Andrea Prestwich, School Committee Chair During Height Of Pandemic, Stepping Down

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.

Prestwich Named Belmont School Committee Chair, Bowen As Secretary

Photo: Andrea Prestwich

It was as simple as removing the word “acting” from her title as the Belmont School Committee unanimously voted to elevate Andrea Prestwich to Chair of the committee at its virtual meeting held on Tuesday, April 28.

“I’m honored to be selected as chair and I will do my best and serve the community in that capacity,” said the Alexander Avenue resident. In her second three-year term on the committee, Prestwich is an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard.

Her term continues until the next reorganization meeting a week after the town election in April 2021.

Member Catherine Bowen was elected secretary.

Prestwich replaces Susan Burgess-Cox who resigned from the board earlier in the month in a dispute over the committee’s policy on reorganizing the board’s leadership.

Belmont’s Resident Astrophysicists Ready For Monday’s Big Eclipse

Photo: Belmont’s resident astrophysicists, Steven Saar and Andrea Prestwich, ready for Monday’s solar eclipse.

Andrea Prestwich is approaching viewing Monday’s total solar eclipse of two minds. As an astrophysicist at Harvard’s Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory who explores the vastness of space through an orbital x-ray telescope – the Chandra X-ray Observatory – the coming eclipse is, well, disappointing ordinary.

“The rational part of me is underwhelmed. This whole event is just a shadow, after all!” said Prestwich, who is a member of the Belmont School Committee. “It is nowhere near as significant as, say, the discovery of gravitational waves or cosmic X-ray sources.”

But by Monday afternoon, Prestwich said she’ll revert to her five-year-old self who first discovered an interest in the heavens.

“The kid in me is wildly excited! I get to see the [sun’s] corona with my own eyeballs!”

Monday will be a special day for Prestwich and her husband, Steven Saar, who happens to be the other astrophysicist in the family – working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics – as it will be the first time either has witnessed a total solar eclipse.

For Saar, the blotting out of the sun Monday is something akin to his line of research as a member of the Solar and Stellar X-Ray Group, researchers who study solar and stellar atmospheres.

Saar and Prestwich joined the Belmontonian via e-mail from Boone County, Missouri, to discuss the upcoming solar eclipse.
Belmontonian: What’s happening on Monday afternoon, Aug. 21?
Saar: A total eclipse of the Sun, when the moon completely covers the disk of the Sun for at least some viewers on Earth. It is the first total eclipse to pass over the US since 1991, where one clipped Hawaii. Before that, you have to go back to 1979 to find one hitting the continental US (and then only in the Pacific Northwest).  
It doesn’t happen very often, because the moon’s orbit around the Earth is slightly inclined to our motion around the Sun, and so not only must the Earth, moon, and Sun all line up, but the moon must also be at this “crossing point” in its orbit. In Belmont, we are a little off from this perfect alignment, [so] the Sun will still be about 60 percent covered, and look like a crescent.”
Belmontonian: Have you seen a total solar eclipse before? What are your memories? 
Saar: I’ve seen several partial eclipses like what [will occur] in Belmont … but the only total eclipse I tried to see was in Helsinki, Finland in 1990. Unfortunately, it was totally cloudy. I did get to see the shadow of the moon rushing across the sky from horizon to horizon, and hear the crickets start chirping, thinking night had fallen. 
Andrea: This is my first total eclipse! My research is more X-ray astronomy/black hole populations, and I haven’t ever needed an eclipse to do science.
Belmontonian: As astrophysicists, is the run-of-the mill total solar eclipse interesting compared to black holes and the creation of galaxies?
Saar: Since eclipses come fairly rarely, each new one is a chance to try out newly developed instruments and equipment that can do and see new things that were impossible in previous eclipses. For example, in this eclipse, some members of our solar group at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics located in Cambridge are flying a brand new instrument aboard a NASA jet to measure the magnetic field in the solar corona. The magnetic field is what confines the corona’s hot, electrified plasma into the beautiful filaments you see sprouting out from the Sun during the eclipse, but they are very weak and have not been measured directly before.   
Andrea: Total eclipses are very interesting from a historical perspective. In 1919 the British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington used a total eclipse to measure the positions of stars near the sun to show that light was being bent by the sun’s gravity, a key prediction of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. On occasions when eclipses are mentioned in ancient texts, they can be used as a chronometer to pin down the exact date of the event which otherwise can be open to interpretation.
Bemontonian: What will expert scientists be looking at that most sky gazers might miss?
Saar: Since it will be my first “total”, I will be enjoying the sheer beauty of it like everyone else: the flower-like corona, Bailey’s beads (a string of glowing dots caused when the last bit of sunlight before totality sneaks past the edge of the moon in lunar canyons and craters seen on edge), the diamond ring (when these beads merge into a thin ring with glowing “jewels” where more Sun is getting past).  There will also be several planets visible during totality: Mars Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter will all pop into view once the blinding Sun is covered. And I might steal a glance at the ground during totality; I’m told that you can get some faint shimmery effects due to diffraction around the moon, but this has been hard to capture on film.
Prestwich: I’m looking out for all of the above and the expressions on our kid’s faces!
Belmontonian; What would you advise people to experience or keep in mind when they see the (partial) eclipse in and around Belmont?
Saar: Never look at the Sun directly without the protection of certified eclipse glasses!  Normal sunglasses are NOT sufficient. You can permanently damage your retina!  Noone wants a sun-sized blind spot permanently etched in their field of vision. Learn how to make a simple pinhole camera (plenty of websites give details, and practice beforehand!). This can be a very effective way of seeing the eclipse. 
The [peak] of the eclipse will be about 2:45 p.m. in Belmont, but the duration of the lunar passage will last about two-and-a-half hours altogether.
Prestwich: I thoroughly recommend the Smithsonian Eclipse App, available free for IOS and Android. This app was put together by colleagues at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and includes cool stuff like an interactive eclipse map, views of the sun from solar observatories, and NASA live stream of the event.
Belmontonian: Where will you be? 
Saar: In Columbia, Missouri with our family. We’re having an eclipse holiday!  
Belmontonian: What if it’s cloudy?

