Conclusion of 3-part series
By M.E. Jones
AYER — Ayer High School Principal Don Parker looks forward to this school year as one of endings and beginnings, challenges and opportunities, expectations and excitement.
Parker, 65, will retire at the end of the school year, wrapping up a 44-year career in education. The school year’s close will also mark the end of the Ayer Public School District and the start of the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District, which becomes operational July 1.
Next year, Parker will have a realm of possibility to explore, beyond familiar halls he’s presided over for so long, that may be in the throes of renovation by then. He intends to find meaningful work to do, he said. Chances are it will involve education.
In a recent interview, Parker said he was as enthusiastic as he always is about the start of a new school year. It shows. The spark comes from “believing in what you do,” he said. “Different ideas will come in” with the next principal, he said, but his role is clear. “My job is to prepare the school to move forward.”
Positive changes are already under way, he said, citing added courses in digital photography, broadcast journalism, new electives in social studies and English and preparations for new Advanced Placement courses, including Spanish and biology.
He rolled off a list of new hires that includes two special-education teachers, an English teacher who also happens to be an Ayer High alumnus, and two new math teachers, one with a background in the banking industry. All have solid credentials and unique talents.
“It’s a strong group,” he said, adding that the roster will be complete when one more second-semester Spanish teacher is hired.
Looking back on the career he entered at 21, Parker shared philosophical views, developed over the years.
“It’s not easy to come in new,” he said, recalling his own early experiences and envisioning what it might be like for administrators and teachers in a new region. “But it will bring healthy changes.”
Every system has strengths and weaknesses, he said, including the new region, and everybody will be part of the evolution as a new paradigm takes shape. “Kids, teachers, we all have to change,” he said. “This is a chance to do very good things.”
Harking back to remarks he made to the School Committee, Parker said that in a world with so much “negativity” in it, he’s glad to be able to do what he loves, and to have done it for so long in a town that by and large has been “positive” in its support for the schools.
The school system has steadily improved over the last few years, in large part thanks to work Superintendent George Frost has done to help get its finances back on track. Parker said the formation of the Tri Board — Selectmen, Finance and School committees — was another step in the right direction, bridging the gap between municipal government and the school district.
For example, when all three boards take a “similar mind-set” on the budget to Town Meeting, rather than squabbling over priorities, a more cogent presentation can be made to voters, he said.
And the town has done “so many things right,” in his view. For example, working to create a well-balanced community with a strong manufacturing base was “so important,” even more so after Fort Devens closed. The town did a good job “shifting focus,” Parker said. And the understanding is that nobody is cavalier about spending taxpayers’ money.
That’s certainly true in the schools, Parker said.
“There are moments when the superintendent probably dreads my coming to a School Committee meeting” to ask for money for a high-school program, new textbooks and graduation, he said. “But we’ve been judicious, moderate in our requests — I think people understand that.”
And the schools have made “significant improvements” people can see, he added.
Retrospective on the renovation
In the mid-1970’s, with Fort Devens active, the Ayer Public School District had 1,800 students, 1,200 at the high school.
The building could revisit that peak as a regional middle-high school for Ayer and Shirley. But by then, a prospective building project should be well underway, if not complete, including renovation of the existing building and addition of a science wing.
Back in the 1970s, without block scheduling to distribute students throughout the building, there was a space crunch. The auditorium — once a showcase theater — was pressed into service as a study hall, without desks. That dual use was hard on the facility, Parker said, and it deteriorated. He hopes the upcoming makeover includes substantial upgrades to the auditorium, he said, adding to small-ticket improvements made over the last few years.
The cafeteria also suffers from what the superintendent has called “benign neglect” in recent years. Lockers need bodywork and a paint job, and a punch list of other items inside and outside the 50-year-old building needs attention.
Parker acknowledged the infrastructure needs a major upgrade.
“There’s a lot to do,” he said. But he smiled, and his eyes sparkled.
“These are exciting times!” he said.