2016-10-27 / Around Town

Her Heart Belongs to Pell

By Betsy Sherman Walker

The outcome came as no surprise, but there was a celebratory mood nonetheless in the library at Pell Elementary School on Monday, Oct. 24, when the Newport School Committee met and unanimously approved the appointment of Traci Westman as Pell’s new principal.

Closely involved with the school since it opened its doors in September 2013, Westman has been assistant principal since August of 2014.

One School Committee member noted that she had “big shoes to fill, but [we think] you’re the one to fill them.” Westman takes the helm after former Pell principal Kimberly Behan was named assistant superintendent in September.

With the vote taken (which followed a brief discussion and the rewording of her contract to specify salary and benefits), Westman took a moment to adjust her newest hat and spoke, literally and figuratively, as the school’s second principal.

“I am really excited,” she told the committee. “I’ve been at Pell since it started. I’ve been an educator in Newport for 17 years. I love Pell,” she added. “It’s why I applied [for the job]. I want to keep the momentum going.”

Momentum, Westman later explained to Newport This Week, is what she sees as the energy, the focus, and the culture of commitment which characterize the school’s strengths – and its potential to be a truly outstanding model for other districts to follow.

“Pell is still a work in progress,” she said. “We took in four schools,” she summed up, “and made it into one. This year is the best year yet. I have gotten great support from the teachers. I’m still close to being a teacher, and remember what that’s like.”

Westman joined the Newport school system in 1999 as a special education teacher. Prior to joining the staff at Pell, she had been head teacher and interim principal at Sullivan School from 2009-2013.

Citing such initiatives as intervention blocks (time set aside in the daily schedule for students needing help), STEM (curricula emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM (STEM with art added), she also spoke about “the importance of a strong collaborative community” and of working with local organizations in the community, the foundational template for the One Newport strategic plan. Topping her list of goals is “having all students proficient in math and reading by 2020-2021.”

Westman and her husband, a member of the Middletown Fire Department, live in Middletown with their three daughters. When asked to describe a telling moment about her job, she spoke of something that had happened in the schoolyard earlier in the day: a celebration of National Food Day, known as the Apple Crunch.

“Everyone gets an apple,” she explained. “We stand outside in a circle, and everyone takes a bite.”With the then-imminent School Committee meeting no doubt weighing on her mind, it was a particularly poignant moment.

“The energy of all the kids together, in one place, hit me,” she said. “There was so much power.” She was struck by “the diversity the kids have, to experience and grow from.”

Pell, she said, “is where my heart belongs.”

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