For Andre Ravenelle, It’s Always Been About the Kids
FITCHBURG -- For the first time in 13 years, André Ravenelle isn’t expecting to field any crisis this weekend.
“I didn’t realize that I was carrying an 800-pound gorilla on my back 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because I had gotten used to it,” he said on Friday.
Ravenelle adjusted his tie, colored Raiders’ red, at his emptied third-floor South Street Elementary School office.
Above him hung a box containing a small piece of wood. Handwritten on it was the number “7” in red and the number “6″ in blue, a piece of wood broken of the goalpost used in the 1946 Turkey Day Classic.
“Unlike other jobs, this is not just a job, and if it is just a job, you shouldn’t be doing it,” said Ravenelle, who reported for work as superintendent for the last time on Friday.
The Massachusetts Association of School Superintendent’s 2016 Superintendent of the Year, Ravenelle said he steps away after years of stretching at times strained budgets to allow all students, regardless of wealth or health, are given the necessary support to succeed.
It’s no small task, he said, and one on which his successor, incoming acting Superintendent Robert Jokela, will continue to work.
Since he was hired in 2005, Ravenelle said he has carried one major aspect of his job -- budgeting -- in step with “one major philosophy.”
“That is to provide a comprehensive public education,” he said.
Each student will excel at something, and the role of the educator is to figure out what that something is, said Ravenelle.
“Whatever you do, and however you make the cuts, you cannot totally eliminate anything from the curriculum, because that one thing may be the thing that somebody is good at,” he said.
Ravenelle was raised in Sturbridge, the Worcester County town that, as did Fitchburg, boomed with industry before the economic downturn of the 1980s, a parallel that might explain why he never felt like an outsider here, he mused.
Fitchburg, he said, is a community that is invested, and takes pride, in its public school system. He noted the alumni association for Fitchburg High School, which he said hands out $100,000 in scholarships annually, a sum rivaling those of private institutions, largely comprised of donations of $25, $50 and $75.
“The community has always been invested in their schools, always,” he said.
Those schools saw the introductions of new programs and initiatives during Ravenelle’s tenure, including the adoption of new curriculum the helped increase Advanced Placement participation at the high school five-fold.
Last year, the district joined Footsteps2Brilliance, an early literacy program that children uses a game-like interface to teach children to read using no more than a smartphones.
The program is bilingual in Spanish and English, meaning “a family could be learning English by working with a 4-year-old.”
While expensive, the district “cobbled together” funding through grants, support from Fitchburg State University and the United Way, said Ravenelle. Today, the program is available for free to anyone in the city’s zip code.
In assessing the needs of the district, Ravenelle portrayed a deep sense of responsibility to giving all students the best education possible.
For many, he said, that means lowering the hurdles to learning. “There’s nothing homogenous about our district,” he said, students come from varying levels of wealth or poverty, their first language may be one other than English, and some carry trauma into the classroom.
The public school system has changed, he said. With waning participation in faith institutions came the transfer of some charitable functions to the schools. All eight schools in the district house a food pantry, and store clothing for students.
With the increase in children with medical conditions and emotional needs came responsibilities for school nurses once held by medical doctors, and behavioral challenges put to teachers before they’re able to begin a lesson, he said.
“Those medically involved kids should be in school with their peers, those kids that have autism, who have disabilities that make it hard for them to learn, they should be in school with us.”
And while dealing with those issues, he also had to address school safety as the number of school shootings increased nationwide. Does the district need bulletproof glass? How about metal detectors? he said.
When he began his tenure, school doors remained largely passable, while today “controlled entry” systems mean no one gets in undetected.
“All of these things have been added, but this is the important part: Rightfully so,” he said.
Ravenelle acknowledged the district is facing challenges, pointing to aging school buildings and the string of ongoing repairs that have some Crocker Elementary School students continuing to attend St. Anthony School.
Later this month, he will begin a new job as director of Century 21 at William James College, an organization run by the graduate school of psychology in Newton that provides professional development to teachers.
Asked what his proudest moment was as superintendent of Fitchburg Public Schools, Ravenelle paused.
Holding back tears, he recalled a staff member who had a passion for therapy animals, and developed a program through which her therapy dog worked with students.
Eyes glassy and red, Ravenelle said he’s used to correcting people who assume all students look forward to school vacation.
“For a lot of our kids, we’re the best thing going. We’re it,” he said. “School is where they get three meals a day, school is where it’s safe. School is where someone is affirming them on a regular basis, school is where their friends are. So it’s really that, it’s the interactions I’ve had with kids, one-on-one.”