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An in-depth look at new public-school superintendent

Dr. Elizabeth Homan, marathonerDr. Elizabeth Homan, marathoner.

UPDATED, July 21: One day before she officially became Arlington’s top education official, Dr. Elizabeth Homan posted a video to introduce herself as schools superintendent, and in it she mentions almost immediately, “You all can call me Liz.”

The video is accessible in five languages. As of July 17, the English-language version had 852 views, the Spanish version 14 views, the Portuguese version 12 views and the Mandarin and Japanese version 29 views each. That is nearly 1,000 views in less than three weeks.

In the seven-plus minutes of the video, she gives an overview of her life and career, explains her three core values of equity, empathy and excellence, and walks the viewer through her four-phase entry plan for leading the district and shows photographs of her husband, their two preschoolers and the family pet.(That last one would be Gertrude the dog, who stars in 21 clips on Homan’s personal YouTube channel, which went online in 2009.)

Those observable qualities – being active, analytical, communicative, technologically astute and authoritative yet approachable – seem to characterize Homan, 36, of Newton Corner, hired on a 6-1 vote by the School Committee in December. She officially began as superintendent on July 1, succeeding Kathleen Bodie, who retired June 30 after 13 years in the post. Homan’s annual salary is $192,000. District Human Resources Director Robert Spiegel also reported that Bodie's last salary was $207,021. 

Dr. Elizabeth Homan, July 2021New superintendent Homan / 2021 photo

Top priorities

In an interview with YourArlington earlier this month conducted primarily via email, Homan spelled out her two top immediate priorities:

  • Ensuring a safe and supportive return to full-time in-person learning in collaboration with team leaders, teachers, staff and families; and
  • Successful completion/implementation of the findings report and entry plan, including understanding the major strengths and challenges facing the school system – this to be achieved in part by meeting in person with staff, students and families. 

As allowed for by her transition contract, Homan worked during transitional time for the equivalent of 14 days from February through June with Arlington Public Schools, meeting with Bodie and other administrators, and touring all 10 campuses. 

She also participated in the June 28 retreat led by Bodie and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Roderick MacNeal Jr., which included reflection on the just-ended school year during the Covid-19 pandemic. At that event, “Major themes included flexibility, alignment across schools and departments, and ensuring the mental health and wellness of both staff and students,” Homan said.

“I am extremely grateful to the School Committee for the opportunity to so thoughtfully transition into this role,” Homan continued. “These meetings allowed me to learn about the budgeting and governance processes of Arlington, to learn how meetings and decision-making are currently structured, to discuss leaders’ hopes for the new school year with them directly, and to begin building critical relationships.”

Midwest, educational roots

Addressing 3 key groups

YourArlington asked Dr. Homan to specifically address three crucial stakeholder groups.

“Besides what I already sent to families and shared in my entry plan -- which includes an introductory letter to the whole community -- I would add these specific messages:

To students: I cannot wait to meet you, to learn more about each of you, and to support your learning. I hope you are having a wonderful and safe summer, spending a lot of time outdoors and with family and friends, and that you will join us ready to learn in the fall.

You can expect to see me around your schools next year, and I look forward to focus groups with you or visiting your classroom and seeing your brilliant minds in action in September.

As your superintendent, my first goal is always to make decisions and lead in a way that will empower you to make the most of your time with us (and after you graduate). You are the most important people in the schools, and your voices and ideas are very important to me. My door will always be open to all of you.

To families of our students: You entrust your most precious little people to us every single day, and that is not a responsibility I take lightly. I value your input, partnership and perspective, and I will work to integrate your voices and experiences into our planning and initiatives.

I will do my best to work with the administration, teachers and staff to deliver the absolute best educational experience possible for your children, because they deserve nothing less. I hope you will participate in "Family Listening Sessions" so that I can learn more about you and your experiences with the Arlington Public Schools: Click here to sign up >>

To residents: I understand a community’s schools as a resource not only for the families of our children, but for the entire community. I want to thank you for the support you have shown Arlington’s schools historically; as a result of that support, all Arlington residents will have the opportunity to enjoy the facilities of a beautiful new high school in the next several years.

I applied to Arlington because it is a community that values the arts, literacy, equity, inclusion and a holistic approach to educating our children -- all values that are important to me as a leader. I am looking forward to partnering with community leaders, organizations, commissions and businesses in the years ahead, and to welcoming you into our schools for special events, programs and projects.”

A third-generation educator who grew up in the rural Midwest, Homan was assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Waltham Public Schools immediately before coming to Arlington. Just prior to that, at the same district, she was administrator of educational technology integration for three years, overseeing all aspects of infrastructure and networking, device and software purchasing, systems and state reporting, as well as instructional technology and libraries.

As a child, she and her family lived in small farming towns in Illinois about three hours south of Chicago. “My memories of growing up in sleepy rural towns reminds me of the importance of relationships to all of the work we do in education. The places and people of my youth deeply valued relationships, neighborliness and the mantra ‘it takes a village’,” she said. “I see schools as a major part of that ‘village’ approach to building a caring community.”