Saar: The day before we will study the local weather carefully, and be prepared to drive a bit to a clearer spot if needed.  If we can’t get to one, we will pout a lot, but still, enjoy the natural phenomena that are still visible.

Prestwich: We’ll watch it on the SAO App! 
Steve to Andrea: Nerd.

Town Election 2016: Paolillo Retains Selectmen Seat; Prestwich, Bicer on Schools, 18-Year-Old Tops Town Meeting Ballot

Photo: Supporters of top vote collector Dan Vernick on Election Day in Belmont.

Mark Paolillo will be returning for a third (and final) three-year term on the Belmont Board of Selectmen as he easily beat back a spirited campaign from political novice Alexandra Ruban in the 2016 Belmont Town Election held on Tuesday, April 5.

Paolillo received 2,432 votes to Ruban’s 1,360, from voters in the eight precincts in town to secure the victory on a day when 3,907 voters, 22.6 percent of all registered voters, took the time to make it to the polls. Paolillo won all but one precinct – falling behind Ruban by five votes, 165-160 in seven – while more than making up that difference by winning overwhelmingly in his home district, in Precinct 8, by more than 250 votes (438-185).

Obtain the unofficial results at the Town Clerk’s Web page here. 

In the contested school committee race, first-timers Murat Bicer and Andrea Prestwich secured three-year terms finishing first and second with 1,959 and 1,931 votes. They outlasted Kimberly O’Mahony, who come in with 1,662 votes in a tight race for the seats vacated by long-time members Laurie Slap and current school committee member Elyse Shuster, who returns for a single year position, finishing the term of Laurie Graham. While Prestwich won half of the precincts, Bicer (who won three with O’Mahony winning her home precinct, the 4th, overwhelmingly) was always just a few votes from her total, losing three precincts (2, 3 and 5) by a total of 16 votes. 

For the race to fill the three-year-term on the Housing Authority, well-known Belmontian Tomi Olson defeated Paul Rickter by more than 150 votes out of 3,200 cast, 1,680 to 1,523. 

Over on the Town Meeting side of the ballot, the top story is 18-year-old Daniel Vernick (Belmont High ’15) who not only topped the vote in Precinct 1 with 339 cast; he received the most votes of any Town Meeting candidate running. Vernick, Yale ’19, ran an impressive campaign using social media, local contacts and going door-to-door to win his seat in the town’s legislative branch, saying he would bring “my [BHS] classmates’ perspective both internally within the school administration and externally through the town.” No one should be surprised by Vernick’s enthusiastic campaign, having started his activism as a 7th-grade middle school student calling for the passage of a Prop. 2 1/2 override in 2010. 

Five incumbents did not retain their seats including a pair in both precincts 1 and 6, while new members will be taking their place in the 290 member body including Kristen Zecchi in 1, Michael Chesson in Precinct 4, Elizabeth Lipson (with an impressive fifth place) and Katherine Gardner Poulin-Kerstien, and Gi Hyun Yoon-Huang in 8. 

And over in the “couples district,” Precinct 4 is sending three sets of married couples, the Flewellings (Sheila topped her husband, David, 205-192), long-time town meeting member Kevin Cunningham just got by his wife, newly-elected Lisa Gibalerio, by one-vote and Sandra Occhino was 14 votes ahead of her husband, John.

And finally, Warren Committee Chair Michael Libenson is back in Town Meeting representing his home Precinct 1 after being voted off the body a few years back, essentially for not responding to the questioner from the Belmont League of Women Voters guide. And School Committee member Susan Burgess-Cox successfully changed precincts now representing Precinct 2 for the next two years.

