New school boss doing homework
Weymouth’s new school superintendent, Kenneth Salim, a former biology teacher, says he’s going to take his time testing his hypotheses about how to improve the town’s schools.
First he plans to meet with students, teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, community leaders, and just regular folks to find out their assessment of the system and ideas for change. He says he’ll gather his data in formal focus groups, informal meetings, and while he’s shopping at the Weymouth Farmers Market and watching the tryouts for the high school fall sports.
“The real focus will be listening, learning, and observing. My primary activity is to get as complete a picture as possible of Weymouth public schools,” said Salim. “Only after that can I really begin to develop hypotheses around what are the goals and strategies we would use in the district.”
He credits his scientific approach to his biology background; he earned an undergraduate degree in the subject at Brown University in 1999, before going on to earn a master’s and doctorate in education from Harvard.
But the research also is necessary because, unlike the last three Weymouth superintendents, 35-year-old Salim didn’t work his way up through the Weymouth education ranks. He comes to the top job from the 55,000-student Boston school system, where he has been an administrator since 2006.
“We chose him because he’s a very intelligent man, and we hope he’ll take us to the next level,” said School Committee chairman Sean Guilfoyle. “He’s very strong on making sure kids are ready to go on to college, very technologically savvy.”
Close to 40 people applied for the job, which opened when Mary Jo Livingstone died unexpectedly in April 2011. She had been superintendent since 2007 and worked in the Weymouth schools for 25 years. None of the candidates came from within the district, Guilfoyle said.
“It was a weird thing — the first time we hired from outside the system” since the 1960s, he said.
The School Committee approved a three-year contract for Salim last month, with a salary of $155,000. He started work Aug. 1.
Robert Peterkin, former Cambridge superintendent and Salim’s adviser at Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program, said his former student is “a very good catch for Weymouth.”
During the interview process, Peterkin said Weymouth school officials called and asked whether Salim had any negatives. “The only thing I could say is he hasn’t been a superintendent,” Peterkin said.
He said Salim is a “very, very, very excellent teacher” and “a very smart guy” who with his wife, Jill Frankfort, won a prestigious Kauffman Foundation entrepreneurship award last year to start Persistence Plus, a company that helps students succeed in college.
“He researched [Weymouth] and thought it was one that was a good match for his skills,” Peterkin said. “He’s a great person. I think people will like him a lot; I think he’ll be fine.”
Salim, who was the first in his family to graduate from college, grew up in New York City, where his parents settled after leaving Indonesia. “My family is ethnically Chinese and faced discrimination in Indonesia. It’s a classic immigrant story. They were trying to find more opportunities, particularly educationally, for their kids,” he said.
He originally planned to go into biomedical research but discovered his love of teaching through service projects and tutoring while at Brown. He shifted gears and, after college, landed a job teaching biology to “150 10th-graders” at Brighton High School, he said.
While there, he developed an Advanced Placement program and partnerships with Harvard Medical School and other universities, as well as lasting relationships with students and colleagues. Last month, he went to the wedding of a student who was in his first class at Brighton High.
Salim taught in Brighton for five years, and at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education for a year, before going back to school to learn how to be a superintendent. He interned with the San Francisco Unified School District as a special assistant for policy and planning and then went to the Boston public schools, where his focus included improving students’ college readiness, teacher training, and new teacher mentoring.
He is currently president of Learning Forward, an international association for teacher professional development that will hold its annual conference in Boston in December.
While Salim’s career has been in larger school districts, he said he was attracted to Weymouth’s size. With close to 7,000 students, it was large enough to sustain a variety of programs but small enough that he could get to know everyone, he said. He said he also was impressed with the town’s “commitment to education.”
When School Committee members came to Boston to see him at work, “they were interviewing me, but I was also learning what they were excited about,” he said. “I really believe I’m an instructive and collaborative and innovative leader, and [Weymouth] is a school system that embraces those characteristics. I feel it is a good match.
“It’s a real opportunity for both the school system and myself,’’ said Salim, who lives in Charlestown. “I’m really excited to be part of this new community.’’
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.