When Richard Safier saw that the position for superintendent of Gloucester public schools was open in 2010, he immediately prepared his application materials.
"My wife and I have been living in Gloucester since 1978," he explained in an email to a Times reporter. "In addition to becoming a superintendent, I thought it would be particularly exciting to play a role in the civic discourse in the city where I lived."
Nine years after taking on that role on May 16, 2011 — walking alongside city administrators, School Committee members, and teachers to promote a safe and effective learning space for Gloucester children — Safier is passing the baton to Ben Lummis. HIs last day is Tuesday, June 30.
Q. What were you doing before you became superintendent?
A. Just prior to taking the position of superintendent here in Gloucester, I was an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Billerica. I actually spent 16 years working in Billerica as the high school principal and an an assistant principal prior to becoming assistant superintendent.
Q. Looking back over the years you have been superintendent, what are three things that you have learned about yourself as an educator and as a resident of Gloucester?
A. I can respond to this question by indicating three of the most important things necessary to both do a good job and do the right thing. The first is the ability to listen and to genuinely hear what others have to say. This is a skill. Listening well can be half of the battle and it tells the other party that you respect them and their concerns.
The second important thing is to problem solve with others, collectively. As an educator, you are surrounded by various types of expertise. In addition, people have an investment in the issue that poses a problem for them. When faced with a problem, one of the most important things you can do is ask yourself who should be a part of the problem-solving process and decision-making.
The third important aspect is empathy. This is especially important when someone is greatly upset either with a school or with staff, and/or especially with you. You need to get underneath the way someone is presenting themself and recognize that they have the same cares and concerns that you have as well as similar reactions to provocation that you do. In addition, there may be personal circumstances that make their concerns particularly acute. The bottom line is that we are all people and in our business it is essential that we never lose sight of that.
Q. What is a (or a few) moment while in this position that you are particularly proud of?
A. Well, I think back to 2015. The MCAS results for the district came in. This was when the rating system was on a Level 1 to Level 4 system with Level 1 being the highest level of achievement for all subgroups. In that year, both Beeman and Veterans Memorial Elementary Schools moved up in position from Level 3 to Level 2. This was a significant achievement on their part, and the result of systemic planning by the district along with very hard work by the staff in those two buildings. As a result of their achievement, I was invited to participate in the (state education) commissioner’s press conference announcing the release of the MCAS results.
Q. How has the global issue of the novel coronavirus pandemic impacted your last year as superintendent?
A. Well, I haven’t seen the office much, working from home. But, more importantly, as circumstances for school closure unfolded, beginning in March and going from a temporary closing to the full school year, the entire district had to respond to the enormous task of converting to distance learning. Many disparate elements of the entire process, from distance learning to food distribution, needed to be developed almost overnight from the ground up. And, we needed to bring the unions together in agreement as to how to proceed as well.
The district’s response — -teachers, paraprofessionals, food service providers, transportation for the distribution of food, administrative oversight of the process and scheduling, the communication and outreach to families by all involved, the distribution of needed technology in a remote environment —was extraordinary, especially given the almost immediate need to put all of the elements in place. Facilitating these processes wherever possible was largely the role that I and others in administration played.
Needless to say, there are a great many challenges ahead, not the least of which is what next year will look like. But, we can expect to prepare for some form of hybrid schedule depending on circumstances as they unfold throughout the next school year. This means planning for the possibility that some students could be in school for periods of time while others are home learning remotely and then they switch positions. We are waiting for guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The key issues are both short term and long term. As I mentioned above what school will look like in the fall will be guided by the Department of Education and adapted locally. In addition, a big question for the future has to do with how teaching and learning will change and how distance learning might become an integral and complementary part of daily brick and mortar schooling. Ultimately, the two should go hand-in-hand and strengthen both our instruction and interventions.
Q. What are your plans for retirement?
Well, I am already beginning to prepare for teaching at the graduate level in the fall. I will be instructing and mentoring aspiring principals. That is a position where the “rubber meets the road” in terms of creating school cultures that focus on student learning in a highly concentrated way.
And, l look forward to spending more time with family and with my other interests.
Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or email@example.com.