DEVENS — U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas’ visit to the Francis W. Parker Essential Charter School was the second stop on her recent trip to Devens; the first being Quiet Logistics, where she met with employees and company officials.
But if she was on a tight schedule, she never showed it.
She arrived at the Parker School without fanfare and right on time, accompanied by two aides, one of whom is a school trustee and parent of a Parker student.
“Hi, I’m Niki,” the smiling congresswoman said, extending a hand to folks who greeted her in the lobby.
On a tour of the building, Tsongas chatted with student guides Nellie Agosta, Kate Stafford and Maeve Grady. The three seniors, leaders of the Justice Committee, which is a peer-leadership group that mediates in student disciplinary matters, pointed out classrooms and gathering spots, described programs and sketched school history.
One of them said she spent the last semester in Nepal, where she took a course in Buddhism. The trip was her senior project and the experience of a lifetime, she said.
“Did you learn the secret to happiness?” Tsongas asked, lightly.
“Oh, yeah, I got it all down,” the girl quipped.
Another student guide told Tsongas about the building project that students, staff and parents worked on together a couple of years ago.
“It was a huge project,” she said, from fundraising to buy modular units that substantially extended the existing building — a former Fort Devens elementary school — to setting up the additions on moving day.
Junior Hannah Joseph was the facilitator in Room 6, where a mixed group of students representing every division in the seventh- through twelfth-grade school assembled for a roundtable-style discussion with Tsongas.
After treating their guest to a video featuring student commentary and school pride, they introduced themselves.
In the video and in person, the students called the Parker School their second home.
Tsongas said pretty much all she knew about the school came from her personal acquaintance with Parker founders Ted Sizer and his wife.
“You call it a community, but you come from all over,” she said. “How do you define that?”
Almost every student at the table had his or her own answer to that question, but the theme was the same. The “community” they were all talking about was their school.
For example: A community is a group with common interests, the same set of values, which are different at Parker than in traditional public schools; it changes you; it’s a place where you come together to solve problems you feel strongly about; it challenges you to be better as an individual and provides shared space for growth.
Tsongas said the scenarios were not unlike the House of Representatives.
“We come from mighty different places, but we come together to solve the problems of the nation,” she said. “I wonder if yours are different, as hard to resolve as ours are.”
Any such group, whether it’s a town, school or government body like Congress, does a lot “that defines us as a special community,” she said. “It’s all about effort.”
The discussion group picked up the thread. “It’s like the mixed grades here at Parker, space we all have a right to,” one student said.
“At my old school, we were physically separated,” one young man said. “It’s not like that here.” At Parker, students of all ages get to know each other, he said.
The students cited programs such as mentoring and informal “Buddy Bowl Games,” that encourage multi-age enrichment.
“I’ve heard of Gateway,” Tsongas said, naming the project presentation and assessment process by which students advance from one division to the next. “Do you all like that?”
The answer was yes. One student’s out-of sync Gateway experience sparked an epiphany for him. “I didn’t do it on time,” he said.
Typically, students “Gateway” in their sophomore year, he said, but he wasn’t ready and instead did it midway through his junior year. “I realized I wasn’t doing the work for my teachers but for myself,” he said. “I needed time to grow.”
The students said that at Parker, you learn new things at your own pace, in your own way and it’s “rewarding” to see what you can accomplish. “You can do it,” is the prevailing attitude, backed by the whole school. Gateways exemplify that philosophy.
Perks the students noted included picking their own projects, and that classmates, friends and family come to the presentations. They budget their own time and learn to focus on skills versus concepts.
Some of these students’ Gateway project topics included mentoring, television, Vietnam, brain diseases, Biblical allusions, the Cold War, static forces and the psychology of lying.
Conversation segued to senior projects. “It’s your last gateway,” one student said, and takes just about all year to complete. “You can really get into it!” she said.
Tsongas ended her visit in the school gym, where senior project exhibits were set up. Topics covered a range of creative, scientific and artistic interests, from modern dance to skiing to facial expressions determined by emotions to the mechanics and magic of a vintage pinball machine, completely restored to playing condition, lights, bells and all.