a significant amount of money every year, so if that works for the community, the teachers, and families then, let’s move forward with that. [We need to figure out] what are the ways that we can become more financially solid. Also, seeking out private funding [is a possibility]. Who are the donors? There’s an alumni community, but where can we get some corporate and philanthropic [aid] to help offset some of the federal and state deficit?
Q: How do you plan to move forward with the many changes COVID-19 has brought?
A: I hope that [we are] currently assessing whether we are going to reopen fully and have all students back in school all of the time and figure out whether we can do that safely for everyone. I’m sure that some of that is going to be worked on this spring, and I hope to some way be a part of that conversation.
We [also] have to figure out which parts of what we did during the pandemic worked for some students. What do we want to keep versus what do we want to go back to doing? I think it’s really important to make sure we’re thinking about the students and the teachers since this has been a very traumatic experience. […] This has been a dramatic experience, so we have to make sure we attend to the social and emotional needs of the students and educators when they come back to school. That’s really important.
Looking at the academics and seeing that it’s been a year and a half of very different schooling, [we need to see] what we gained during that year and a half in terms of student learning and student growth. We should really try to understand those gains and losses to figure out a real holistic plan that centers on the needs of students. I would put together a team including some of the leaders, principals, teachers, and students work[ing] together.
Q: How do you plan on interacting with students if granted the role?
A: I will continue working with the students who are working with me on the mascot. I hope to have students involved in my transition planning. I’d love to have at least two students, if not more, on the transition team, because I really need to hear from the students. One of the things that I’m hoping for and I’m not going to commit to this, but I want to start almost every single day that I am as superintendent in the school [building]. I tend to be in schools and be in classrooms to really get to know the students and feel what [the students] are experiencing every day. I plan to have a really strong relationship with the students because I think that it really is about [the students]. [We need to] make sure that everything we do is meeting[students’] needs. I’m not going to be able to make everyone happy all the time. Even with this mascot issue, no matter what we as a community decide, there are going to be people who are excited and people who are hurt. But, in whatever we do, I will be centering the voices of students.
Q: What’s something fun students should know about you?
I love to dance. I dance to music in my head. Literally, I’m always dancing and I will break out into a dance at any point in time.