Mt. Abe principal aims high for students — and herself
BRISTOL — Mount Abraham Union High School Principal Jessica Barewicz pulled her first all-nighter in 12th grade.
“We had to do a project based on independent reading, and I chose ‘The Fountainhead,’” she says, laughing. “That tells you a little bit about me as a child.”
A fat, philosophical novel published in 1943 by Russian-American writer Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead” tells the story of a headstrong architect warring with himself and fighting against the system.
For the project Barewicz created a three-dimensional visual aid.
“I constructed this whole crazy painting that illustrated the ideas of the novel and then built it onto two-by-fours,” she explains. “It was one of the coolest things I’d ever done.”
In class, hidden behind her artwork, Barewicz read aloud a passage from the book, then tore the painting in half. The structure collapsed. It felt to her like performance art.
“I’d never done anything like that before,” she says. “It was pretty transformational to take that risk.”
Rising to the occasion when a teacher placed high expectations on her was an experience Barewicz holds dear, in terms of education, and it has informed her thinking both as a teacher and principal.
“I think students know when we don’t expect much from them, or they know when we don’t expect them to take ownership of their learning.”
Such moments often figure into the biographies of passionate educators. But Barewicz’s story comes with a twist:
By the time of her all-nighter, she was living on her own.
“I left home at sixteen,” she says. “It was just not a supportive situation to be involved in.”
While pursuing her studies and serving as senior class president at Mascenic Regional High School in southern New Hampshire, Barewicz supported herself by working full-time at the local A&P supermarket.
She put herself through college, too — at St. Michael’s — where she would later return to complete a master’s degree in education.
In 2014, while working as an English teacher in Montpelier, Barewicz won a fellowship from the Rowland Foundation, which provides educators with professional development and leadership opportunities. During that fellowship she realized that administration might be a good role for her given the scope of the work she wanted to do.
Two years later Barewicz was thrilled to land a job as Mount Abe’s principal. She knew, though, that it wasn’t going to be easy.
By then, July 2016, the school district had endured several years of public turmoil and leadership turnover. Barewicz was Mount Abe’s fourth principal in four years. Her new boss, Patrick Reen, was the school district’s fourth superintendent in four years.
“Part of what drew me here specifically was a deep feeling that Mount Abraham deserved stability,” she says. “Teachers deserved to be focusing on students, and students needed to be focusing on learning, not constant leadership turnover.”
Three weeks into Barewicz’s tenure, the district unveiled a preliminary plan to consolidate school governance under Act 46.
As that conversation got under way, a water leak at Mount Abe destroyed the gym floor.
On it went. Two assistant principals resigned. Two bond proposals to renovate her school were defeated at the polls. Budget constraints led to staff reductions.
“Change is hard and constant,” Barewicz acknowledges. “Some of that change we get to choose, and some is out of our hands. We’re all learning how to navigate and support this very new system together as it’s being created.”
She almost burned out during her first two years on the job, she says, working unmanageable hours, nights, weekends.
“I think to stay in administration you have to find the joy in the everyday. Eye-to-eye conversation with a kid in the hallway who might be in a hard spot. Enjoying colleagues. Watching a student perform in a game in a really exceptional way.”
On the hard days Barewicz visits a classroom to watch good teaching.
Through it all, she says, Mount Abe students are thriving.
The principal’s main focus right now is on implementing proficiency-based graduation requirements — with integrity.
“Next year is the first year students will graduate based on proficiency and not seat time or credits. It’s important to me that that means something — that proficient means proficient, that we are not dumbing down the standards or creating an inauthentic system,” she says.
At the same time, Barewicz adds, “We’re providing a holding space for human beings to grow and thrive.”
In that space, she points out, it’s important to recognize just how much brain development plays into things.
When Barewicz was teaching English, she recalls, one of her students turned in a project not unlike the one the teenage Barewicz had stayed up all night to complete — a mixed-media, 3-D visualization of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Barewicz thought it was beautiful and displayed it in her classroom.
The following year a group of rowdy ninth-graders wrecked it as they were jostling their way out the door.
“Oh, I got teary,” she says, laughing.
The students apologized.
“They were horrified. They knew. But they were ninth-graders. Everybody gets to be where they’re at,” Barewicz says.
She also thinks it’s important to remember what it’s like to be a beginner, which is one reason she recently took up music.
“I’m learning how to play cello,” she says. She didn’t know how to read music when she began, but she’s progressed steadily over the past 18 months. Not only does she enjoy being “present” while playing, but “it has really helped me maintain an empathy for learners.”
Is there any particular music she aspires to play one day?
“Yes — anything! Anything that lasts more than one minute!” She sounds utterly delighted. “That’s pretty much where I’m at.”
Music has always been important to her.
“It’s what got me through high school,” she says.
She remembers riding the school bus with a Discman and headphones, losing herself in the music of Tori Amos or Ani DiFranco.
Now 36, she listens to artists like Radiohead or Neil Young on the drive to school from Monkton.
“I’ll often try to match my mood with music or, you know, if I need to pump myself up in the morning,” she says.
She turns the volume back down when she pulls into the school’s parking lot.
Barewicz has even used music in the classroom, encouraging students to share songs that would shed light on who they are as people.
“We’d play the music and analyze the lyrics for literary features.”
These exercises sometimes led to moments of great vulnerability and poignancy, she says: I see you. I accept you. We’re in this together.
That, she declares, is what “teaching’s all about.”
In her 11th year as an educator, Barewicz is where she wants to be, and when she tells her students that “education is the path to a life you get to design for yourself,” her message carries the force of learning and of lived experience.
She’s also planning to stick around.
“I’m in the principalship for the long-term,” she says. “I’m invested in Mount Abe and I dream of what we can accomplish with stable leadership and a long-term common vision.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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