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Carol Cavanaugh on family, public service, and the future of Hopkinton schools

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Carol Cavanaugh is the Superintendent of Hopkinton Public Schools. She joined Hopkinton as Interim Superintendent in 2016, and was appointed to the top job in 2018. Cavanaugh has presided over continuous growth in our community; At the time of her appointment, Hopkinton had 3,685 enrolled students, and now serves 4,163, a 13% increase in four years. Despite ranking #286 in per-pupil spending ($15,870), Hopkinton Public Schools consistently ranks near the top in the best public schools in Massachusetts, coming in at #2 in Niche’s Overall Ranking for 2023, and #371 in the nation, according to US News & World Report.

The emphasis on education in Hopkinton necessitates that Dr. Cavanaugh maintain a near omnipresence; as the overseer of a $55 million operating budget, she is a fixture at town, school, and community meetings each week. But we wanted to get to know the Carol Cavanaugh the public doesn’t often see; as a wife, mother, and grandmother that has dedicated her life to public service.

What were your parents like, and how were you raised? I’ve lived in Massachusetts my entire life. My father came from a big Italian family – twelve kids, and he grew up in a time and place where money was very tight, off of Gage Street in Worcester, which was the predominately Italian section of the city. My mom was Swedish, and came from the “right” side of the tracks. I am certain that my brothers and I were influenced by the upbringing my parents had, both academically and in terms of our values. My mom was very smart; She was the valedictorian of her graduating class, and went off to UMass Amherst on scholarship, but she had difficulty adjusting to college life, so she came back home. She found herself working at New England Grocers as a keyboard puncher, worked her way to becoming a computer programmer. So with no college education at all she ended up at the Norton Company in Worcester (now St. Gobain) as a computer programmer, alongside colleagues who were Ivy League grads. My dad got his GED and went to work in the construction industry. And because neither of them had completed college, they were sure their three children would. Both my dad and mom were hellbent that we would get a good education.

Did you always want to be an educator? What did young Carol Cavanaugh think she would do for a living? When I started college I thought I wanted to be a biology major. I’d had success in bio and anatomy in high school, and I really enjoyed those courses. But then I realized there was a very strong chemistry component to being a bio major, and I knew chemistry wasn’t the thing for me. I really discovered that during a college organic chemistry lab. The instructions were to chill the sulfuric acid in an ice bath, a step I chose to omit out of haste. There was a small explosion, and a cloud of sulfuric acid all over the place! Through my safety goggles, I realized that was probably a good moment to reflect on my choices.

I had always been a good student of English as well, so I switched my major to English and Latin, and graduated from Boston University with that degree. My friends would joke around with me and say “what are you going to do? Wait tables? How will you be employable?” My mom pointed me to an opening for an English teacher at Trinity Catholic Academy, a small Cathoic School in Southbridge. It had very small graduating classes of about 30 kids, and I was the only English teacher for grades 9-12. That’s when I realized I loved being a teacher. So I returned to BU and got my Masters degree and teaching certification.

Do you think people forget you were a teacher? Yes, sometimes. I’ve taught English and Latin at the High School level, I’ve taught foundations courses, AP courses, journalism, and a lot of electives. I did this for a really long time before I moved to administration, so I understand how it feels to be a teacher. I understand how hard it is when kids aren’t learning what you want them to learn, and I understand the gratification when the light bulb goes on, or when a kid sends you a letter saying that you were the teacher that taught them to write. Those are beautiful moments. There are days when I joke that I would go back across the street and teach high school English if Evan Bishop would allow me. It’s just so rewarding. 

And I know the job has gotten harder; I’m not naive about that. The kids are different because they’ve endured a pandemic. They are different because they’re glued to social media. There are things that make the job different, but it’s still a beautiful job to have and I enjoyed it all the years I did it.

What does the Cavanaugh house look like on the weekends? Well, a weekend at our house used to be a little boring, until my two grandchildren came along. My husband, John, and I get to have them on some weekends, and that time is magical. When you have your own kids you’ve got a lot of important things going on – “someone has to get to soccer, is your homework done, hurry up, I’ve got to get to work”. It’s easy to take that time for granted. But when you have grandchildren, you can set aside the time you want with them, and nothing interferes with that. It’s a wonderful joy to sit down for three hours on the rug, playing with a train set, or reading books. 

Cavanaugh and family
Cavanaugh and family

For what in your life are you most grateful? My family. I’m so grateful to my parents. My brothers and I had a good life growing up, and we have good adult lives. I just feel I’ve been blessed. I’m very grateful for my children and sons in-law and grandchildren. A lot of things have come together in life because of the values my parents instilled in us. 

