© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Springfield schools superintendent finalists take public questions ahead of decision

(From left to right) Finalists for the superintendent of Springfield Public Schools role, Dr. Sonia Dinnall, Rene Sanchez, and Kimberly Wells, took questions from the public during a community forum on Wednesday, May 29, 2024.
Focus Springfield
Springfield School Committee - Community Forum 5/29/24
(From left to right) Finalists for the superintendent of Springfield Public Schools role, Dr. Sonia Dinnall, Rene Sanchez, and Kimberly Wells, took questions from the public during a community forum on Wednesday, May 29, 2024.

The search for a new superintendent of schools is nearing the end in Springfield, Massachusetts. The three candidates up for the job will be interviewed by the school committee tonight. Before that, they took part in a special public interview Wednesday, featuring questions directly from the community.

At the Van Sickle Academy and Springfield Renaissance School auditorium, three finalists for the Superintendent of Springfield Public Schools took part in a community forum Wednesday night, giving answers ahead of their interviews before the school committee on Thursday.

Each candidate appeared for about an hour and answered questions that ranged from how they hope to foster student success to what plans they might already have for the school district of nearly 24,000 students in more than 60 schools.

They’re vying to replace retiring superintendent Daniel Warwick, who has served in the role for 12 years, on top of decades spent in the district.

First up was Dr. Sonia Dinnall, who currently works as the chief of family and community engagement for the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership. The partnership is a non-profit that partners with the district and state to help support more than 5,000 students across 16 middle and high schools in the city.

She was previously principal of the Springfield High School of Commerce for three years and Executive Director of College and Career Readiness for Hartford Public Schools for a decade before that – all after starting in Springfield as a teacher at Forest Park Middle School. 

Questions Dinnall faced included how she would utilize programs and systems already in place in the district, including the “Portrait of a Graduate” – a strategic plan and blueprint for student success that’s been developed with public input, aiming to outline skills and attributes students in Springfield need to find success in college and career.

Dinnall commended the initiative and said she would work to ensure its implementation to maximize community benefits.

Community engagement was also central to her answer when asked what the first changes she would make are.

“The first thing that I would look at is community voice - I would definitely take a look at healing and restoring relationships,” she said. “I would make sure that I center community and family, and give them an authentic seat at the table, so not just a performative seat, where I can check the box and say, ‘See, I had a family member here,’ or ‘See, I had a community member there.’ But yet, there's almost - no opportunity for them to enter into problem solving, enter into solutions, dealing with problems of practice - I would definitely, first and foremost, reengage the community, make sure that I'm in the community much more, and setting up systems where there is bidirectional communication on a regular, consistent basis with family members, with community members, with community leaders to really hear and understand.”

Following Dinnall was Rene Sanchez – superintendent of the Champlain Valley School District in Vermont. Sanchez previously served as a high school principal in Houston as well as an assistant superintendent for operations for the South Bend Community School Corporation.

One of the first questions faced was how he would approach Springfield compared to his previous district when it comes to student diversity. The Champlain Valley School District encompasses just over 4,200 students – 88 percent of whom are white – compared to Springfield, where the student body is 70 percent Hispanic and 17 percent Black.

The candidate pointed to his time in Houston.

“So, when I was a principal in Houston, I was a principal of a 3,200-person high school that was 99.9 percent students of color, and 95 percent free/reduced lunch - so, making sure that those students had the access to both career, technology, education - access to international baccalaureate that not only did we do at the high school level, but we established it all the way back to the elementary school, so that that way, we had our first set of graduates in 2019, we had our first set of career program graduates in 2021, our first set of MYPDP grads is going to be ‘25, ’26, and our first set of the students who started in kindergarten and went all the way through the vertical team, will be graduated in ’35, ‘36,” Sanchez said. “So, we created something in my high school and in my vertical team where there was nothing.”

Rounding out the night was Kimberly Wells, who has served as a lead chief schools officer for Springfield Public Schools since 2018 and as a chief schools officer since 2013.

In addition to working in the district for the past decade, Wells also served as an assistant superintendent at Holyoke Public Schools, taking on the role after working as the district’s Executive Director of Curriculum and Assessment.

Her perspective as an administrator was called on throughout the night, including during a question on what district practices she’s considering stopping, changing or starting if made superintendent.

“We have put a lot of effort and energy and really strategic thinking at the district and at the school level, into our work of re-imagining instruction for our students, and that's really the work around the Portrait of a Graduate,” Wells said. “So, I would continue to dig into that work, and continue to look at how we are aligning that work to improve outcomes for our students, which leads me to something that I would start - as we continue to dig into the Portrait of the Graduate and we continue to align professional development and align the high quality instructional materials and the culturally-relevant instruction that we are providing to students, we need to look at the systems in the district that work in support of the Portrait of a Graduate, and so, I would like to embark on expanding the Portrait of a Graduate to include the Portrait of a System.”

All three candidates are slated to be interviewed again during a special school committee meeting Thursday at 5:15 in the same auditorium.

Afterwards, the committee is expected to discuss its findings and ultimately vote to appoint the next superintendent.

Related Content