Foxborough just feels right for Schools Superintendent Debra Spinelli.
The town has been home for her and her family for 32 years. Her children have gone through the Foxborough school system and the district has employed her in various roles for a number of years.
Despite that familiarity, Spinelli found herself in a role last year she never thought she’d be in at any point in her educational career – Superintendent of Schools.
“I never thought I wanted to be a superintendent,” Spinelli said. “I think what happened was Foxborough. I just didn’t want to be a superintendent just to be a superintendent … it was never about a job or a title.”
So what convinced her to pursue the position to replace Dr. Christopher Martes in 2011?
“It was really about Foxborough,” said Spinelli. “I had a great four years with Chris [Martes as Assistant Superintendent]. He definitely righted the ship. He built the trust and the relationships that weren’t in place at the time in the administration. … it’s gone better than I thought.”
Spinelli started in the Foxborough Public School system in 1989 but left the district for four and a half years to serve as Stoughton’s Assistant Superintendent of Schools. Before taking over as Superintendent of Foxborough Schools in 2011, she served as Assistant Superintendent of Schools in town for four years.
Spinelli’s reason for spending more than two decades in Foxborough education is similar to why she decided to become superintendent … the town and community she works and lives in.
“This is my hometown,” Spinelli said. “My children went to school here and went to Foxborough High School. My husband and I have lived here for 32 years and obviously my love I have for the town as a parent and community member, as an administrator, as a teacher [is important].”
Spinelli said one of her main reasons for returning to Foxborough Public Schools were the teachers.
“We don’t have to set the bar high because [Foxborough teachers] do it for themselves,” Spinelli said. “New people joining it get that very soon, the bar is higher here. These are really talented professionals.”
The second-year superintendent takes pride in that reputation and looks to continue the tradition with every hire.
“I’m pretty serious about hiring the best and keeping the best,” Spinelli said. … “Other systems are financially troubled right now or continue to be but when we are hiring new staff, we don’t limit people to right out of college bachelor’s degree. We go after the best person and we manage the finances. It is within limits … [bit] we definitely hire the best and usually experienced and try and keep the best. We don’t have a lot of migration out of the district.”
Spinelli said her goal in year two as Superintendent of Schools is to continue what she started in year one, which can be summed up in the district’s mantra – “Great to Greater.”
“We are great, but we can be greater,” Spinelli said of the district as a whole. “We are looking for greater across all operations. It’s not just in the classroom, it’s the food service and it’s the transportation … anything at all that we are great at. We are looking for better efficiency … anything we can do to improve the programs and services to families and students.”
Spinelli said the mantra is a spin off of Dr. Martes’ message, from “good to great.”
“It’s funny how it started,” Spinelli said. “When I had my final interview for superintendent, I said Chris always used to quote the book, “Good to Great,” so I said we heard a lot about good to great from Chris and I think we are ready for great to greater. People picked up on that and that’s sort of our mantra.”
Spinelli highlighted several areas in which Foxborough Public Schools is currently “great” at:
“We run our own before and after school programs,” Spinelli said. “We don’t outsource anything. We own our own buses. We have a lot of control over our own operations. We employ mostly local people that we know who know the kids and get to know the families. We buy our own buses, we own our own buses, and we employ our own after school care people. We have a lot of control.
As Spinelli points out, that doesn’t happen in most places.
“[In Foxborough], parents can drop [kids] off in one location and they don’t have to worry about them being transported and they’re safe all day long. It’s much more safe and secure and beneficial to families.”
As for other strengths, Spinelli is quick to highlight the district’s talented musicians.
“We are known primarily for our music program,” Spinelli said. “We have an elite music program. Our music program is renowned. They are the most frequent finalists in the Essentially Ellington Jazz Music Festival in New York City. They performed at [President Obama’s] Inauguration. We had three music students audition and make the Grammy band that performs at the Grammy’s. Last year was our third student. … We have elite musicians.”
Spinelli said the district has also spent a lot of time with anti-bullying curriculum and will continue to do so in 2012-13.
“We have a lot of programs going on like ‘Caring School Communities,’ which was implemented a couple of years ago after I found it at a conference,” Spinelli said. “It’s like a classroom social competency program that builds kids’ skills to problem solve and address conflict themselves. That has had wonderful impact on our schools. We call it CORE program.”
Spinelli says through the program, students must discuss their disagreements with classmates.
“I think prevention is always the biggest key, no matter what the subject is,” Spinelli said.
As for issues the district is facing in 2012-13, Spinelli said she is looking to maintain the district’s fiscally responsible school system while continuing to offer “high quality programs.”
“There are more things we would like to do that we can’t do because even though we haven’t lost anything, we haven’t been able to improve and add,” said Spinelli.
The superintendent said the district was able to upgrade food services, expand on health programs and hire an elementary math specialist. But there’s still plenty more on her list to address.
“There’s still more we would like to do that would improve our educational program but you have to be conservative,” said Spinelli. “We developed a short wish list and said if we could develop one more thing what would it be and that was the elementary math specialist. … But the other things are still sitting on the list.”
Spinelli said the community can continue to expect Foxborough Public Schools to be well managed.
“It is a financially well-managed, fiscally responsible town and school system,” Spinelli said. … “[The community] should expect we have a well-managed school system, we have not had any cuts. Every year we sort of cross our fingers and hope to have a good year. We are opening as the economy starts working its way out we dodged that but you never know. … They should expect a high quality teaching staff. Our teachers take their professionalism very seriously.”
And as school opens to students Tuesday around the district, Spinelli readies for a second year at the helm of public education in Foxborough with confidence and pride.
“I feel lucky to work with the quality of people we have here,” Spinelli said. “We are expecting great to greater from every level.”
Spinelli said her and her husband, Don, didn’t know anyone when they moved to town 32 years ago but both have adopted the community as their “home” three decades later.
“I grew up in Hudson, he grew up in Taunton and we had purchased a house in another community and we didn’t feel that was the place,” Spinelli said. “We owned the house for two years and after a year-and-a-half started looking around.
“So we drove around and we drove through Foxborough and the neighborhoods. There’s not a bad neighborhood in Foxborough. We call it Middle Massachusetts – it’s not the wealthiest community but it’s not a poor community. Everything is homey. We love the town Common so we went to a realtor and asked for them to show us a house in a family neighborhood and we never left.”
What was it in town that made Spinelli and her husband feel at home? Everything.
“It just felt right,” Spinelli said. “I think that’s what people who come here feel. I also knew it was a good school system and as a schoolteacher that is important to me and we were going to have a family. I think that is exactly what happens to this day.”