New Tunbridge Principal Reaches Out to the Community

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 01, 2015
It seems strange that most school administrative contracts have a starting date of July 1. That’s nearly two months before students return to the classroom, two months before a school begins to fulfill its purpose.

Scott Farnsworth, hired as principal of Tunbridge Central School in May, had read in an education magazine some years ago about a new principal who started his tenure by meeting as many students and parents as he could before the first day of school. Farnsworth filed the idea away for when he took his first principal’s job. The pre-k-to-8 school sent a letter out in June giving families the option to meet him at their homes, at the school or after the start of the school year.

“For me, that’s important, because everybody had the opportunity, on their terms, to meet the new principal,” Farnsworth said in an interview in his office on Thursday, the second day of school for Tunbridge.

About 38 families took him up on his offer, and “maybe 24 said ‘we’d like to have you come to our house,’ ” Farnsworth said.

He sat on porches and at dining room tables and looked at student artwork. He heard one eighth-grader play a piano concerto. Another student took him out to the barn to see the calves and chickens. Mostly, though, he listened to what students and parents liked about the school and what they’d like to see changed.

Between training, meeting with staff, preparing for the school year and spending some of his summer with family, Farnsworth wasn’t able to meet with everyone who signed up to visit with him this summer. “I have failed so far in my mission,” he said. He realized, as summer rolled along, that “this is going to take me into the fall. ... Perhaps it was ambitious.”

And this was one of the lessons of Farnsworth’s first months as a school leader. The job is big, even at a school with 112 pupils and 30 faculty and staff, far fewer than at Hartford High School, where he was guidance director before becoming the director of guidance and counseling for the entire 1,600-student Hartford district.

It’s big because like many Upper Valley schools, Tunbridge Central has been labeled a “school in need of improvement” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which means it needs to raise student test scores. In addition, Vermont is requiring its small school districts to consolidate, and Tunbridge is partnering with Chelsea Public School and the Orange County Parent Child Center on literacy and numeracy programs for children in preschool through third grade. Tunbridge also is offering foreign language instruction for the first time, through Middlebury Interactive Languages, an online resource.

And it’s big, most importantly, because Tunbridge is turning a page. In March, the district fired then-Principal Richard Talbot. In May, Talbot pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of engaging in a prohibited act after a student told police that Talbot had touched her buttocks in his office. The case is still pending.

In announcing Farnsworth’s hiring, Orange-Windsor Supervisory Union Superintendent Bruce Labs said that “The first thing he has to do is rebuild relationships with everybody and get a sense of trust in that building.”

People have high expectations for Farnsworth. He grew up just down Route 110 in South Royalton and among the parents of his students are people he knew growing up.

“I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to the town and to the community,” he said.

After about 10 minutes of conversation Thursday morning, school secretary Tracy Vesper tapped on the door, calling Farnsworth away to a playground accident. Tacked to a bulletin board behind the chair he vacated was a typed statement that summarizes the stakes for public education: “The schools that are highly effective produce results that almost entirely overcome the effects of student background.”

When Farnsworth was named principal, Bill Hammond sent him an email. Like Farnsworth, Hammond moved from a high school job to an elementary principalship, at Marion Cross School in Norwich, where he’s now in his fourth year.

“The principal’s position can feel isolating,” Hammond said. He contacted Farnsworth to let him know he had someone he could call on.

“I was very happy that he got the job and confident that he could do a great one,” Hammond said.

Hammond has helped organize an Upper Valley Principals Association, which can put new principals (whose ranks include Cathy Newton at Ottauquechee School in Quechee and Ian Smith at Lebanon High School) in touch with veterans like John Grant, who’s been at Hartford Memorial Middle School for 20 years. Farnsworth also has a mentor through the Vermont Principals Association.

The expectations for principals have changed over time, Hammond said. In the past, a principal might have been responsible for the running of the building and the last word in student discipline. Now, “principals have much more responsibility for good instruction,” Hammond said.

Farnsworth echoed this, saying he was planning to spend a lot of time in the classroom.

First and foremost, the principal is still the person who sets the tone for a school. He or she encourages colleagues to take leadership roles and makes sure all students feel they can succeed, Hammond said.

So far, Farnsworth is receiving high marks.

“There’s a real emphasis now on taking care of each other and our community,” said Amy Bogardus, who teaches physical education to all grades and health to middle school students.

She’s also a 1991 graduate of Tunbridge Central. These days, the school feels different, and not just because her graduating class had 28 kids and this year’s has only five. The community seems less close. Of her classmates, she said, “I knew them all very well and I knew all their families very well.”

Farnsworth’s welcome to the school on the first day might spark a return of that cohesiveness. He stressed that “everybody has a place here,” Bogardus said. He told the students that if they see someone eating lunch alone to go sit with them.

“When you have that leadership model it’s contagious,” she said. “It just spreads.” It creates an atmosphere where kids feel safe, and that means they have a chance to learn.

Walt Garner has taught at Tunbridge Central for 20 years, and Farnsworth is the seventh principal he’s worked with. A middle school English teacher, Garner deployed a sturdy extended metaphor to describe school leadership. If the school is a ship, the principal is the captain.

“It’s always something of a course adjustment when a new person comes on at the helm,” Garner said. It can be unsettling, but “it can be reassuring, too, if the course needed changing.”

Farnsworth “seems to be the kind of guy who is listening to folks, but isn’t going to be swayed by the loudest voice,” Garner said. He’s a captain with his own compass.

“He’s a natural believer in others,” said Tracy Vesper, who was a high school classmate of Farnsworth’s for a year at South Royalton School, and who has been at Tunbridge Central for 14 years.

For 15 years, Farnsworth had a short walk to Hartford High School. Now he drives 35 minutes to North Tunbridge, and sees some of his students waiting for the bus along the way. His wife, Barbara, is executive director of Second Growth, a nonprofit that offers counseling and recovery services for young people who have struggled with substance abuse and violence. His three children are in the fifth, eighth and 10th grades in the Hartford schools.

Farnsworth turned 50 this year. He could have stayed in Hartford, but he considered that he’d be in education for another 12 or 15 years. “What do I want that to look like?” he asked himself. “What impact do I want to have? What kind of role do I want to take?”

He applied for the Tunbridge job for the opportunity to be on home soil. His father grew up in Randolph Center, his mother in East Randolph.

“There’s just something about being comfortable,” he said. “These are all knowns for me and when there are unknowns, people get stressed out. When I come to this area, things just calm down.”

Amid the daily work of running the school, Farnsworth plans to hold a homecoming this fall.

“I don’t even know what it’s going to look like yet,” he said. There’s no date yet, although it will likely coincide with one of a couple of events planned for October.

The aim is to bring people back to the school, to celebrate it, rally around it. “We’re building connections,” Farnsworth said. “The more connections you have the more people get that we’re not alone.”

On one of the visits he made this summer, one student ran to get artwork to show him, something he wouldn’t have seen, the student’s pride, if he had waited until the start of school to meet students, he said.

He also challenged students to draw him a picture or to write down something about themselves or the school. On the first day of school, envelopes started to pile up, and he put a small cloud of paper notes on the table in his office.

“I think part of a small central community school is to know the kids,” he said. What frightens them, what motivates them.

“How can I expect to be a part of a community … if I don’t understand, or if I haven’t said, ‘Look, I’m in this with you’?”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.