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Webster, Salisbury elementary principal to retire; district begins search for replacement

When parents of Webster and Salisbury elementary school students get a phone call from Principal Sandy Davis, it’s not usually to discuss bad behavior or other school problems. Instead, it’s what Davis calls a “good news phone call,” where she tells a parent about how their child is excelling academically, socially or otherwise.

“The parents are just overjoyed,” said Catherine Denoncourt, guidance counselor for both schools. “She’s gotten a huge, huge reaction.”

Davis, who has been making those calls for her past six years as principal, will retire at the end of the school year. She informed the Merrimack Valley School Board of her decision last month, and the search process to find her replacement began this month. Colleagues describe Davis as someone who brought a positive culture of high expectations to both schools and facilitated communication between teachers, students and parents in both towns. Davis also presided over both schools’ implementation of the International Baccalaureate program.

Throughout her career, Davis has worked as a reading specialist, a teacher for students with learning disabilities, a special education administrator and a regular administrator. Before coming to Merrimack Valley School District, she worked for nine years at an elementary school in Warner, where she lives, seven years at one in Weare and 13 years in Goffstown as a special education coordinator and an associate middle school principal.

Before Davis, none of the past three principals stayed for more than a few years, and constant administrative shake-ups can be difficult for teachers and staff members, she said.

“When I came to Salisbury and Webster I really wanted to put in some quality time and I wanted to give the staff some time to really get their feet grounded,” she said.

One of Davis’s big areas of focus was reading, she said. As a reading specialist, it was one of her goals to build strong reading skills from the ground up. Merrimack Valley is a “data-rich” district, Davis said, and she pushed to use that data to better understand where students were excelling and struggling.

Implementing the International Baccalaureate primary years program in both schools was also a major project under Davis’s leadership. The entire district is working toward certification, but Salisbury and Webster were the first elementary schools in the state to be certified. IB is a more engaging way of teaching that emphasizes inquiry-based learning, she said.

Not everyone in the communities is behind IB – the Salisbury Education Committee formed to scrutinize the program as well as its effect on the school budget. Critics of the program say it brings hidden costs and doesn’t focus enough on strict academics. But Davis and others at the school said they’ve noticed a real difference in the classroom, in both teachers and students.

“It’s been so interesting and gratifying to see the teachers change the way they teach,” she said.

As principal of two elementary schools, Davis has had to balance the needs of teachers, students and parents at both.

“One of the things that I’m always struck by is she tries very hard to be fair and listen to all sides,” said Denoncourt, who has been with both schools for 25 years. “She gently pushes us to be the best we can; sometimes you don’t know you’re being pushed until after the fact.”

Davis also shows her face in the classrooms and engages with students as much as possible, said Nancy Dobe, Webster’s fifth-grade teacher. Dobe recently did an activity, for example, where the students had to choose which form of government would work best for a newly colonized planet. Davis was part of the group that listened to and evaluated the students’ presentation.

“The kids love it – they know that she knows what’s going on in their classroom,” Dobe said.

In her retirement, Davis said she plans to spend more time with her family, who are spread from Sunapee to Arizona and Virginia. She also plans to spend more time on other projects, such as tutoring people working to get their GEDs and working with therapeutic horse riding programs. Therapeutic riding combines Davis’s passion for horses and for working with people with special needs, but is something she has only been able to dedicate limited time to in the past.

The search for Davis’s replacement began last week when administrators met with Dobe and Shalisse Godfrey, the head teachers at each school, to gather input on what qualities the new principal should have. The board will formally advertise the vacancy Sunday and applications will be due Feb. 11. Interviews will happen through February and March, with members of the selection committee visiting the schools of semi-finalists. The board hopes to hire someone by April.

Based on staff members’ views of Davis’s leadership, her successor has big shoes to fill.

“She’s raised the bar,” said Judy Elliott, Webster’s school nurse.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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