When students got off the bus at the Thomas Edison K-8 School in Brighton one recent morning, they were greeted by not one, but two principals. The first had been on the job for only a matter of months. The other, mere minutes.
Yet both principal Samantha “Sam” Varano and “principal for a day” Paul Andrew were met with high-fives from students upon their arrival.
Andrew, whose day job is vice president of Harvard Public Affairs and Communications, came to Edison as part of the Principal Partners program. The program is run by BPE, a local organization that works to foster improvement in the Boston Public Schools (BPS). Each year Boston-area colleges, businesses, media, community leaders, and political leaders partner with local schools and spend the day shadowing principals to “get a firsthand look at the school-improvement investments the district has made and the challenges that remain,” according to Principal Partner’s website. The local leaders become acquainted with students, attend meetings with teachers, and sit in on classes. It’s all in an effort to “bring out the best in Boston” as it affords outside leaders the opportunity to see crucial, life-changing work being done in the city’s schools.
“Every day is a new opportunity, and we’re up for the challenge.” — Sam Varano, principal of Edison K-8
This year, more than 184 area partners participated in the program and were able to experience some of the challenges that educators face every day.
“The world needs great teachers, and the work that Sam Varano, her team at Edison, and teachers across Boston are doing will have a huge impact on the lives of the children they see, educate, and care for every day,” said Andrew. “Harvard is delighted to have the opportunity to partner with Edison and BPS.”
Thomas Edison K-8 serves approximately 850 students, from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. Twenty-three percent of its students have an individualized education program (IEP) and receive special education services. They speak more than 20 different languages; nearly half are English-language learners. Eighty-three percent qualify for subsidized lunch.
Though the school has some unique challenges, those at the Edison are not deterred. Varano says the school wants to create a positive school climate, support students’ social, emotional, and behavioral development, and create conditions for academic achievement.
The path to achieving those goals looks a lot different today than it did just a few years ago. “We really work every day to meet our kids with fresh eyes and a fresh mind. Yesterday is in the past,” said Varano. “Every day is a new opportunity, and we’re up for the challenge.”
The school is using the Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a Harvard-developed system that works to eliminate barriers in the classroom, making learning more accessible by embracing diversity as it acknowledges that there is no single style in successful learning.
“We’re working on changing the way we teach,” said Varano. “There used to be a standard way of teaching: One lesson for the whole class,” she explained. “But every child is different. Every child has a unique background and different way of learning. We must think of a variety of lesson plans for students with all varying capabilities. We want to reach students where they are — and work to grow from there.”
It’s still early, but the results seem to be paying off. One young student told Andrew that he loved school, and when asked what his favorite part was, he replied, “Homework! I love to learn!”
Edison’s five core values — respect, responsibility, resourcefulness, righteousness, and rigor — are taught and celebrated by all grades. Playing on the Edison theme, those students who demonstrate these values may be recognized with “Bright Lights” awards. The class that accumulates the most “Bright Lights” at the end of the month earns a prize of their choice — such as a pizza party, extra recess time, or uniform-free day. The youngsters really seem to have taken this friendly competition to heart, as Andrew noted when he was tasked with handing out the “Bright Lights” during his visit. He handed out the coveted awards to a group of kindergarteners, and the children read him a book during one of his classroom visits.
Edison’s former principal Mary Driscoll, a Harvard Graduate School of Education alumna who now works as a principal leader with Boston Public Schools’ new superintendent, Tommy Chang, said, “When I was preparing to leave my role as the Edison principal it was important to me that I support Sam in maintaining relationships with our school partners. Harvard has partnered with the Edison School for several years, with a combination of principal and family-engagement interns, as well as other means of support — it’s a relationship that’s helped us build capacity in several areas and is very important to the Edison School community.”
The partnership is equally important to Harvard, which has long collaborated with local schools, particularly in Allston-Brighton and Cambridge. Through its many programs, both in the individual schools and on its own campus, Harvard works to reaffirm its commitment to the health and improvement of public education, and to support the development of high-quality teachers. “Research clearly shows that the quality of teachers is the most important school-level factor affecting students’ learning,” according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Varano, too, is working to support the teachers at the Edison, through professional development such as the UDL trainings and onsite coaching. Despite the challenges that come with being a school principal, her commitment to, and passion for, her work — and her students — is unmistakable.
“It’s all worth it, every minute,” said Varano. “Every single day I’m excited to get up, come to work and see these kids. I love my job.”