Her post-K-12 education took place in the Midwest as well. Her degrees are doctor of philosophy in English and education, University of Michigan; master of science in education, Purdue University; and bachelor of arts in English, minor in secondary education, University of Illinois. Her educational licenses in Massachusetts are administrator: superintendent/assistant superintendent; administrator: supervisor/director non-core; and teacher: instructional technology, all levels.

Mom's influence

Educational leadership was modeled for her early on. Her mother recently retired after having been a math teacher, director of mathematics for grades K-8 and a school principal. She was also a dance-team coach, and Homan as a child sometimes accompanied her to on-campus athletic events at which the team was performing. She wrote: “In the summers, my sister and I would go with her to set up her classroom [in preparation for the upcoming school year]. We would draw on the chalkboards or stand on the desks to staple bulletin board borders or posters,” Homan recalled.

Also positively influencing her was her maternal grandfather, now in his 80s, who taught biology at the community-college level and was a jazz pianist who inspired Homan to play clarinet and alto saxophone in her middle- school and high-school marching and jazz bands. “Music was the foundation of my social and familial networks growing up,” she said. 

Another key person in Homan’s youth was Dr. Sarah Zerwin, the first English teacher she studied with who required her to read many texts by women and by people of color – practices not necessarily standard in most K-12 classrooms in that place and time. Zerwin, who still teaches high school, has also been a colleague and mentor to Homan and is still her friend. “Dr. Zerwin is a teacher who challenges her students to challenge themselves. She taught us how to facilitate our own discussions on topics that were deeply important to us as youth -- and demonstrated to me what truly student-centered teaching looks like.”

Contacted July 20, Zerwin said: "Liz was a thoughtful student of literature. She read carefully and thought creatively about the tough books on the curriculum. She was an active presence in class every single day.

"It has been joyful to watch her career evolve and to see how dedicated she has been to every single piece of it. Absolutely dedicated to her students when she was in the classroom. Absolutely dedicated to the teachers she served when she worked in instructional technology. Absolutely dedicated to her graduate studies along the way. And now absolutely dedicated to the school district she's leading." 

Books remain key in Homan’s life. “However, I also really enjoy mathematics, particularly applied mathematics like statistics,” she said. “My doctoral work combined ethnographic qualitative research with quantitative network analysis. I can draw the most informed conclusions or make the best decisions when I pair quantitative data with the stories people tell about their lived experiences.”

Here, in a Q&A format, are more of Homan’s answers to YourArlington’s questions. These inquiries address, among other topics, budgeting, finance, public governance, the construction of Arlington High School and best practices in education in a time of the continuing coronavirus.

How will your technical background help you run things going forward?

I think these experiences [in educational technology] gave me a 360-degree view of how school systems operate, because the technology of a school system is so embedded not only in its instructional practice but also in its daily operations. When I oversaw technological devices, systems, software and infrastructure, I needed to interact with all members of the system on a daily basis -- from teachers, students and families to the registrar’s office to state reporting and the Finance Committee. This work allowed me to grow in both my instructional vision and leadership and in my operational skills and understanding of how school systems operate and are organized.

What specific skills/experience can you bring to the continuing Arlington High School rebuilding project to ensure its highest-quality on-time within-budget completion?

One of the reasons I was interested in pursuing the Arlington position was because of the AHS building project; there are few things more exciting for a community than a new high school! I know this from experience; I was a member of the Waltham High School Building Committee and process from its inception and participated in the drafting of the educational plan for that project.

I bring my experience serving on the WHS building project, which is set to open at a similar time as AHS [September 2024 expected opening], to Arlington with me. Certainly, this project is different, and I have had many on-boarding meetings with Skanska, Consigli, HMFH Architects, and with members of the APS team to get oriented to this complex project. 

What can you as superintendent do to ensure that APS obtains the funding to accomplish its official goals, including two that have been emphasized by the School Committee: eventually having certified librarians and assistant principals at all campuses?

Thanks to Dr. Bodie’s and the team’s leadership and planning, and thanks to the support of the School Committee, we are well on our way to both these goals; in fact, we have already accomplished the second one. We are excited to welcome assistant principals into all our schools this fall. We also welcomed a new K-8 licensed librarian into the district this spring, which brings the district to three full-time librarians. I am a strong supporter of school libraries as the “cultural hubs” of a school community and as integral to early literacy and developing a love of reading and learning.

As the new superintendent, I will engage in inclusive strategic planning with the community to ensure that we can continue to move forward in these areas. Strategic planning will allow me to build, propose and advocate for budgets that have the community’s shared values and priorities at their center, including school librarians, appropriate support for all students, and any other priorities that may emerge as we recover from the pandemic. 

What have you learned about public governance and district financing in the first half of 2021? How important in your view are these twin issues to your overall role as superintendent?

A significant portion of my transitional time has been spent sitting in on School Committee and subcommittee meetings, Finance Committee meetings and Town Meeting. In my previous central office leadership roles, I participated in public governance processes, and I am familiar with public governance and budgeting procedures, though there are certainly differences between each school district, and between cities and towns.

3 favorite books

What are three of your favorite books – and why?

