Principal Sidell reflects on his first year in Carlisle

by Karina Coombs

04aKC-DennetSidell
Carlisle Elementary Principal Dennet Sidell.
(Photo by Karina Coombs)

“This has been a wonderful experience. I feel that people have been open to having me come in,” said Dr. Dennet Sidell of his first year as principal of grades K-4 at the Carlisle School. “I think I’ve worked hard to build relationships that are professional with teachers, students and parents.”

Sidell joined the Carlisle School in July 2012 after five years as an elementary principal in Melrose. He also has 18 years of classroom teaching experience with grades 2, 4, and 5 in a number of schools throughout the state, and has taught at Lesley University since 2006. Sidell credits his teaching background with helping him to better communicate with teachers and be a more effective instructional leader. “For me to really know what [it is to teach] and to be able to talk to teachers in their language, so to speak, gives me a lot of validity.”

Children first

A simple phrase on the Carlisle School website first attracted Sidell last year and continues to impress him. “I went on the school website and saw ‘teaching to the whole child.’ I just love that.” A follow-up meeting with the teachers confirmed Sidell would indeed find that philosophy at work within Carlisle. “Academics are important, but so is good citizenship [and] so is empathy,” he explained.

Sidell encourages parents to continue advocating for their children and hopes he has done a good job of opening his doors to the entire Carlisle School community. “I want to be seen as someone you can approach [and] don’t want parents to be afraid or hesitant to come in. I’ve had parents apologize for coming in with an issue or being ‘one of those parents,’” he explained. “I’m not sure I [even] know what that means,” he tells them. “You are advocating for your kids.

Sidell also believes collaboration within grade levels is integral in keeping K-4 levels strong and is consistent with his mantra of “children first.” “Teachers really look to have students first and look at individual needs,” he said, explaining that teachers meet with each other weekly and also with him. “It’s in the schedule,” said Sidell. “Carlisle has said, ‘this is important to us.’ That allows teachers to be moving together, forward.”

Working with Literary Specialist Susan Bober, Sidell hopes to increase vertical collaboration at the school by allowing time for teachers between grades to work together and better meet the needs of their students. “The more time I can get teachers to talk [together] is great,” he explained. “They love and want that [and it is] in balance with other professional development.”

New building

While he was hired before the new school building project was completed, Sidell could not be happier with the new facilities, explaining they are more visually appealing and offer increased space for learning. “The new building is beautiful, “he said. “I thought it was designed really well for children. I love the small rooms in between the classrooms of first and second grade because it allows space for teachers, specialists and volunteers to help kids [while still being] part of the class.”

It will take a number of years to know if the new building and renovations of older sections, including the community room and engineering room, bring more families to Carlisle, but Sidell believes they ultimately will. “Now you have a building to match the reputation of the Carlisle School.”

While acknowledging it might just be a coincidence, Sidell noted that the kindergarten numbers are already higher than expected for next year. The school will be moving to four kindergarten classes for the 2013-2014 year from its current three.

Foreign language

Sidell explained that children entering kindergarten in the fall would receive Chinese language instruction for five years. “Lots of research talks about students being introduced to sounds in younger grades, even if they aren’t learning the language,” he said. “When they have it introduced later in life they already [know those familiar sounds] and it is then easier for them to adapt to a new language.”

Fifth grade provides students with a term of instruction in each language offered in the school (Chinese, French and Spanish), and in the sixth grade students can select the language they would like to focus on, having been exposed to them all. “I think parents should be very happy that we have foreign language in the elementary,” said Sidell. “So many schools want it, but haven’t been able to put the program in.”

Technology

With an annual technology budget of $80,000, the Carlisle School has been able to integrate electronic learning tools in classrooms at every grade. Active boards were recently added to kindergarten and first-grade classrooms and Sidell already sees their benefits. “There is a lot of research regarding gross motor skills and [this type of] technology for grades K-2 particularly. It is used with morning meetings, math and English Language Arts (ELA),” he explained.

While grade 7 students currently use iPads, Sidell said he is starting to look at other districts to see how iPads could benefit younger grades, noting there are applications that are geared to both struggling and gifted learners, but explained he was not looking to add technology just for the sake of technology.

Sidell is also taking a look at “flip teaching” which would allow teachers to record mini web-based lessons that students could view and practice at home. “It allows a child to preview information before they come in and learn something cold,” Sidell explained, emphasizing that he has just started researching it and does not want to put more of a burden on teachers already pressed for time unless a new program is helpful.

Retirements

“I feel like I came to the party a little late,” said Sidell when talking about the upcoming retirements of both Superintendent/Middle School Principal Joyce Mehaffey and Director of Student Support Services Karen Slack. “I think losing both of them would not be in my ultimate plan, but we adjust, we look and I think we have two great candidates coming in,” added Sidell, referring to Joan Wickman and Jack Tiano.

While having two administrators under one roof was new to Sidell, he explained that having Mehaffey’s help was invaluable during his first year. “It’s wonderful that I [had] another principal to talk to, especially someone that’s been here for multiple years and knows the Carlisle community and culture. I’ve loved that collaboration.” Sidell explained that there would be some overlap of Mehaffey and Wickman that would help with the adjustment.

Also new to Sidell was having the Director of Student Support Services in the same building. “[It’s] been good to be able to have and has been a great support throughout my first year. It’s been great to be able to ask questions and share experiences,” he explained. “I’m hoping that Jack and I will work as closely together as Karen and I did and people will see us as a team, working together for all kids in the classroom and service all students.”

Getting ready for next year

Sidell also credits Administrative Assistant Bev Willard and Office Assistant Jane White for helping him throughout his first year, answering his questions on a daily basis and allowing him to catch up. “I have never worked with more effective and efficient office staff,” he said. “They are so good at what they do.”

With school ending on June 24, Sidell explained he will enjoy the break with his wife and five children, but is already planning for next year and hopes to work once again with teachers during their summer workshops, as he did last year. “I would like to do that again. [It] allows me to look at what they are doing [and] I love to be a part of it.” Sidell will also be meeting with Wickman and Tiano to help them get ready and “learn their philosophies.”

Sidell is looking forward to his second year in Carlisle and could not be more pleased with his decision to take the position. “I am just in heaven to be able to really spend the majority of my time being an instructional leader and support to students, teachers and parents,” he said. “I really appreciate a district that pushes me to do that. We’re all here to help kids succeed.” ∆