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Longmeadow Daze: Life’s Tests Define Girard as Educator & on School Committee…

Longmeadow Daze is an occasional series reporting on and analyzing Longmeadow government and politics.

School Committee member Katie Girard (via Katie Girard campaign)

School Committee member Kathryn “Katie” Girard (via Katie Girard campaign)

LONGMEADOW—As a child, Kathryn Girard was not a stellar student. She had trouble learning and effectively could not read until 3rd grade, sounding things out to get by before that. Teachers seated her in the back of the classroom. She felt everyone had given up on her.

“I went through the anger of ‘What the hell? I count too!’” Girard recalled.

She eventually she got help and caught up, but the ordeal left a profound impact, one that shapes her as a teacher and a School Committee member. “I knew what it was to struggle, but I also knew what how sweet that victory was on the other side.”

On June 9, Girard, 35, faces a new battle of sorts—her first contested race for another three-year term. She, her colleague Michelle Grodsky and newcomer Russell Dupere are competing for two seats. Both Dupere and Grodsky took positions opposite Girard during the raucous elementary school redistricting process that concluded May 11.

During an interview outside Starbucks here one pleasant spring afternoon, Girard discussed herself, her career and being a school committee member. While politically aware, she admitted playing politics was not her strength. Yet, speaking about education, her voice ignites with passion.

“We chose Longmeadow because of the schools, which is a really common occurrence,” she said, noting the arts programs and how their kids could bike to school.

Originally from the Pioneer Valley, but living in Hartford at the time, Girard and her husband Chris zeroed in on this suburb wedged between Springfield and Connecticut in 2007.

Girard’s family in a shot used on some of her campaign literature (via Facebook/Michael James Photography)

Like many School Committee members, her “three cool kids” are school-aged. Motherly pride bubbled up discussing her children and their interests, like her 10 year-old’s thoughts of joining Equity and attending a New York summer acting program.

“We really encouraged our kids to think outside the box and push the limits for what we expect from kids,” Girard said.

Girard is unique on the Committee in one respect. As she highlights on the trail, she is the only member currently currently teaching (colleague John Fitzgerald is retired).

Presently she teaches at Heritage Academy, a Jewish community day school. “I love what I do,” she said describing how her 8th grade class starts the day with current events with debates on topics from the death penalty to the minimum wage.

Changes in education and the workforce students will join are partly what led her to join the School Committee in 2011. Having studied under prominent educational innovators and constantly learning herself during professional development, she has adopted an explainer role on the Committee.

She emphasized the importance of ensuring kids “not only are engaged, but want to have a say” and “learn how to craft how to have a say.” The emphasis has moved  toward “Teaching them how to access information” and discerning the value of sources.

The Longmeadow School Committee last month. (WMassP&I)

The Longmeadow School Committee last month. (WMassP&I)

But the Committee also metes out policy. A big one was implementing free full-day kindergarten. Girard pushed for it early on, but started slow as she learned about Committee operations.

A fully-funded program was proposed, but tabled. Implementing it would require other school or town operation cuts and the School Committee could not act in a vacuum.

“The burden is on our homeowners, I don’t like to think of it as competing needs, but,” she explained, “we have a limited funding source.”

Making full-day kindergarten available to those who cannot pay the tuition is Girard’s top priority next year, “It’ll be my cross to die on.”

Yet redistricting, not kindergarten, could make or break Girard’s Committee membership. The population among elementary schools had become unbalanced with Blueberry Hill carrying a disproportionate load. The only viable solution was moving some students to Center School. That change was approved last month.

During the preceding weeks, the issue conjured a maelstrom of controversy as some parents objected, sometimes charging opacity, denial of due process…or worse. Girard served on the redistricting committee and vocally supported action. She was called “some pretty lousy names” by opponents.

Blueberry Hill Elementary (via Longmeadow Schools)

“I just didn’t realize how it would really unfold in some ways,” she said of the blowback, especially considering Longmeadow students’ advantages compared to their Holyoke or Springfield peers. Others praised her steadfastness despite the difficulty of the decision. “The vast majority of people in this community are thoughtful people,” she emphasized and hardly all opponents were over the top.

It is hard to know at this point what, if any political impact redistricting will have. Most if not all of her colleagues are behind her, many using what resources they have to help her secure a fresh term.

Girard acknowledged the process, however necessary, was imperfect and will yield disruptions, “I am completely empathetic that it is hard to change.” Having three stops to deposit children each morning, she particularly understood the burden of bringing kids to different schools.

Nor could she ignore the impact on the kids. She recalled Blueberry Hill principal Marie Pratt’s warning about her school serving an ever-larger student body with the same resources as smaller schools. That resonated with the teacher in Girard.

Girard at a committee meeting. (WMassP&I)

Girard at a committee meeting. (WMassP&I)

“When you can’t really make that deep connection with students, you feel you don’t do your job,” Girard said. “Moving kids, as hard as it was, I still believe it was the right decision.”

The conflicts aside, Girard is hardly bitter, “I feel like it is an honor to do it. I know that sounds really cheesy, but it is.”

Her students have asked her what she would do if she lost. “Then I know I did my best,” she said he has told them. It has become another learning opportunity for her class, which can see not only a “hotshot politician” can make a difference. Everybody can and should be involved.

“I had teachers who taught me to really love learning. School doesn’t need to be a chore,” she said. “It is pretty amazing when you tell a kid, ‘I think you can do it,’ how far you go.”