An interview with Superintendent Barbara Malkas
Text and photos by Steev Riccardo
“This is very important work, it’s very powerful work, all of us can speak to those teachers that had an impact on our lives. We remember them and we remember them for life. Wouldn’t it be great if our future students felt that every one of their teachers had an impact on their lives.”
-- Barbara Malkas, Webster Superintendent of Schools
Webster - When you meet Barbara Malkas and spend some time with her, it’s quite easy to see why she was the unanimous choice to become Webster’s new Superintendent of School. Not only is she very knowledgeable and well educated, she’s also extremely “cool.”
Malkas, who was born and raised in Queens, New York, has an Amelia Earhart framed photo on the wall in her office and sports a bumper sticker on her car that reads “PHD Diva.” She definitely has personality and style to go with her impressive educational background and her freshness may be just what Webster needs.
She attended St. Mary’s school in Queens and graduated from St. Michaels Academy, a school she said had great diversity. “I went to school with girls from Little Italy, Chinatown, Spanish Harlem, girls like me who struggled economically, and the girls who pulled up in limousines with drivers. That was a great learning experience.”
After high school Malkas earned a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at St Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, NY. “My goal at that time was to go into clinical chemistry and I got an internship between my junior and senior year working in a lab, and hated it. I am not the type of person who should be in a lab all day, I am a people person.”
Malkas decided to take a temporary teaching job at St. Xavier High School in Brooklyn. “I walked into the classroom and never looked back. I love education, I love the field, for me, it has been my education that provided a path in life that is wonderful. I see education as the key to a life. If you open your mind, you have the opportunity to have a life.”
Malkas continued to teach in both Brooklyn and Queens for a few more years before meeting her future husband, getting married, and moving to Western Massachusetts in 1986. She then taught for 2 ½ years at Pittsfield High School before being laid off unexpectedly, and had to work in Human Resources for 4 years.
As she had hoped, she found herself back in education before long and landed her first administrative position at McCann Technical School in North Adams. At the same time, she raised a family and received a Master’s Degree and then a Ph.D from Sage College of Albany, NY.
Eventually she moved back to Pittsfield High School where she became the Assistant Superintendent for a year and then the Deputy Superintendent for the next four years.
This year she felt it was time to make the move to Superintendent and applied in six Massachusetts districts and was a finalist in four of them, one of which was the Webster job, which was her first choice.
“I wanted Webster and I was so happy that Webster wanted me.”
Malkas feels that Webster is very similar to Pittsfield and that is what interested her in the job. “The demographic profile is almost identical, which is what I wanted.”
“When you make a difference in a district like Webster, you know it, you know that you have accomplished something. When you can truly make an educational difference for children that need it the most, it provides you a life.”
She knows that there are challenges with this job, one of them the attendance problem, which has lowered the graduation rate at the high school. She acknowledges that “there definitely is an attendance issue.”
To address it, Malkas is part of a committee that consists of many of the key educational players in the school system, and their goal is to find out why the problem exists and fix it.
“We did a trend data analysis where we looked at our trends from 2008-09 through to today and our average daily attendance, which is part of our adequate yearly progress, a No Child Left Behind indicator, and it is very clear that this is an area where we need to have an aligned curriculum. We need to have engaging instruction. You can have the best program in the world but if the kids aren’t showing up and attending school, the kids don’t have access to it.”
“The attendance problem is significant enough for us to have it as a district wide goal and for me to establish it as a goal for my own personal performance.”
Malkas said that this attendance issue is a problem across the board and not just at the high school level.
“What we have not yet done and what we will do as we go forward with this school year is to look at and see if there is a pattern of poor attendance. If a student is hitting ninth and tenth grade and needing to repeat course work because they are not getting credit because of attendance issues, is that a matter that we see being replicated from their experience in middle school and their experience at the elementary level? If it is, then we will know that the targeted intervention has to be working with parents and students at the elementary level. Or is really a secondary phenomenon?”
Malkas feels that the attendance problem goes hand and hand with the graduation rate.
“We want a 100% graduation rate and right now we are below the state average and that is a concern. A student who drops out of school in this day and age in this economy is doomed to a life of poverty.”
“For the kids who are graduating we are doing a great job, those kids are able to access scholarships, they are attending two- or four- year colleges, they are doing fine. It’s how do we get more kids to get across the stage. These are not problems that the school system can solve in isolation; we really have to work with our community partners. It’s, how do we engage the Chamber in helping us develop career aspirations for students so that they understand that this is the level of education I need to attain in order to have the job I want?”
Malkas also is very aware and interested in finding a medium for social networking and the role it plays in schools today. “What most districts try to do is, they try to implement an all-or-nothing policy. But anything we ever ban kids from, for years they have figured out a way to get around that ban.”
Although it’s early in the game, Malkas is leaning towards possibly utilizing social networking in the way that Burlington High School and other schools do, encouraging kids to use the tools, but use them in an effective and smart way.
In our interview, Malkas was open to answering anything that was put on the table. When asked about the school cafeteria food and what could be done to improve it, she said, “Every district has this issue to deal with.”
“There are limitations that are part of the federal guidelines for nutrition and then there are limitations that have to do with budgetary restraints. It’s a constant work in progress. How can we provide a high quality product within the restrictions that we have? There are opportunities for us to improve everything that we do, including the cafeteria food.”
Speaking of improvements, Malkas also addressed maintenance concerns at the high school. “The new elementary school impacts grades K through 4, which means it impacts the middle school. The middle school is going to be reconfigured to grades 5 through 8 and that impacts the high school, so this building project is really a district project, which is very exciting and gives us a lot of opportunities.”
“The intent is to move forward with the Park Avenue project and look at how we are using space at the high school. It doesn’t need a new building, but it does need some work.”
Ultimately, Malkas said that she will continue with many of the practices that are in place with the school committee, which she feels are good practices, but she also knows there is always room to grow and improve. “Communication is important, I have already posted on the school’s website, I will be posting on the school’s Facebook page and I plan on having some community forums at the beginning of the school year.”
She is also looking forward to working with another newcomer to Webster, recently appointed Bartlett High School Principal Steven Knowlton. “He is a veteran principal. I think the town is going to be very impressed with his drive and focus. I think the staff is going to be really pleased with his clarity of vision. He is going to change the way we do business in his school and he has my full support.”
Lastly, so about the Amelia Earhart picture on the wall? “I admire Amelia Earhart, considering the time she lived in, she was a woman that flew planes, she was really stepping outside and taking risks, she loved what she was doing and she took those risks. I keep her picture here in my office to remind me that sometimes you have to take a risk, that’s living, if once in a while you step out and take that risk and do something that you can be passionate about.”
It was no risk bringing Barbara Malkas to Webster; she’s the real deal, kind of like Amelia Earhart.
- Tuesday, 14 August 2012
- Posted in Categories: : News