As the Class of 2017 threw their graduation caps high in the air, there was a single student whose attention was elsewhere. A young graduate looked towards the man at the podium who created the very building blocks for his positive education in Westford Public Schools: Superintendent Everett (Bill) Olsen.
When Olsen took action to move this severely bullied student to a new school to see him succeed and the student thanked him at that graduation for saving his life, Olsen learned the impact small differences can make in a school system.
“I’ll always remember that,” Olsen said. “You don’t anticipate that [your actions] will make a difference. You don’t know to what magnitude that difference will be. But I’ll tell you one thing: that student never forgot it, and it made a profound difference in his life.”
As Olsen concludes his final year in this school system, such are the experiences, big and small, that have brought meaning to his sixteen year superintendency.
Making the decision to retire earlier this year, Olsen will be leaving WPS with the Class of 2021, whose place will be taken by Dr. Christopher Chew of Stony Brook Middle School. With the advent of his retirement, Olsen leaves WPS proud of the school district that he helped shape.
“I’m most proud of how we have prepared students extraordinarily well for their futures, their careers, and college. Students leave our school system with a great degree of knowledge, the ability to think critically, the ability to connect with others, the ability to demonstrate a collaborative spirit towards others, and problem-solving,” Olsen said.
As an industrial engineering student out of college, Olsen had not planned to seek a career in education. In order to supplement his college education, his first job in the field was as a part-time substitute teacher in the Lowell School District. From there, Olsen fell in love with spending time with students and immersing himself in the school environment, He soon caught the attention of Lowell’s superintendent, allowing Olsen to seek more advanced opportunities in the district for the years to come.
After fifteen years in Lowell as a substitute teacher, finance manager and eventually assistant superintendent, Olsen also made a mark on the then-superintendent of Westford, whom he soon worked for as his successor. Since then, Olsen has held his position as WPS Superintendent of Schools for the second-longest time in Westford’s history, only behind Lloyd Blanchard who served for twenty-five years.
“Ever since I got [that] job, I’ve loved every minute of [working in education],” he said.
Olsen considers the cultivation of a positive culture to be the most important aspect of a school system, and he cites one of his greatest strengths as a leader to be his ability to form connections. With the innumerable bonds he has fostered with students and staff, Olsen has strived to create a culture where every member of the WPS feels safe and comfortable.
Whether it be a school system or a private sector organization, Olsen believes as though cultivating a culture of trust and acceptance motivates students and staff to hold both themselves and their district at high standards, as a good and great school system differentiated by their respective cultures.
“If you have a culture that is respectful, trusting, empathetic, caring, and one that tries to inspire and motivate people, whether they’re three or 103 years old, you have a culture that is progressive,” Olsen said.
Through his years of leading Westford with the mission of “shaping the future, one child at a time,” Olsen’s goals for student education stay true to two factors: motivation and passion. According to Olsen, the most important aspect of being superintendent is encouraging those around oneself to think out of the box and strive to find one’s inner drive.
“I’m more a ‘yes’ person than a ‘no’ person because a ‘yes’ person is empowering in nature. If I tell you to come to me with an idea, and I say, ‘I think that’s outstanding, let’s do it’, you’re not going to stop there. You’re going to keep pushing and trying to innovate more and more. If I say ‘no’ to you there is diminished incentive to come back to me,” Olsen said.
For Olsen, this enforcement of respect begins in the recruitment of teachers. One expression of this belief is his initiative with the school committee to raise average salaries for teachers. Olsen believes that with a high retention rate for WPS staff, students and faculty will be able to build more stability and reinforce his goals of motivation and passion.
“Teachers are the most important resource in any school system,” Olsen said.
In preparing students for their careers and beyond after their thirteen years of education, Olsen takes pride in their successes and considers that to be one of the reasons why he treasures his part in this rewarding process.
“Can I go home and look myself in the eye in the mirror and say that I make the best decision for the life of a child? That’s what’s most important to me: to have been able to make a difference in people’s lives,” Olsen said.
Whether that means providing continual academic and emotional support for students, or simply interacting with them in the school’s hallways so individuals know that “Bill” will always be there for them, Olsen sees the impact of a good superintendent as someone who is willing to keep students a priority under any circumstance.
“My philosophy is that you’re a good superintendent, if you’re willing to drop what you’re doing. If somebody comes into your office in a crisis, you meet with them and engage them in conversation immediately. It’s like a bad tooth infection. You need help right now, not a week from now. You have to be willing to listen,” Olsen said.
Extending beyond faculty and into the student body, Olsen has also left a positive mark on the youth of Westford. Student council representative and junior Hannah Macey worked closely with Olsen this past year, as she voiced the opinions of students in the weekly school committee meetings. Macey believes that Olsen will forever be remembered as a humble administrator, devoted to his community.
“The students in Westford adore Mr. Olsen. He’s been such a huge part of students’ lives [for more than fifteen years],” Macey said. “The students are so sad to see him go, and we hope the next superintendent will have the same love for education, support for the well-being of students and faculty, and overall commitment to our community.”
