Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on Dec. 19, 2016.
High school senior Julia Noreck believed in October that Assistant Superintendent Scott Holcomb had the potential to be the next leader of North Attleboro schools.
At a school committee meeting, Noreck read a letter from the Superintendent Advisory Council challenging school officials to find a replacement for Superintendent Suzan Cullen who would be understanding, influential, approachable, courageous, team-oriented and – most importantly – “the voice of the children.”
“We believe that it is important to have a familiar face in the district that has a thorough understanding of the situations that the schools are facing,” the letter read. “We also believe that Mr. Holcomb possesses all of the qualities listed above.”
Holcomb sat shocked at the outright endorsement, although it wasn’t the first time in his 22-year career he’s received such praise.
“You have touched my heart and I won’t forget the words you just said,” he told Noreck.
And, almost three months later as he prepares for his new role as superintendent, he hasn’t.
Nor has he forgotten the many letters of thanks and encouragement he’s received over his tenure – a few of which he brought along to his interview before the school committee as a token of good luck.
On most days, you can find the letters tacked up around his office or tucked away in his desk drawer, while even more lay stacked in a storage bin at home.
For Holcomb, each letter is a reminder that he’s doing something right, and a motivator through the tough times to keep going.
“For me, they lift my spirits,” Holcomb said. “This job is so much more than just educating a person on their A,B,Cs and 1,2,3s. It’s about creating a better tomorrow by educating our students holistically. But, as you become part of the administration, the job becomes even more demanding and stressful. It’s tough sometimes to tell what kind of an appreciative difference you’re making.
“These are things that keep me grounded in knowing that I am making a difference in the thing that matters the most: the lives of our children.”
The first time Holcomb saw the positive impact he could have was in 1996, during his second year of teaching. He noticed a student having a rough time at a school event and helped the student on her way. A few years passed without mention of the moment, until one day he received a letter of thanks in the mail.
“I still remember it like yesterday,” Holcomb said. “I was shocked.”
And, Noreck’s letter brought him back to that moment.
“I had no idea that letter went from Julia to Chris Frost,” Holcomb said. “But, it’s amazing because even though our interactions are limited, you realize that they mean a lot.”
And, they mean just as much to Holcomb, as well.
Over his 22-year career, Holcomb has counseled hundreds of students. First as a high school teacher in Hopkinton and Bellingham. Then, as assistant principal of Seekonk High School. And finally, as principal of North Attleboro High School, where he remained for four years until becoming assistant superintendent in 2014.
Some of his students have since gone off to become teachers, doctors and more – and many check in years later to relive the memories they’ve shared in the classroom, Holcomb said.
“I have relationships that have lasted long beyond the years of teaching,” he said.
And it’s those lasting relationships that have motivated Holcomb to his new role, where he hopes he can implement greater and longer lasting change for the district.
Holcomb follows years of painful budget cuts and two failed Proposition 2 1/2 overrides, along with antiquated teaching materials and deteriorating buildings. But to combat the odds that are stacked against him, the superintendent-elect said he plans to look at other districts for inspiration on how to find and manipulate funding and take that to work with stakeholders at home.
“There are some struggles ahead of us,” Holcomb said. “We’re dealing with a minuscule budget and we’re going to have to have some difficult conversations. Over the next couple of months, I’ll be talking to people and figuring out what we want as a town and how we can get there. And I’m going to have to rally the town – but, I think being authentic and genuine is key.
“These are the things that will keep me grounded and rooted,” he said pointing to a letter, “because this is not going to be an easy task to take.”
Holcomb’s first plan of action as superintendent is to create a five-year plan for the district, looking to see what small steps can have lasting impact that will move North Attleboro schools to a brighter future even after he’s gone.
“I think the sign of a good leader is, once they step away, the things they put into place and the people they leave behind remain and still believe in the system as a whole,” Holcomb said. “That’s my goal – knowing that wherever the world takes me after this is done, you’re the ones left with what was created. I hope I can create a system worth believing in.”