Coming back to Boston Public Schools (BPS), the incoming leader of Charlestown High School is ready to take the school into a new, COVID-19 future in which the school could potentially expand and become integrated into a neighborhood education pipeline.
Joel Stembridge, 51, was chosen recently to be the new principal of Charlestown High to replace popular Principal Will Thomas – who has been tapped to lead a new 7-12 initiative in Hyde Park, and later, on Columbia Point in Dorchester. Stembridge, who lives in West Roxbury, returns to BPS after spending 11 years as the principal of Newton South High School. However, before that, he spent five years as the headmaster of the John D. O’Bryan School of Math and Science – one of the City’s three exam schools.
“I always loved high school and the flows of it and opportunity for growth,” he said. “It’s definitely the place I wanted to spend my professional life. My decision to leave the classroom was like many other educators in that I wanted to support students and staff on a macro level. I’m very interested in ensuring that all students have equity and accessibility to programs that support their needs.”
Stembridge said he grew up and went to school on the West Coast, but came to the East Coast with his wife – who is from here – after college. At O’Bryant, he said he had a great five years and it was his first time leading a school. He said he learned a lot of lessons there, trying to bring in a stronger Advanced Placement (AP) participation.
“I came in with a bunch of exuberance and energy and learned my enthusiasm and energy alone could not make the difference,” he said.
He said he learned that one had to get everyone on board, from staff to students to parents. That is something over the five years he said he believes he accomplished.
At Newton South, he encountered an entirely different situation, and said he really enjoyed his 11 years there leading the school. The community has been fantastic, but over time, Stembridge said he found he enjoyed helping students who were underprivileged – especially students of color – who had a far different experience at the school that others.
“Early on there it became clear to me that depending on different students’ background – particularly the black and brown students – there was a very different experience at Newton South than the white and Asian students,” he said.
He said he worked on those issues about 20 percent of the time, but realized it was something he would rather do 100 percent of the time – perhaps in a district like Boston.
So he returned, interviewing in person before COVID-19, and getting his final interviews done online – which was a totally new experience for everyone.
“I live in Boston,” he said. “It’s the part of my job I’m really interested in – focusing on the 20 percent at Newton South that really need to have more attention paid to them. That’s what I want to spend 80 percent of my time on now.”
Already, Principal Will Thomas – who is at Charlestown until June 30 – has been meeting with Stembridge to help him understand the programming and complex nature of the school. Stembridge said he sees Thomas as a partner going well into next year to help him get acclimated and expand on the programs that have worked really well at Charlestown High – including the Pathways program partnership with Bunker Hill Community College.
“I’m looking forward to building on what was built there,” he said.
To build up the school, Stembridge will have an immediate influx of funding and help as Charlestown High is one of 33 schools citywide to get major funding for social emotional supports and re-design.
“My job is going to be to make sense of these things and to make sure these new resources are integrated into what’s there and not coming in like a sledgehammer,” he said. “It’s my job to translate what is coming in and what we’re doing at the school already.”
There is word that they will have three full-time social workers at the school, and there will also be robust discussions about acclimating the school more to the neighborhood by offering a middle school there – making it a 7-12 school.
That is something Supt. Brenda Cassellius has said she supports, and Stembridge said he thinks it could be valuable too.
“I’m all for that too,” he said. “I love middle school and taught middle school. It’s another two years to make sure the students are well and are getting the proper growth. There are the Pathways at Charlestown and it will be helpful to have students explore that in middle school and prepare for choosing a a Pathway before high school rather than coming in and trying to figure it out quickly. There are excellent opportunities there.”
Stembridge said he is very excited as well to forge some relationships in the community, something that has already started in a greater way over the last five years. However, he said he hopes to get students even more involved in the community around them.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how that can be done,” he said.
Stembridge will begin his tenure at Charlestown High on July 1.