In addition, according to Olsen, the philosophy of teamwork has helped him incredibly in terms of forming WPS’s current collaborative atmosphere. He credits his parents for instilling this philosophy in him, as well as for teaching him to disown the “me first” attitude to put the community first.
Olsen believes as though he is simply one employee in the district whose contribution is no more important than any other staff member. Whether it be the school nurses, teachers in classrooms, or kitchen staff, Olsen cites all members of the school system as having cultivated the town’s students in their own equally significant manner.
“I’ll accept one-six-hundredth of the credit, because in a school system under my philosophy, everyone matters. […] Everyone makes an important contribution to the development of a child. I just have a job in this school system, and in my opinion it is no more important than any other person’s job in the school system,” Olsen said.
As for initiatives, assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery commends Olsen for his work with improving student morale in the district. Working closely alongside him, she has seen Olsen’s dedication to social-emotional learning and the progress that Olsen has made to transition from teacher-centered learning to student-centered learning.
“He has put in so much effort into creating a district focused on keeping students engaged, healthy, and happy. From the time that I joined the district, Mr. Olsen has been focused on the idea of social-emotional learning, which really takes into account students’ mental health. He has truly brought teams of people together in this district in order to keep the focus on our students,” Clery said.
Clery whole-heartedly believes that Olsen will leave a lasting legacy in the district, as he has contributed so much into creating a community that takes into account “the whole child.”
“He has worked very hard to make sure that the definition of success is not only GPA and SAT scores. He has emphasized the importance of fostering students’ passions and cultivating intrinsic happiness within our students. If they are happy and they can follow their passions, that’s going to make a successful student as they head on to their next chapter,” Clery said.
As a mentor, Olsen has truly made an impact on Clery. Over the past several years, Olsen has taught Clery countless lessons that she will not only apply to her career, but her life. From his compassion and humility to his work ethic and humor, Olsen will remain a role model to Clery, and someone whom she will forever seek for guidance and advice.
“One of his methods that I will use moving forward is part of his method of hiring new staff to make sure that the new staff are a great fit for WPS and match our culture. One of his key phrases is ‘leave your ego at the door.’ He wants everyone who is hired to be humble and human,” Clery said. “He always gives compliments and credit where credit is due. He is always so willing to shed the spotlight on other people to showcase their successes.”
Aside from Clery, Olsen has left a mark on Westford Academy Principal James Antonelli, who regards Olsen as a “second dad”.
“He came here in the winter of my senior year. I didn’t know him back then, but when I became a teacher here, I got to know him. We forged a great relationship and built a trust. He’s always been this huge mentor for me,” Antonelli said.
When it came to WA, Olsen was always willing to hear Antonelli’s vision for the future of the school, whether it be prospective staff members, technology, or renovations. This willingness was one of many that gave Antonelli the support he needed as principal.
As for their relationship, it was never just a surface-level, workplace one. The pair have enjoyed their fair share of memorable moments over the years, from singing at an Apple Blossom parade, to texting each other late in the evening about a Patriots’ game, to performing in a play together for WA theatre teacher Michael Towers.
“I will always remember his humor,” Antonelli said. “He’s just a real, authentic person.”
In the office, Olsen’s leadership is what Antonelli has been most affected by. Applying Olsen’s eight “P”s (preparation, pride, professionalism, patience, passion, persistence, personality, and performance) to his role as principal, Antonelli has incorporated a great deal of Olsen’s character into his own.
“As a leader, I’ve taken away that you treat everybody the same. We all put our pants on the same way every single day,” Antonelli said. “Before a person’s hired, Olsen makes sure that the person understands what he demands of them, for the students. I admire the amount of pride that he has for WPS.”
School committee chair Gloria Miller seconds this belief, citing Olsen as one of the most empathetic leaders in the school system. Both before her position as a staff member and now, she has known Olsen from both a parent and staff perspective. In her words, one of Olsen’s best qualities is his care for others.
“Whatever you may be meeting about, he takes the time to get to know the people he is working with. Whenever we go on a school tour, you can always hear him saying ‘hi’ to everybody and asking how they are doing, about their kids, or even the deck a teacher is putting behind their house,” Miller said.
As his time comes to a close in WPS, Olsen looks to the future in hopes that the current collaborative, positive culture of the district will continue and, even more progress will be made to ensure that every student in the district is leaving with the best possible education, and that every member of the faculty feels at-home and appreciated.
“I hope that the respect and support within our district continues. I feel comfortable leaving WPS knowing that a bright future for the district awaits,” Olsen said. “We have really worked hard to shape the WPS community in the time I have spent here, and I hope to see progress continue.”
Looking forward, Olsen feels multiple emotions when thinking about his future. Although it will be a change, Olsen is excited for his retirement, proud of everything he has accomplished in his career and is ready to close that chapter.
“I’ve known getting up early in the morning and going to work and working day and night for the last fifty years. So it’s definitely going to be an unusual adjustment, but I look forward to this next chapter in my life,” Olsen said. “I’ll always be here for the people in WPS.”