AYER SHIRLEY -- When you first meet Dr. Mary Malone, Ayer Shirley Regional School District's new superintendent as of July 1, you know that you are meeting someone with a lot of energy and passion for her work.
On the day of her meeting with a reporter in her office at Page Hilltop Elementary School, the high school building construction had disrupted the school district's Internet and telephone system, and Malone was working to ensure that all calls and emails to the superintendent's office were delivered to her cellphone and returned.
A lifelong resident of Haverhill, Malone previously worked as a teacher, guidance counselor, assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent. She said she always knew her place was in education.
She began her teaching career as a grade 6 elementary school teacher in two parochial schools, after which she taught eighth-grade English at Nettle Middle School in Haverhill, her alma mater for grammar school.
"It was really interesting to work with my former teachers," she reminisced.
Malone went on to earn her guidance degree at Salem State University so that she could continue to work directly with students.
"It was almost like two degrees in one, because (in guidance) you have to do a lot of self-examination. It causes you to reflect on yourself, and so at that time I felt like I really grew," she explained.
She earned her doctorate in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University.
The search for a new ASRSD superintendent was initiated when the newly formed regional school district's first superintendent, Carl Mock, announced that he would be leaving when his three-year contract expired at the end of June. One of four finalists of 24 applicants for the position, Malone stood out with several members of the School Committee as someone who made a special effort to connect with the public.
Just 30 days into her tenure at Ayer Shirley, Malone had already begun to use her communication skills to strengthen the partnership between the two communities and within the district.
Careful to praise the work already done on the school district's website, she said she is working on making it even more user friendly.
"The district and school websites are the welcome wagon and entry points to the district," she said. "People want information. They may be thinking of moving or coming to our schools, so they are going to go to the website. It's an area I am looking at to make more informative and communicative. People need to know, 'How can I reach out to the superintendent or principal?'"
Malone is looking at how the school principals put together their monthly newsletters, and has started conversations with the two local public access cable television stations about doing a monthly show similar to the one she did in Haverhill.
There are many residents in both towns who don't have children in the schools but want to know about the schools," she said. "People (in Haverhill) said they loved learning what is happening and where their tax dollars are going. You make more friends and build support.
"(Communication is) definitely a priority," she said, "within the district and within our teams and working as a school system. One of my goals is to strengthen the regional partnership -- meeting people and attending events, being visible and being transparent and building relationships."
She is also looking at the facilities and making sure that they are welcoming to parents and the community and engaging people.
A Professional Learning Community
When asked how the district can ensure that students are working at a high level through means other than standardized testing, Malone honed in on "personalizing teaching."
Formative assessments are administered to students in short windows of time, so a teacher should assess a student's prior knowledge and mastery," she responded. "Those should be fundamentals, because (students) don't want to repeat what they already know. We want students to keep progressing. That is differentiated instruction."
She added that teachers need the skills and resources to do highly effective teaching, and stressed the need to assess what the district has in terms of technology, as well as what the district's goals are with regard to their use.
"We have to be sure decisions are informed, (get) feedback from teachers (and) do some observations of teaching and learning," she said.
"We are building the Ayer Shirley Regional School District as a professional learning community. Together, through collaboration, we as a community of educators will build our skill set to meet the needs of the young, curious, inspiring children (of the school district)," she said.
Malone plans to actively engage with students and staff throughout the day and be extremely visible in all of the schools.
"I want them to know who their superintendent is," she stated. "I want them to know me."
She said that she has already met a number of summer-school students and plans to form a student advisory group of middle- and high-school students.
"If you really want to know what is going on, you go to the students," she said. "They are a wonderful source of information and can give feedback and insights about what they need, what they love ... The students should never be overlooked."
So how does it feel to be at Ayer Shirley after having spent most of her career in Haverhill?
"I made the right decision and I'm very happy," she responded, adding that she first did her due diligence in researching the towns and school district. "There are great people here at Ayer and Shirley. The staff and administrators in this district are wonderful, very dedicated and passionate people, and that energizes and motivates me."
"Everybody wants to build the Ayer Shirley School District," she said. "(We) want to excel and attract and retain students, so it's a good place to start, with common goals and common ground."