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New Hillcrest principal at work in Turners Falls

New principal of the Hillcrest Elementary School in Montague Sarah Burstein in her office.  Recorder/Paul Franz

New principal of the Hillcrest Elementary School in Montague Sarah Burstein in her office. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »

TURNERS FALLS — The school year began Thursday for Hillcrest Elementary School’s new batch of first graders, with younger students waiting until Monday. For Sarah Burstein, it was the start of her first school year as principal and the effort was afoot to memorize the name of each student.

The eight-year Gill resident left an educational arc toward law and public policy in the Boston area to become an elementary school teacher after a taste of both careers. Burstein comes to Hillcrest from Sunderland Elementary School, where she taught for three years.

Burstein, 42, began her teaching career at a campus children’s center at her suburban Boston college in 1997.

As an undergraduate at Connecticut College, Burstein studied government and child development.

“I was initially really interested in public policy that impacts education and families, child welfare, that kind of thing, but as part of my child development major we had a lab school requirement, so there was a teaching school there and that first hooked me in terms of working directly with kids,” Burstein said.

After graduation, work in law firms convinced her to turn from law school to education. She earned her master’s degree in early childhood education and has taught at the pre-kindergarten through second grade levels, including in the city of Newton and a year at Greenfield’s Federal Street School.

Burstein said a growing role for administrators in the classroom is what spurred her interest in a move from teaching.

The new educator evaluation system mandated by the state puts principals in the classroom.

“Principals are much more actively engaged in evaluating teachers on a much more frequent basis than in the past, and the focus on instruction is much heavier,” Burstein said. “That’s exciting to me, I really want to perceive myself as an instructional leader in the building and as someone who can support the work of teachers in a direct way.”

Burstein said she hopes to promote a sense of shared responsibility among all adults in the building for the education of each child.

More time observing classes also means she will know the students beyond greeting them at the door at the start of the school day, and she said Thursday she had begun memorizing the names of the about 150 students enrolled in the school. The Griswold Street school houses pre-kindergarten through first grade in nine classrooms.

Knowing the students will help her to better communicate with their parents, understand and respond to their concerns, she said, and communicating with parents is part of her educational strategy.

Burstein hopes to encourage conversation between parents and their children about school. As she see it, that routine “How was your day?” conversation carries a lot of weight at an early age.

“Number one, it expresses to kids that the work they’re doing is important. Sharing is valuable in another way in that we know that kids need lots of practice with their oral language to boost their literacy skills.”

Narrating their day beyond a simple “fine” is a huge part of early literacy development, she said.

“If you can talk about your day as a preschooler or a kindergartner, as a first grader you can write a story,” Burstein said.

A growing Spanish-speaking population locally means that some outreach is through the district’s English as a second language coordinator, as well as social media and the new Friends of Hillcrest group. Burstein said she also hopes for a growing connection to local businesses, as venues to display student art, for instance.

Burstein and her husband, a councilor at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, have two children, fourth-grade and eighth-grade boys.

Burstein is one of two new Montague elementary principals. The Gill-Montague School District superintendent and School Committee this year restored the separate status of the adjacent Sheffield and Hillcrest elementary schools, nominally conjoined as the Montague Elementary School since 2010. A principal position was restored to each building and the Montague Elementary School principal’s contract was not renewed. As Burstein steps into Hillcrest, Sharon Moberg begins her first school year as principal of the grade-two-through-five Sheffield Elementary School.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

(Editor's note: Some information in this story has changed from an earlier edition)

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