Photo: Andrea Prestwich at the 2021 Belmont High School graduation
Andrea Prestwich, who led the Belmont School Committee during the height of a worldwide pandemic that upended education in Belmont, resigned from the committee Wednesday, Oct. 20, after accepting a role with the government’s leading funding source for basic science research.
“I’ve been offered a position as Program Director at the National Science Foundation and I hope to start next week,” Prestwich said in a letter to Town Clerk Ellen Cushman. “I’m very excited by this new opportunity, but it will be a lot of work and I won’t have the time needed to devote to the School Committee going forward.”
“It has been an honor to serve on the School Committee,” said Prestwich who is the committee’s longest serving member having been elected in April 2016.
“I look back at what I said when I first ran for the school committee, back in 2016, and I said, ‘I’m in awe of the teachers, the administrators and the students.’ And that’s still true. I am in awe of all those people,” said Prestwich at the committee’s Tuesday, Oct. 19 meeting.
“The district really does faces some significant challenges, especially financial. But you guys have the right core values, and are excellent people. And I believe that you can these core values and the right people will sustain the district through difficult times,” said Prestwich of her committee colleagues.
Amy Checkoway, the committee’s current chair, said she and the committee “will miss among other things, your insightful questions, your extensive scientific knowledge, and your honesty.”
Prestwich’s leadership occurred “during an incredibly difficult time to serve on the school committee, let alone be a chair,” said Checkoway. Taking the helm in April 2020 – she was the only sitting member who volunteered to replace the previous chair who suddenly resigned – Prestwich faced a district forced to provide a daily classroom experience remotely which it provided on the fly as the severity of the pandemic brought daily roadblocks to the education process.
Belmont Superintendent John Phelan said he and the central office staff shared a very unique experience with Prestwich “which was a year of Covid challenges” and the efforts to ensure that students would attend “safe school environment.”
“It does feel like we’re battle scarred, doesn’t it,” Prestwich said.
Prestwich led the committee in the district’s contentious phased opening of school starting in remote learning in Sept. 2020 which she said was a good decision, although admitting parents should have been part of the process in developing the plan. She championed district-wide Covid testing and increasing education spending in future budgets to provide needed additional instruction just as a populist austerity faction in town raised questions on funding.
With her stances, Prestwich became a convenient target for parental critics on social media platforms including many particularly personal attacks alleging a “hidden agenda” to grab control of the district. Detractors went so far as to suggest starting a recall effort which quickly petered out.
In a December 2020 interview, Prestwich explained that both she and the committee appreciated the anxiety of parents whose children remained out of the classroom.
“I completely understand the level of frustration in the community with our schools,” Prestwich said. “Not one of us on the School Committee is happy with the current situation. We would all like for school in Belmont to be back to normal. As School Committee chair, I’m the natural target for the frustration.”
“I remember very vividly a phone conversation I had with Andrea at some point last school year, when she described how heavy this role felt every day,” said Checkoway, who took over Prestwich’s role after she stepped down from the chair’s position in early April.
Prestwich ran in 2016 promoting later school start times especially for high school students, pointing to the overwhelming scientific evidence that maturing teens – She and her husband, Steve Saar, are parents of teenage twins – more sleep to effectively tackle the school day.
Her reliance on a fact-based approach as chair and as a member can be found in her own education and day job. A PhD in Astrophysics from Imperial College London, this year marked Prestwich’s 30th anniversary at Harvard’s Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory where she is a staff scientist at the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
And in her final act as a committee member, Prestwich was given the honor of closing the committee’s meeting one last time.