What inspired you to move from teaching to administration? (laughing) I was minding my own business when it happened. I was the Chair of the English department at Westborough High, and then one of the assistant principals was moving to the middle school to become the principal. The WHS principal asked me if I was going to apply to become an assistant principal, and I said “oh no, I don’t think so”. And he kind of convinced me to apply, so I did. When they offered me the job I told them I would try it for a year, but I wanted it written into my contract that I could go back to teaching English if it didn’t work out, and they agreed. 

In some ways I see your job as the CEO of a pretty big business. A $55 million business, to be precise. How do you balance the demands of your professional life and still have a personal life? I remember when I was in the classroom, I used to think “what do they do all day down in the main office?” I thought the job must be pretty easy. But the main office of the school is very stressful. One minute you have a kid who’s saying someone looked at her wrong, or here’s a kid who was vaping in the bathroom, or a teacher has asked a child to leave the room. Or we have 27 people out today and only four subs. There is always something going on, it is a constant fire drill. As a teacher I didn’t have any appreciation for that. 

There are some days when I start a meeting a 7:00 AM and won’t get home until 11:00 at night. With the Elmwood project coming online this year, there are at least three nights per week that I’m out in meetings. And because the schools open at 8:00 in the morning, that’s set as my start time. So I really have to be conscious to set aside time for myself. Monday through Thursday’s are non-negotiable; I will be working pretty much the entire time. But if I’m smart I will set up my schedule so that I have a little more flexibility on Friday’s when the week is winding down. And next week the schools are closed for MLK day, and John & I are going to Vermont for the weekend with family, and I’ll keep my laptop closed for a couple of days. If there’s an emergency someone will text me. I use the time to recharge and then get back to work for another busy week. 

Talk to me about John for a minute. If my wife had your job, I’d feel like she was married to it and not me. John and I have been married for 32 years now, and yes, he is very understanding. He retired as the Deputy Jury Commissioner for the Commonwealth, but started in the mail room out of college. He worked at the OJC for 38 years before retiring last November. In this day and age, it’s unusual for someone to work in the same place for nearly four decades.

Carol and John Cavanaugh
Carol and John Cavanaugh

So both of you worked in public service your entire lives? Yes.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Hopkinton schools today? I think we have two big challenges. The first is rapid enrollment growth. In preparing for the Elmwood project, Perkins Eastman has created a series of slides that show how when we add classrooms to the schools we are just keeping our head above water, but within a few years we’ll be back under, if we don’t plan carefully. We have developed a comprehensive five-year plan that we hope to have approved at the Town Meeting, and we’ve got to continue building to keep up. 

The second challenge is the change in demographics. When I got to Hopkinton we had 48 kids who were English learners. Now at the Marathon school 20% of our students qualify for English Learner Services. We are fortunate in that our kids pick up on this quickly, but it does mean that we’ve gone from two teachers to 10 in that area. And we’ve also seen a rise in the number of students that are socioeconomically disadvantaged. In my first years, Hopkinton didn’t even qualify for Title I services because there was so little poverty, but now it is up to around 8%, and that makes a big difference in public schools. We’ve hired social workers and school adjustment counselors to support this, as well as wraparound services like additional transportation. 

Beyond MCAS results, what does success look like for Hopkinton schools? I probably appear publicly to be someone that focuses a lot on that test, but I really don’t. Success is making sure every single kid feels like they’re a part of the community. I worry a lot about the kids who are on the fringe, the ones who have fewer friendships. They have to feel nurtured and comfortable so they can learn. Beyond that, I want to make this feel like a tailored experience so they can pursue whatever it is they’re passionate about. If the trombone is your thing, great. One of students, Alex Tannenbaum, runs the technology for the school committee meetings, and I’m amazed at what he is doing. I want each of our students to find the thing that makes them tick. That doesn’t mean every student will go to a four-year private university; it means they will find what they want to do in terms of being a productive citizen.

Looking back on your time, what are you most proud of? I think I would say our work in equity and access. During the pandemic, students on IEPs and 504s came to school every day, not every other day, like many other schools’ hybrid models afforded. We also hired a Director of English Language Acquisition, Equity and Access, who ensures excellent ESOL programming as well as access for families to interpreters for meetings and translation of all documents. We also created a social worker position to ensure that students whose families are struggling have access to the services they need to get their kids into school ready to learn. There’s a lot going on in this area and we’ve made significant strides.

You are presiding over an organization that produces consistently high graduation rates, very high college attendance rates, and very high college graduation rates. Are you the envy of your peers? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes I hear “oh, well that’s Hopkinton” as in, “it would be easy if I had your budget and the community support you have”.

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? You were a good and ethical person, Carol.

1 COMMENT

  1. Carol – What a wonderful interview. So happy to have you in charge and spearheading the whole district. It is truly a daunting challenge and a remarkable achievement. Keep up the excellent work!

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