The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison -- This text was first introduced to me in my senior year of high school by Dr. Zerwin, and it is a window into the experiences of an urban black man in the early 20th century, grappling with the themes of identity, politics and intellectualism.

I love this book because every time I read it, I am challenged in a new way to consider my own intersectional identities and how our social structures either perpetuate or challenge inequities.

Dare to Lead by Brené  Brown -- This is a text I have consistently come back to in my leadership work over the past several years. Dr. Brown is a scholar of effective leadership strategies, and this book along with some of her other work has had a significant impact on my own leadership style and thinking.

This book articulates specific strategies for building strong and cohesive teams that are willing to tackle challenging problems, and it is a text I often draw from or go back to when faced with new leadership opportunities or challenges.

Cultivating Genius by Dr. Gholdy E. Muhammad -- I credit the teachers of my former district for bringing this to my attention. Muhammad’s research draws upon the history of 19th-century black women’s intellectual societies to propose a framework for thinking about “excellence” as grounded in identity development, skill development, intellectual development and criticality.

My book list is always evolving. It was hard to pick three, but these are my favorites at the moment!

I have learned about Arlington’s school and town budget process this spring, both through observations of these meetings and through my collaborations with Dr. Bodie and members of the central office leadership team.

Public governance and financing are of course absolutely critical to my role as superintendent; a school system’s values are reflected in its budget, and a responsible school budget ensures that we use resources as efficiently as possible without sacrificing the rich opportunities that our schools offer or compromising the resources students need for success. I look forward to working with the School Committee to ensure that we purposefully plan for the goals and priorities articulated in the five-year budget plan as we enter year three of that plan.

How would you assure APS elected officials, staff and the general community that you have everything it takes to be a great superintendent even though you are younger than both your primary former competitor and your immediate predecessor?

The experiences and the relationships I have built throughout my 14 years in education have taught me that there is some wisdom that can come only from experience, and that due to where I am in my career journey, I of course have learning left to do and wisdom left to gain. 

I believe that the assurance that I have what it takes to lead Arlington’s schools will come from the work I will do in the schools and with the community. I am a believer that actions speak louder than words, and so it is my intention to demonstrate to the community my capacity and capability to effectively lead our schools through my actions, planning and implementation of excellent programming.

What is your perspective on eventually/ gradually rescinding the pandemic protocols that have been in place throughout APS since mid-March 2020?

As we continue to vaccinate adults and look forward to opening up vaccinations to children under age 12, I am sure we will see a loosening of some, but not all, pandemic protocols in the 2021-22 school year. Summer programs are operating with the same protocols as the 2020-21 school year, per Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Massachusetts Department of Public Health guidelines. We are waiting for guidance from the state as it relates to many of these protocols in the fall and are forming a team to engage in planning for fall 2021. This team will put together protocols for feedback from the wider community, including the School Committee, in August. We will rely on expectations and guidelines from the state to draft initial protocols for APS. 

Some colleges require proof of Covid-19 vaccination for staff and/or students. Would this be legal at APS? Would it be feasible at APS? If it were legal and feasible, would you support it?

We are investigating the legality and feasibility of these possibilities as a leadership team and will incorporate our expectations into the plan we submit to the School Committee in August. We are both waiting to see what DESE’s stance is on such measures and consulting with legal counsel on what is possible.

Please tell us whatever you wish about your family.

I have two children, Josephine (5) and August (2), who go by Finny and Gus, respectively. My husband and partner, Kristoff, and I have been married for 14 years and have lived in four states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Massachusetts). We met while in college at the University of Illinois, where we both worked at the University Ice Arena.

We have settled into our forever-home in Newton, where my children will attend the Newton Public Schools and where we have begun to grow our network of friends and neighbors. We love New England, and we especially love the fact that we can get to either an ocean or a mountain in an hour’s drive! My husband and I are both runners, and we enjoy going for long runs along the Charles River when we are not working or enjoying time with our kids and our dog, Gertrude. 

What influential historical figure would you most like to have dinner with, if it were possible to do so -- and what would you discuss with that person, if you could do so?

Tough to narrow this one down! To answer this, I returned to the core values that I share in my entry plan: equity, empathy and excellence. It’s a tie between [Nobel Prize-winning author] Toni Morrison and [Supreme Court Justice] Ruth Bader Ginsberg -- can I invite two people to dinner? 

  • Morrison -- because her ability to so artfully write about the experiences of enslaved people and post-slavery reconstruction, and to challenge my own understanding of the experiences and history of black people in our country, served as a literary exemplar of empathy that was part of what inspired me to become a teacher. 
  • RBG because she was a female leader who overcame assumptions about her size, intellect, capability and gender to fight for equity and inspire other leaders over a decades-long career.

I would love to talk to these two women over dinner about gender politics, leadership, intersectionality and of course equity, empathy and how to empower and foster excellence in those we lead. 

 Superintendent's own video intro:

Dec. 18, 2021: Homan's contract, transition working with Bodie approved

This news feature by YourArlington freelance journalist Judth Pfeffer was published Sunday, July 18, 2021, and updated July 19, to add Bodie's salary at retirement, and July 21, to add comment from Dr. Zerwin.

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