By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Ed Sapienza took the job of principal six years ago, at a time when Peabody High School had been roiled by stories of drug-abusing students and fierce turf battles among administrators.
He’s retiring now — for a second time — under far different circumstances.
“He’s been an excellent principal,” says City Councilor Dave Gravel, a former school board member. “What he brought to the high school was respect for the teachers. Respect for the School Committee. And respect in Peabody. I thought he was a calming influence. ... A great guy.”
“Talk about someone who just could do it all,” adds School Committee member Dave McGeney. “I could fill a newspaper with stories of all the kids he’s helped. They needed a hand. They needed someone to get involved. And he did. He has made a difference.”
After 43 years as a Peabody educator, Sapienza, 64, had intended to retire last year. A delay naming his successor, Assistant Principal Eric Buckley, brought him back for an additional year. His success six years ago was not preordained. For one thing, some wondered at a principal who had spent a good portion of his career representing the teachers union.
Yet, those credentials were actually a help, Sapienza says, allowing him to see the issues from both sides of the table. For that matter, he’s also served on the School Committee in his town of North Reading. In every case, he says, “I’ve been a consensus builder.”
He worked some changes on the school culture as soon as he took charge.
“We tightened up a bit more,” he says. Students were told getting detention also meant getting barred from school social events.
“That sent a clear message the first time a prom or a dance rolled around and you weren’t invited,” he says.
Kids on the School Council endorsed the policy, telling the principal, “We want this.” Similarly, he instituted a policy making certain that work missed through absences was made up. The push to improve the academic program resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of students attending advanced placement, or AP, courses, from 66 to 280.
For the 1,800 kids at what is the largest school on the North Shore, he says, “The level of respect has gone up tremendously.”
At the same time, he believes the school retains a collegial atmosphere.
“I have not been the type of principal that you’re afraid to approach,” he says. His door stays open.
It was football that got Sapienza into the education game as a kid. Growing up in Everett, he played well enough in high school to win a year at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut, one of the nation’s oldest prep schools. The blue-collar kid fit right in and even matured a bit.
“Because I played football,” he smiles, “I don’t think the kids saw much of a difference.”
He next graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and later took master’s degrees in administration at Salem State and in computer education at Lesley College. His teaching fields were math and science, and he rates keeping Peabody High online electronically one of his signal accomplishments.
In fact, he was taking computer courses in the days when people like Steve Jobs were still tinkering in the garage. Others warned he was wasting his time. “I didn’t listen,” his eyes twinkle.
If Peabody High has shortcomings in terms of rusting roofs and dark hallways, the outgoing principal is confident he’s kept it technologically up to date.
”The school is wall-to-wall wireless,” he says.
Sports have also been a big part of Sapienza’s contribution. He’s been a coach and offers the hope that the Peabody High football team is merely in a temporary slump and new coach Mark Bettencourt can bring the blue and white back to its winning ways.
“It’s hard for people in Peabody to understand,” he says of recent hard times on the gridiron. Yet, he believes sports prepared him for the vagaries of school administration.
“Some days you’re going to be up. Some days you’re going to be down,” he says.
Married with three grown daughters — “I’m the coach with three girls,” he laughs — Sapienza has no big plans for retirement.
“I’m going to sit some place and just be quiet. ... I have a boat,” he says.
On the other hand, he will be available to consult with educators. “I’ve been always the teacher.”
As for his successor, he stresses, “I’ll be at the other end of the phone.”
Sapienza notes that the city showcases the philosophy of favorite son and 19th-century philanthropist George Peabody regarding the importance of education as a debt owed by the present to the future.
“That debt has to be paid,” says Sapienza. “If you want good schools, you have to pay for that.”
Doing so, he adds, is what Pride in Peabody really means.
Alan Burke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.