ebruary 18 began like any other day for freshman Deyar Dashti, who left her Chestnut Hill Towers apartment for school that morning.She always just dreamed of adventure, but what met her that afternoon was more than she ever expected. When she arrived home from school, ready to begin her February vacation, she found it surrounded by policemen, fire brigades, and medical staff.An electrical unit’s failure started a fitre that displaced about 200 residents from their homes for two days, leaving them to find shelter with family and friends, to pay $69 a night for a room at the Crowne Plaza, or to sleep on an army cot in South’s cafeteria.Spanish teacher Helena Alfonzo, also a resident of the Towers, was in her apartment when she heard that she needed to evacuate. “Because this [kind of thing] happens a lot, I left with just my sweater and my keys – no coat, no purse, no wallet, no credit or debit cards, no cash, and no ID. I didn’t have anything,” she said.“The policemen told us we couldn’t go up to our apartment,” Dashti said, “But after three hours, when we came back, they told us the problem was bigger than they thought it would be. So we couldn’t sleep there.”The Towers’ management and the Newton Fire Department, along with other city staff, safely rescued all the residents whose units lost power. Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority buses arrived to take them to a Red Cross relief center stationed at South’s cafeteria, because, according to Newton Fire Deputy ChiefMichael Castro, Newton South is the official shelter for the south side of Newton.
He said, however, that accommodations were very basic; the cots, for example, were designed only for temporary living of up to four days.
In the end, all the residents decided against using the cots and went to stay with family and friends or to pay the reduced rate at the hotel.
Dashti’s family stayed at her cousin’s house in Cambridge until the complex’s management allowed residents to move back to their apartments.
Although the fire was contained in the Towers’ concrete basement room, it damaged the transformer and other electrical equipment and residents’ personal belongings, forcing NStar to cut power to the building.
“The initial damage was about $300,000 in the equipment itself,” Castro said, “But there’s consumable stuff in the refrigerators [in individual units].”
According to Castro, the blanket insurance policy for the complex will cover claims that residents make for such consumable items.
“We weren’t allowed to go upstairs because we didn’t have anything important in our apartment. Only elderly people were allowed to go back, with a firefighter, to get their medications from their refrigerators,” Dashti said.
Castro and many other Towers residents commended all the city staff and management involved for their aid in a safe evacuation and for their great response to the situation.
“It wasn’t an immediate decision to evacuate [the Towers] because they thought it could be restored quickly,” Castro said. “We had to evacuate 423 units with minimal lighting and no elevators.”
He continued to say that the subsequent efforts went as planned: safely and efficiently.
Many of the residents were elderly, and had to be carried down several flights of stairs by staff. There were no injuries, and after the evacuation, the Fire Department went back and checked all the rooms to make sure that no residents remained.
Alfonzo agreed, “The management acted in a very proper way, and everybody was safe. And nobody was hurt, so I was really, really grateful.”
This was the Towers’ first evacuation since 1980, and the management has been collaboration with the Newton Fire Department to take measures in preventing such fires in the future.
The Towers reopened on Feb 21.
I look at my role in a few ways. I want to do everything possible to take a very high quality school system and make it better; one part of my role is working with people in the system, principals, and others teachers, department heads, and figure out how to do that.
And to find out what our strategies are educationally.
I also want to make sure we have a culture that’s respectful, tolerant, careful, so that we not only take care of the academic needs of our students, but the social and emotional needs.
Then there’s the whole management role.
When you’re the leader of the system with almost 2000 employees there’s a lot to manage, I want to make sure we hire the strongest people, provide the best training, and use our resources wisely. We have limited resources and we have to educate a lot of kids, and make sure that our buildings are in good condition. South is in good shape, but our elementary schools could use some work. I want to make sure I build strong relationships with the community.
Why did you decide to switch districts?
I was born in Boston and lived in Newton since my family was here.
This made it a wonderful professional opportunity and it worked out well personally. I’m excited to be here, Newton’s a very dynamic city. It’s a very exciting place to work.
What are some differences between Chappaqua and Newton that you’ve experienced? What are some things you miss and some things you enjoy having here and not there?
I had a terrific job as superintendent of the Chappaqua school system and enjoyed it all.