Letter to the Editor: Variety of Reasons to Support Prestwich for School Committee

Photo: Andrea Prestwich.

To the editor:

We are writing in support of Andrea Prestwich for a three-year term on the Belmont School Committee. Her professional background makes her eminently well qualified for that position; among other responsibilities, she oversees projects and manages a multimillion dollar budget for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and she serves on the committee that advises the Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute on policies about the Hubble Space Telescope. In these roles, she has demonstrated an ability to work in a committee context to formulate policy and to think critically about the implications of that policy.

We have known Andrea, husband Steve, and their twins for more than six years through singing in our church choir and many happy hours in various activities at our church. We have thoroughly enjoyed workshops she has led on aspects of astrophysics, where we have experienced first-hand her excellent communication skills in making complex topics accessible.  

Having two children in our schools, she has always taken a keen interest in issues before the school committee; she is passionately committed to Belmont kids. We believe Andrea’s depth of experience and skill in working with others, as well as her excellent communication skills, warm personality and understanding of current educational issues would make her an invaluable member of the Belmont School Committee. We will be enthusiastically voting for Andrea on April 5 and urge you to do the same.

David Warner and Mary Beekman

Kilburn Road  

Letter to the Editor: Prestwich Professional Experience Value to School Committee

Photo: Andrea Prestwich

To the editor:

I met Andrea Prestwich and her husband Steve Saar ten years ago. Our kids have sung in the choir and attended Sunday School together, and more recently participated in Chenery Middle School’s extraordinary instrumental music program together. We have become good friends as our kids have aged from 2 to 12.  

That’s why I was delighted when Andrea told me she was running for Belmont School Committee.  She has a fascinating career in astronomy, and in her time at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Andrea has taken and active role in STEM education. She has been involved in science outreach, writing articles and giving presentations to the general public on all aspects of astronomy, making complex concepts understandable for people untrained in the discipline.   

She was instrumental in starting a highly successful Research Experience for Undergraduates  program at the Smithsonian-funded by the National  Science Foundation. She has supervised graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and for several years, she was director of the NASA Einstein Post-Doctoral Fellowship Program.  

Andrea has a “top down” view of STEM education that would be very valuable on the School Committee. She has an analytical mind and professional experience that make her uniquely qualified to serve on curriculum and policy subcommittees. I urge you to vote for Andrea on April 5.

Kate Searle

Beech Street

Letter to the Editor: Prestwich Will Bring Balance to School Committee

Photo: Andrea Prestwich.

To the editor:

I express my support for Dr. Andrea Prestwich, candidate for School Committee. Andrea has two children who currently attend Chenery Middle School. She leads small ministry groups at the First Church, Belmont, and is an avid member of the choir. At work, Andrea is an internationally respected astrophysicist who oversees projects and manages a multi-million dollar budget for the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

As a parent and former reporter covering the School Committee, I have attended countless School Committee meetings. I can attest that Prestwich has the requisite background and experience to lead our schools. She understands the budgeting process and can make difficult decisions. She appreciates the district’s recent focus on social and emotional learning and its impact on students’ development. Most importantly, she is a critical thinker who has the skills to negotiate and work through complex policy implications.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Education Association have called for later middle and high school start times (8:30 a.m. or later) so that students can get adequate amounts of sleep. Andrea formed the Belmont chapter of the national nonprofit, Start Schools Later, and has held local talks on the issue. Andrea is committed to reviewing the district’s policies around school start times to determine what is appropriate for Belmont.

Yes, financial leadership is a key issue for all of our town committees. But we also need to have a balance of diverse members on our committees. I admire Andrea’s dedication and passion to serve our children and community. I urge you all to join me in voting for Andrea Prestwich for School Committee on April 5.

Melissa Irion

Town Meeting Member Precinct 8

Gravitational Waves: Belmont Astrophysicist Tells What the Fuss Is All About [Video]

Photo: Belmont’s Andrea Prestwich of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard.

It’s not every day that an astrophysicist walks through the doors of Belmont Town Hall.

So when it happened on Friday, Feb. 12 the Belmontonian took the opportunity to ask one; Andrea Prestwich of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard – and a Belmont resident, to boot – to explain the discovery of gravitational waves reported the day before, on Thursday, Feb. 13. 

Called by the BBC’s “The Science Hour” host Claudia Hammond as “one of the most exciting scientific breakthroughs in the history of science,” the announcement made Thursday morning at a National Science Foundation meeting in Washington D.C. confirmed a critical component of Albert Einstein’s General Relativity made a century ago. 

Listen to the BBC’s podcast which provides an overview of the achievement. 

Prestwich – who matriculated at Queen Mary College, London, with a degree in physics and completed her Ph.D. in Astrophysics at Imperial College London – expressed the excitement of the announcement and explains what it all means.