Amherst regional superintendent candidate stresses inclusion, broad expertise

 Susan Gilson, assistant superintendent and middle school principal in the King Philip Regional School District in Wrentham, interviewed Wednesday with the Amherst regional and Union 26 school committees for the superintendent position at Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional schools. She also fielded questions at a community forum Tuesday.

Susan Gilson, assistant superintendent and middle school principal in the King Philip Regional School District in Wrentham, interviewed Wednesday with the Amherst regional and Union 26 school committees for the superintendent position at Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional schools. She also fielded questions at a community forum Tuesday. AMHERST MEDIA

SUSAN GILSON

SUSAN GILSON

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-18-2024 7:22 PM

Editor’s note: The first of three finalists for the job of superintendent was interviewed last week. Stories about visits of the other two finalists will appear when they interview the week of April 22.

AMHERST — A strong work ethic, an ability to listen to others and build relationships and empowering staff and students to create an inclusive learning environment are qualities Susan Gilson says she would bring to the Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional schools if hired as the next superintendent.

During an interview with the Regional and Union 26 Superintendent committees and at a community forum last week, Gilson, currently assistant superintendent and middle school principal in the King Philip Regional School District in Wrentham, said she’s not intimidated by the circumstances that created the vacancy, when former Superintendent Michael Morris stepped down last summer following criticism from some in the community over his handling of reported mistreatment of LGBTQ students at the middle school and allegations that gender-based bullying was not being stopped.

Gilson said her own experience learning how to pilot a small plane and recovering from a stall can be used to deal with the journey the school district finds itself on following a few months of turmoil.

“It’s really how you can stabilize things and take control and really work with people to lead,” Gilson said.

Gilson has been in the King Philip system for 21 years, citing its similarity to a district in which students from Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury go to the regional middle and high schools, along with the three elementary schools in Amherst and one in Pelham.

“I also have a very strong work ethic, which I definitely see that you would need and value,” Gilson said. “I’m also someone who’s an active listener, listening to all staff inputs.”

An approach Gilson would use includes building relationships with people, such as school committee members, and understanding diverse viewpoints. “Healthy relationships are essential to learning environments,” said Gilson, who has degrees in engineering and music and, as a violinist, performed on Irish National television.

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Gilson is the first of three finalists to come to town. The other two finalists are Joanne Menard, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Holliston, and Ericilda Herman, insular (island) superintendent in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. They will be visiting and interviewed during the week of April 22.

Gilson said she has empowered staff and students to build more inclusive environments, even though the King Philip district is not as racially diverse as Amherst-Pelham.

“I believe inclusive environments matter and are the foundation for learning,” Gilson said.

Understanding harassment, hate speech and microagressions have been part of Gilson’s planning. She has also promoted diversity, equity and inclusion and developed a mentoring program, participated in a state program for teacher diversification and redesigning hiring practices, and helped to fund tuition for underrepresented students to engage in early college opportunities.

“To provide safe and inclusive schools, it’s not just about LGBTQ, it’s not just about students with disabilities, it’s not just about racial makeup, it’s really about creating a culture that is safe and where everyone can belong and learn together,” Gilson said.

With the regional school budget facing a potential loss of 15 staff members, Gilson said she also can bring expertise in financial matters.

“I’ve learned exactly where to look to find cost savings, and I’m very smart at looking for optimizing efficiencies in overall budgeting, and I think that could be helpful,” Gilson said.

“Our strategy has been to always (preserve) positions that are student-facing positions, and to really value programs and opportunities that are direct for the students, so the students always come first in this process,” Gilson said.

Gilson brings experience and oversight for special education, principal licensing, business management and schedule making. She also implemented a middle school math program, bringing in coaches and consultants to assist teachers, and helped to develop a science curriculum.

“I think I have the comprehensive background to do the job,” Gilson said.

Through her work in the King Philip District, she has knowledge of crisis management through use of a public relations company. 

“That has given us access to promoting the successes in the district,” Gilson said. “Positive behavior intervention with your community is what it is. If you have a negative story that’s about to come out, you get the writers on top of it, you put the full administrative team on managing the crisis,” Gilson said.

External and internal outreach can be used to bring everyone together on the same page.

“I believe in the power of communities to make change for the betterment of students,” Gilson said. “I believe in Amherst schools and the power of staff to make a difference, which they are doing daily.”

Menard will be at forums for the community and for staff on April 22, with an interview and visit April 23, and Herman will be at forums April 24, with an interview and visit April 25.