Newton presents a great opportunity as well.
Newton is larger, so there are more schools than there were in Chappaqua.
It was easier to get to know people there because there weren’t as many people to get to know. On the other hand, the larger size is something I like about Newton.
Any challenges you are looking forward to meeting in Newton?
I think its size presents challenges, but also provides for wonderful diversity. It adds complexity but also wonderful opportunity. Both districts have lots of people who are very passionate about education.
What are your goals for Newton schools and Newton education in general?
I’m interested in thinking about how we can use technology more effectively, and working with people to figure out how we can do that. That’s one piece, but I also want to make sure that we have schools that address the needs of all students, especially those that struggle.
I want to make sure that we have the best strategies in place for those who face challenges in school.
I want to make sure that in the long run we have school facilities, especially at the elementary level, that are better that they are now. Frankly some of the facilities are not in good shape here.
We need to make sure we have a plan to address the facilities.
A big challenge is how to keep moving the system forward through a time during diminished resources.
We have to keep improving education.
I’m still learning,
I’ve been here three and a half months, however I’m already working with leaders in the district and the school committee to figure out how we take an excellent system and make it even better.
What have you done so far to help improve the school system?
I’ve spent most of my time trying to build positive relationships, understanding principals and their challenges and figuring out how I can address challenges at other schools.
I’m doing a lot of listening and a lot of learning first. Basically I’m learning and responding to issues when I need to, but I’m planning first and that’s what all good leaders do.
How did you react to the feedback about the school lunches this year? What do you plan to do now?
This started before I got here, where the school system and school committee were in negotiations to privatize the school lunch program.
And that takes time, so I know the first few months of school have been hard.
I’m hopeful that when all of this is done the options for students will be better than they were before.
It’s one of those things that we’re asking for peoples’ patience with.
How has the Newton North student murder affected the Newton schools? What is your role in dealing with that?
Two issues from Newton North; first we had Adam London whose life was lost tragically before school, and one who of course was incarcerated on a criminal charge.
I just want to make sure that we have the supports in place. Part of the school’s role is to support kids socially and emotionally. Newton North is a safe school, but we also had an incident of a drug bust in Newton South.
I met with both principals to discuss responsible decision making among students.
We can’t solve that problem ourselves – we need students, parents, community members, schools, churches, and synagogues.
It’s a community effort.
I can tell you that after the first tragedy, they opened up the school the next day so kids could come in.
There was a crisis team there, making sure the kids were ok. After Adam’s death there were councilors available and the students were supporting each other.
After the second incident, the crisis team was available again.
They were looking for kids who knew the students well and so if the kids were scared or vulnerable, they found out who they were and provided support.
They were very different kinds of incidents, but you want to provide social and emotional support for students. I think the school has calmed down now.
Fiscal cuts and the high cost of the Newton North budget have strained staffing in Newton schools. How do you plan to resolve the situations?
I wouldn’t make a direct link between budget constraints and Newton North. The fact is that we had to make reductions for Newton North debt but it wasn’t just Newton North though. School districts all over the country are having financial deficits. That’s a great challenge.
How do we keep high quality education during difficult financial times?
We’re going to have to make difficult choices, and tradeoffs, and we’ll do everything we can to keep the educational program we have and keep class sizes reasonable.
Obviously hard choices will have to be made given the financial challenges.
There has been talk about settling the North and South fiscal inequity. What are your opinions on this? Do you think South is getting “the short end of the stick and are there plans to correct this?
South has a great facility. I’ve been there a number of times.
What ends up happening is that initially newer schools always have more resources.
For example, before North’s renovation they were saying South had a lot more resources.
There’s already an effort to get more technology to South.
I’m less interested in comparisons; more interested in making sure South gets the resources it needs.
I think that when I go through schools: that’s the big difference.
There’s certainly plenty of space at South.
I will tell you that it’s good that South was renovated, had South not been, there would have been greater disparity.
Anything else you would like to share with the Newton South community or Newton residents?
I’ve really enjoyed my visits to Newton South and when students took me on a tour.
I look forward to spending more time in the school, listening to classes, students, and the faculty talk about aspirations for the school and how I can be helpful.