PEABODY — When they return to their office at Peabody Veterans Memorial High, and they face a call from the mayor on the transportation budget, the police chief on a safety concern in the cafeteria, an upset parent about playing time or a teacher worried about social media bullying in what order would they answer those calls?
That was the question posed to four school administrators Nathan Lamar, Jennifer DeStefano, Matthew Poska and Brooke Randall, who were interviewed in the high school’s auditorium Thursday night as they sought to be the next principal of the diverse, 1,430-student school with a staff of 130.
The four were picked after 28 people applied and 11 were interviewed.
How these administrators answered this question will help in the decision to fill a vacancy created when Principal Eric Buckley, whose career spanned 28-years in Peabody, resigned this spring.
Mayor Ted Bettencourt, School Committee’s chairman, and Superintendent Cara Murtagh conducted the interviews on stage in front of about 45 people, and the interviews were also televised.
No decision was announced by Murtagh Thursday night, and she said the next steps will be to process the interviews and make site visits. The timing for the decision would be another week or two. Since it’s unlikely the new principal will be in place for the start of school on Sept. 3, Assistant Superintendent Chris Lord will fill that role in the interim.
It was Bettencourt who asked in which order the finalists would return these urgent phone calls: the mayor wanting to talk about the transportation budget, a phone call from the police chief about a safety concern in the cafeteria, a call from a parent upset with a football coach about a son’s playing time, and phone call from a teacher about a potential bullying scenario between two students on social media.
Lamar, 47, of Danvers, weighed the question, and said the final two scenarios, regarding playing time and bullying, while of “essential importance” to the parent, student and other student, do not have the potential impact on the school as a whole as do the first two. The second question, he said, has to do with the safety of the school. While a call form the mayor about the transportation budget also has an impact on many people, Lamar said he would return the police chief’s call first.
“That’s the first that I make, then I’ll get back to you,” Lamar said to the mayor.
Lamar serves as the academic program coordinator at the Northeast Metropolitan Technical High, and he was a past house principal at Malden High. Lamar also taught English and was an administrator at Danvers High from 2006 to 2011.
“I came to education through my parents. Both were teachers. They drove me in the direction of education constantly,” Lamar said.
Lamar stressed the importance of “bell-to-bell teaching” as a way to stress “the rigor and the urgency that is needed” in instruction. Time in the classroom is especially important to career and technical education students whose academic time is reduced while they acquire their trade skills.
“I know Peabody High needs a new school and I would love to be part of that process,” said Lamar, whose career has coincided with schools about to undergo a construction project, however, he has left before these projects are completed.
So, how would students know he’s vested in them?
“Students have to see you to know you,” Lamar said, and they have to see you for who you are.
DeStefano, 44, of Danvers, said she would return the call to the police chief right off the bat.
“School safety is the utmost importance,” DeStefano said, and if the police chief was taking his time to call, that meant it needed to be returned immediately. “I would always ere on the side of addressing safety and security first.”
DeStefano would next return the call from the teacher about the bullying, figuring the talk with the police chief might shed some light on what is going on in the cafeteria.
Her third call would be to the mayor regarding the transportation budget, to see if there was something pressing.
She would return the call to the parent last, in part because “most likely the issue of playing time would be mostly likely not on my plate.” It’s likely the athletic director or coach would deal with this. She would also save the call for the end of the day when she could have more time to talk.
DeStefano’s most recent job was principal at Salem High and, before that, an assistant principal at Beverly High from 2012 to 2018. DeStefano led Salem High for three quarters of this past school year before she was replaced mid-year by former Salem Superintendent Margarita Ruiz, who has since left the district.
So why did DeStefano apply?
The 22-year educator said she has been living and working on the North Shore for the last seven years, and she has a lot of familiarity with the area.
“I always tell people I’m in the kid business,” DeStefano said. She said being an educator is not just about the data, but about the importance of getting to know students and staff.
Poska, 48, of Gloucester, grew up in Lynn and comes from a family of educators, who said he always thought he would be a teacher/coach his entire career. Opportunities arose, but he said it’s been gnawing at him to become a high school principal and return to that level. He said he was excited at the chance to lead Peabody High.
“The allure of coming to Peabody is exciting,” said Poska, who was in his 14th year as a principal.
Poska has served as Beverly Middle School principal since 2006, and assistant principal at Beverly High from 2004 to 2006. Poska was also an assistant principal/director of athletics at Saugus High before that.
He’s also a former head hockey coach for Lynn English and Swampscott high schools.
As for the scenarios posed by the mayor, Poska said:
“It’s a typical Tuesday, I guess. I would start out by addressing the bullying scenario first,” said Poska, who said such things can get out of hand fast, especially when it comes to the use of social media. “Secondly I would be calling the police chief,” said Poska, who said if this was a real safety concern there, “everyone would be barging into the cafeteria.”
Third, he would call the mayor on the transportation budget. Last, he would call the parent on the playing time issue, because this issue would be addressed with the athletic director and coaches.
Poska said one of his “evolutions” as an educator has been his understanding of social and emotional learning.
“The importance of getting to know students is so vital,” said Poska, who said it was important to get to know children as individuals. He said students will rise to the occasion if they get to know you.
Poska said he looked at the school’s program of studies, and he noted it had the motto “believe and achieve” on the cover.”I think it sends a message of hope, opportunity and enthusiasm.”
Since 2017, Randall has worked as the assistant principal at North Andover High, but before that, she was dean of students at Peabody from 2014 to 2017. She was chairperson of the school’s mathematics department from 2010 to 2014.
“I’m excited to be here,” said Randall, 39, of Reading, who explained why Peabody was like home.
“Because it’s home. It’s like coming home,” Randall said. While not born in Peabody and not raised in the state, she said many in the audience helped get her start as an educator. The first 11 years of her career were spent at Peabody High. She became a teacher here after four years in the business world from 2002 to 2006.
“I don’t think I ever stopped bleeding blue,” said Randall, who started her math teaching career at Peabody High and later became a lead teacher, math chairperson and later an administrator at the school.
“This is the place I got my start, I cut my teeth here,” Randall said.
Her experience in North Andover has been invaluable.
“In my mind, I keep coming back to that word ‘consistency,’” she said about building a cohesive staff. To show students she is vested in them, she would be visible, “first thing in the morning, walking through their classrooms, talking with them.”
“I would truly be that visible principal,” Randall said.
So, in what order would Randall return those phone calls?
“Absolutely, the first call is back to the police chief,” Randall said.
“A quick, very close second is getting back to the teacher about two students and the bullying going on on social media,” Randall said.
Randall said her third call would be back to the mayor to see if it was a pressing issue. She would use that call to update him on what was going on in the building.
Randall said she would return the call to the parent about the playing time, but keep it short, asking whether the parent has already spoken to the athletic director.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.