SALEM — Two down, two to go.

The School Committee held the first of two nights of interviews with superintendent finalists Lourenco Garcia and Erin McMahon Monday night. Two more interviews — with Ben Lummis and Stephen Zrike — will be held Wednesday night beginning at 6 p.m. in the School Committee’s chambers at Collins Middle School.

A vote is scheduled for early Thursday evening.

The interviews paired a finalist with a recent background in charter schools alongside a candidate of color with experience in school turn-around efforts. McMahon’s interview ran more smoothly, ending with time to spare, while Garcia seemed to struggle keeping answers concise enough to allow the committee to get through all the questions. That included mid-interview reminders from committee members asking Garcia to be mindful of the amount of time he was using to answer questions.

Both candidates were given the exact same set of 13 questions, with a 14th question specially crafted for the candidate. It’s this final question where the greatest separation between the candidates took place.

While Garcia put a heavy focus on his efforts in Revere, McMahon spent some time focusing on her past work with the KIPP Foundation and its expansive charter school network, and how that doesn’t define her experience as a school leader.

“It’s actually my experience working in charter schools for two years and six months, not quite three years. Don’t age me yet,” McMahon said, laughing with the committee. “It has been this experience that has made me realize I want to lead a community of schools.”

McMahon went to KIPP, she said, because she had never worked on the charter side of education, and she wanted to see how it differed.

But many things unite public and charter schools, according to the finalist.

“I’ve learned that on a national level, all issues are local,” McMahon said. “There are common experiences that kids have when they come from poverty and they speak English as a second language or experience learning challenges.”

But the difference — and what McMahon said she wants to bring to Salem — is the charter-side expectation of graduating students going to college or being beyond career ready.

“The innovation charter schools have tried to foster and something I think I’d bring to the school district community is thinking of our students as K-16 instead of K-12,” McMahon said, referencing the four years a college student will typically spend after graduating high school working toward a degree.

Garcia was asked to unpack his efforts to turn Revere High School around and what it took to get buy-in from the school. It was here that he outlined the implementation of major changes at the school, including a “newcomers academy” that targeted struggling students facing marginalization.

“I created a newcomers’ academy, staffed with people with second-language-acquisition skills,” Garcia said. “That program has been in place since then, and the primary purpose of that program is to address equity issues in our school.”

But one of the most contentious parts of the turnaround was a shift in start time, where school now starts 40 minutes later on Monday and Tuesday than the rest of the week. That gives students a chance to get more sleep, while faculty are still on-hand for 80 minutes professional development each week that they didn’t have otherwise.

It was a hot issue, however, as an early vote Garcia put to school staff came out 51 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed. That meant his work was from over, he said.

“Did I have a mandate? Yes... but what mandate did I have?” Garcia said. “How many teachers would I disenfranchise in the process? Many teachers.”

But over time, as Garcia continued to work with those teachers opposed to the plan, transformations started becoming more evident, he explained.

In his closing, Garcia focused on his presence in Salem as “a diverse candidate.” He also offered opening and closing remarks in Spanish and Portuguese in addition to English.

“I speak seven languages fluently, and I know the cultural background of many parents in this district,” Garcia said. “Diversity is one of my strongest assets, and my job is to work with all parents.”

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

WHO THEY ARE

Lourenco Garcia (bit.ly/SalSuperGarcia): Garcia’s career has most recently put him in Revere, where he has served as executive director of data and accountability for the district since August 2018. Before that, he was principal of Revere High School going back to August 2010. He also led Woonsocket High School in Rhode Island from July 2007 to July 2010, according to his resume. He has a doctorate in urban education, leadership and policy studies and a master’s in applied linguistics, both from UMass Boston.

Erin McMahon (bit.ly/SalSuperMcMahon): McMahon applied to Salem with a career taking her across the country. She has most recently served as the chief academic officer of the KIPP Foundation out of New York City, a position she started in March 2019. She also worked for two years as a chief program officer with the organization, and before that was associate chief of academics and innovation at Denver Public Schools for two years. She also served there as a regional superintendent for three years, presiding over 14 schools serving more than 6,200 students. She has a master’s in science in education leadership from Pace University in New York, and a master’s in business administration from Cornell University in Ithaca. She also has a bachelor of arts and history from Yale University.

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