Once Thatcher Brook Primary School, newly renamed Brookside Primary School is settling into the school year with both a new name and new leadership.
Co-Principals Sarah Schoolcraft and Chris Neville say they are finding ways to have diverse conversations, educate students on the history of the old name, and keep students in school amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The pair took some time for an interview recently near the end of a school day as classes were packing up for dismissal.
Schoolcraft has been at Brookside for three years, the first two as assistant principal. She has three kids in the school system, is married to another school administrator in the district, and lives in Waterbury.
“So many of us live here, have kids in these schools, have kids who went to these schools, or are going to have children in these schools,” Schoolcraft said as footsteps of students can be heard from above. “I think that’s remarkable and the commitment and level of our investment. It’s a pretty great place and we’re excited to be part of that.”
Neville is new to Brookside this year having moved from Golden, Colorado. He’s been an administrator at four other schools and used to be a special education teacher. Neville has two kids who will soon be going through the Waterbury school system.
For the first time in about eight years, Brookside is using a co-principalship. The position was posted as a possible co-principalship and both Neville and Schoolcraft discussed with the superintendent what that would look like and whether they wanted it.
“I’m a strong believer in collaboration as well and so thinking about having a peer to share the workload but more importantly collaborate with to do the work better is part of the reason I accepted the job,” Neville said just as his walkie-talkie beeps.
Both say they leaned towards wanting a second principal to work closely with and see importance in the co-principalship, believing it will allow them to be more successful. “We have close to 80 staff members supporting kids and if I was the only person that was here to support them, evaluate them, coach them, provide professional development it’s almost impossible to do a really good job with that,” Neville said.
When Waterbury and Duxbury combined their elementary schools in the late 1990s, the school was named after the Thatcher Brook in Waterbury which runs parallel to Stowe Street where the school is located. The brook got its name in the late 1700s for one of the town’s original landowners from Connecticut named Partridge Thatcher who surveyed the town. Last year, community members researching town history learned that Thatcher enslaved Black people in his day, starting with two children who were the age of the students at the primary school today.
“We had a number of conversations about what do we do with this? How can we use this information as an opportunity to engage our community and teach people and actually be thoughtful about it? If it is potentially hurting one person then it needs to not be our name,” Schoolcraft said.
After public discussions, the Harwood Unified Union School Board earlier this year decided a name change was in order. A process was created to solicit new name suggestions and get feedback from the public to choose one. All of that culminated in the decision to pick Brookside in June.
The new name went into effect on July 1. It was important to Schoolcraft that the process would be complete before the start of a new school year, she said.
Tammy Rost, who both heads the school’s Parent Teacher Organization and works as an instructional assistant at Brookside, said she’s seen a variety of reactions to the name change, but it has mostly been positive. “Change is hard and it takes time to get used to something different. We’re still getting used to saying the new name but it’s happening,” Rost said. All that is needed now is a new sign on the building’s façade. The old sign still stands with a small banner bearing the new name hanging in one of the entryways.
The principals said that research into who could make the sign, how to stay within the guidelines for an historic building, and then designing, scheduling and ordering it took longer than anticipated.
“Part of the delay is the town ordinance says we have to replicate the sign the way that it was, so we have to have a special sign maker make the sign,” said Neville. “It took us a while to get to yes on that and then subsequent to that we have to identify a sign maker that can make a sign like that.”
The sign is in production now, designed by Sparky Potter of Wood & Wood Sign Systems in Waitsfield. Schoolcraft said it will retain the style of the former “Thatcher Brook” sign using a similar font and ornamentation with white letters on a dark blue background to match the school colors. The cost estimate is $3,500-$3,900 delivered and installed.
Once it’s completed, the principals said they will consider whether to have an unveiling ceremony, thinking it could contribute to the education around why the name was changed.
Schoolcraft is one of the leaders of the school district’s anti-racism task force along with Tom Drake, principal of Crossett Brook Middle School. The task force looks at current practices whether or not the curricula is anti-bias and anti-racist, and how they might ensure equity going forward, Schoolcraft said. Brookside has teamed up with Rebecca Haslam from Saint Michael’s College, a consultant who works with schools to develop anti-bias and anti-racist leadership training.
They have also worked with local artists on a windows and mirrors project. According to Schoolcraft, artists Ali Beddoe, Marlena Fishman and Julio Desmont have worked with the students to create visual art pieces based on the theme from Learning for Justice of Windows and Mirrors.
The idea is that windows represent looking outward to see what others are experiencing and mirrors represent looking inward to understand what we, ourselves, are experiencing. The goal is to allow students to understand themselves and others better, Schoolcraft said.
“Our classroom libraries and our schools are windows to other worlds and mirrors reflecting ourselves back at us. So being able to use both literature and just your learning, we need to have both windows and mirrors,” Schoolcraft said.
Now starting the second new school year during the COVID-19 pandemic, managing protocols to address the virus is a top priority for the co-principals given that the pre-K to fourth-grade students are not eligible to be vaccinated yet. So far the school has had two cases reported with neither resulting in additional spread.
All staff are required to be vaccinated or agree to test regularly. Another key strategy across the school district is that students and staff wear masks both inside and even outside. Weekly optional surveillance testing has begun as well in order to identify cases early, especially in staff and students who may not have any signs of symptoms.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to keep kids in school. So we are taking the steps that we can in order to do that,” Neville said.
This year’s restrictions aren’t as stringent as those in place last school year. Students are able to interact more closely with one another as distancing requirements were eased. They can play games with one another with the same game pieces rather than through plexiglass or through a screen.
Despite the extra layers of caution and concern, the co-principals say they have made close connections with all of the students in these early weeks of the school year. As the day comes to a close, Schoolcraft and Neville head outside to oversee dismissal using their walkie-talkies to communicate with each other and staff, talking with parents, spotting children to hand off to the adults picking them up and making sure everyone gets home safely.
Schoolcraft takes students by hand to lead them to the cars of their guardians as Neville talks with each parent coming through the pickup line. As the scene winds down, just one student is left waiting for his parent and Neville sits down right next to him.
A similar version of this scene plays out every day, Rost said, commenting on the new leaders settling into their roles. “Together [Chris and Sarah] have many years of experience and seem very dedicated, so I can’t imagine a better team to lead our school community,” she said.
Originally published in the Waterbury Roundabout