DEVENS — Brian Harrigan started his new job as Head of School at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School on July 1 but his official start date wasn’t his first day on campus.
Since being hired earlier this year and when he sat down with a reporter recently to talk about how it’s going, Harrigan already seemed right at home.
He’d familiarized himself with the building and met with staff and students, he said.
One question students asked him during a meet and greet event was easy to answer, Harrigan said. Would he stand outside school every morning, “like Todd did” to welcome students as they come in?
The former principal, who retired this year, was called by his first name, as are all of Parker’s teachers. He established the morning custom, which Harrigan said he’s happy to continue. One of the advantages of a small school, currently with an enrollment of 400 — is knowing everyone by name, he said.
Harrigan’s previous two administrative positions were in much larger suburban public school districts, as Principal of Natick High School from 2015 to 2022 and Assistant Principal at Westwood High from 2012- 2015.
During the interview, which he invited Director of Development, Katrina Tedstone, to sit in on, Harrigan shared his take on the newly-created Head of School position and traced his career path, linking his professional background and educational philosophy to that of the six-year, secondary public charter school, from its application process to its values, methods and mission.
“I feel like this is a culture where I’m respected” and one in which people work together and everyone learns from each other “in meaningful ways,” he said.
Tedstone agreed. One of the attributes that makes charter schools such as Parker different than other public school districts is that students get a choice. “People really want to be here,” she said.
As a Massachusetts “public charter school of choice” the Parker School accepts students from across the state who may apply at the 7th, 8th or 9th-grade level and are admitted by lottery.
Harrigan said that cut off is key. “It’s important for them to start at 7th grade, not 10th or 11th,” he said.
There are are no tests or entrance requirements besides state residency. Priority is given to applicants from the charter school’s regional network, which includes several Nashoba Valley towns.
Harrigan got a close look at how Parker operates at several “gateway” presentations he attended in June. Gateways, which, along with other measures, mark the transition point from one level to the next, are year-end wrap-ups in which students present the projects they’ve been working on all year.
Gateways closely align with grades 7-12 but are achieved differently, minus grading and tests.
Fronting a classroom peopled by family and faculty members, friends and classmates and a group of volunteer judges, each student gives his or her gateway presentation, often enhanced by models or visuals – a self-driving car, for example, an original video production, or an array of Tarot card decks.
Each student presentation is evaluated by the volunteer jury, which asks questions, deliberates in private and later shares its critical but friendly feedback. Meantime, students get feedback from peers.
“I was struck by how poised, thoughtful and respectful” the students were, Harrigan said. He was also impressed by their creativity and the work that went into their projects. For example, he said, one student preparing for the next level in Spanish delivered his entire presentation in that language.
Gateways, mentoring, portfolios and projects rather than tests, hands-on internships geared to career choices and real jobs, teachers deeply involved in student activities at every level, modes and methods geared to self-awareness, mutual respect and “learning how to learn.”
Practices that might be considered unconventional anyplace else are woven into the fabric at Parker. Students have more autonomy, but they are also supported all the way, Tedstone said.
And if a gateway rolls around and a student isn’t ready for the transition, there’s no impediment “and absolutely no shame” to adding another year as they move through the levels, Tedstone said, as each student progresses according to his or her own timetable, not just that of the school.
Harrigan said that’s one of the many things he loves about the Parker School.
Although the lottery-based admissions process gives special consideration to siblings of current Parker students, Tedstone said the stretch doesn’t include children of staff members, including her own.
Tedstone — a veteran Parker staffer who’s been on board since the school’s start-up days and is deeply committed to its mission — said her kids’ applications were entered in the lottery but they didn’t get in.
Disappointing, but it attests to the fairness of the system, she said.
Given the depth of his resume, which includes a variety of extra curricular activities as well as degrees, certifications and teaching and administrative experience, it was not luck of the draw that landed Harrigan his place at Parker, for which the board of directors obviously found him well qualified.
But as he tells it, this unique job opportunity came along at the right time in his career, after building experience and refining a skills set that the newly-created position calls for: combining the interactive role of principal and that of a superintendent, responsible for a range of administrative duties.
With an educational philosophy that fits the 27-year old charter school’s unconventional approach to teaching and learning, Harrigan sees the school “finding itself,” he said. The goal now, however, is the same: “To improve student experiences and serve all of them “as best we can.”
Seasoning his conversation with descriptive terms that fit the school’s lexicon, Harrigan used words like “authentic” to sketch his own forward momentum, and Parker’s.
“I want to spend the rest of my career in education,” he said, adding that this job allows him to “authentically work with kids.” The goal meshes seamlessly with the school’s mission, and so does the term “authentic,” part of a common vocabulary at Parker.
At a recent graduation, for example, where, in keeping with school tradition, every member of the graduating class was given the option to speak, the word cropped up in nearly every speech. At Parker, they could be their “authentic” selves for the first time, the student speakers said.
Tedstone and Harrigan agreed it was a cornerstone of the Parker School experience.
“What we have here is pretty special … everyone deserves a school like Parker,” Harrigan said.
As for why he veered away from the public school model, Harrigan said the notion hatched while taking doctoral classes at Boston College. “Little by little, I felt the public school environment wasn’t it,” he said. As the son of two educators, he knew the field was right for him, however, and when the Parker School position opened up, he was ready.
A graduate of Amherst College, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in 1994, Harrigan landed his first teaching job the same year at a small Jesuit secondary school in Washington, D.C.
Except for a three-year sidestep into the corporate world, as VP of a health policy firm in Cambridge, MA, he’s been an educator ever since.
Harrigan’s resume also lists an master’s degree in Secondary Education and other titles, certificates and academic degrees. He anticipates completing a Doctor of Education degree from Boston College in 2024.
Harrigan has no qualms, he said, about taking on a dual role as Head of School, with help from “extraordinary” people in the Parker leadership realm.
Academic Dean Deb Merriam, for example, one of the Parker School’s four founders.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention her … she truly runs this school,” Harrigan said.