Compiled by Irene Racz and Mike Dunphy
This is the first of two parts of an interview with Montpelier’s new school superintendent, Elizabeth “Libby” Bonesteel. The second part will appear in the July 19 issue of The Bridge.
In this part, Bonesteel discusses her background and motivation for seeking the position, as well as the challenges she expects to face. The second part will explore her views on the challenges facing students and teachers and how to maximize opportunities for students.
Comments have been edited for length.
Bridge: How do you define the role of superintendent?
Libby Bonesteel: As the lead learner of any system, as the person who’s responsible to ensure all students are learning and that we have the systems in place to make that happen. Those are the things that I’ll be looking at and really studying with my leadership team.
What motivated you to apply for this position?
Bonesteel: As a director of curriculum and instruction [her previous job at Franklin-Northwest Supervisory Union], you get to a point where you’re thinking, ‘What’s the next step? I’ve done what I need to do here, and it’s time to have fresh eyes on the system.’ I love my colleagues there and they’re doing such phenomenal work. But it was time for me to use my brain in a different way.
So the idea of a new challenge, new learning the idea of going into a different place, with a different system, and with different responsibilities, is intriguing. A cornerstone of my career is how do I influence the most children. As a teacher, of course, that was in my classroom. And as a curriculum director, it was within my five schools. And now, as a superintendent, there’s a piece I can add to it to ensure all kids learn at a high level.
What in your past experience most applies to this job? What are the best things that you bring to it?
Bonesteel: My work for Franklin-Northwest taught me how to think in systems, where I’m not just thinking about one content area or about one group of children or about a particular school, but how the system works so that all the gears are turning together and we’re all focused on one common idea of what it means to educate our children. You always bring your teaching credentials and experiences with you wherever you go. I certainly have those, stories that make me laugh and stories that make me cry, and I can’t help but have those as part of me.
Is there anything you learned about the position or that reframed your perception of the position through the interview process?
Bonesteel: One of the things that drew me to Montpelier was their focus on race and the Black Lives Matter movement. That simply isn’t a conversation in schools in Vermont at the level and in the way Montpelier is talking about it. If you saw my resume, you know I’ve worked in inner-city schools and with incredibly impoverished students, and my passion is that population.
Living in Vermont you don’t necessarily get that opportunity. But Montpelier is having the conversation that we need to have around white privilege, what that means, and how we value all people. And when you have such a focus on equity you can’t help but bring in issues around class as well. How do we ensure that all kids learn, not just the kids who are going to learn regardless?
What do you see as your biggest challenges?
Bonesteel: Learning the system is an enormous challenge and ensuring that my own biases don’t come into play, that I do a lot more listening than talking. A big challenge is hearing from multiple constituencies, not just the loud voices but the voices we don’t often hear, to hear how their child is experiencing our schools. So a big challenge would be to get all voices heard. And how do you go about doing that when you are just learning a new system, because every educational system is different and the way people do things is different?
There are going to be a lot of voices to listen to, and there’s no way to make everybody happy.
Bonesteel: No. That’s pretty much true everywhere, right? However, we’re really clear on our vision and where we want to take the schools, and very clear as to why we’re making the decisions we’re making and where it fits in the grand scheme of things. I think that will help allay some of the fears and misconceptions in the community. It’s our job as a leadership team to create a good communication plan so that everybody knows where we’re going in the school system.
What do you think of the decision to merge Montpelier and Roxbury into one school district?
Bonesteel: I see it as a challenge for sure. How do we ensure that Roxbury is not just included but is part of our system and a guiding force in our system—as the other schools would be—as an equal member? And how do we ensure that kids who are coming into Montpelier from Roxbury for middle school and high school are truly part of that system so that we have equitable opportunities for all of our kids? I think we have a lot of challenges to overcome that we don’t even know yet, and we will be figuring those out.
Do you know how many new students are coming into middle and high schools next year from Roxbury?
Bonesteel: I could be wrong, but I believe it’s about 50 students.
Montpelier has been bucking the trend in Vermont and has seen an increase in students. Do you think this will continue?
Bonesteel: It’s my goal to ensure that our enrollment continues. We do that by getting the word out that our schools are so amazing. I’ll be looking at how we use social media to sell and brand our schools. This is an amazing place to live and raise your kids, whether it’s Montpelier or Roxbury. So I think that’s a real growth possibility. Our new director of curriculum and instruction is an absolute whiz at social media. The new elementary principal is also coming with that same lens. These platforms are how people find places when moving to a new community. So how do we really maximize these platforms to ensure that we’re selling our (towns) as an amazing place to live and work and play and have kids in the schools?