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The people’s principal: Jackson Street School leader says goodbye after three decades in district 

  • Gwen Agna stands in front of an empty Jackson Street School with Jackson, the school’s therapy dog. Agna is retiring after 24 years as principal and is spending her last months working from home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gwen Agna, in an empty Jackson Street School playground, which was named after her, with Jackson, the school’s therapy dog. Agna is retiring after 24 years as principal and is spending her last months working from home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gwen Agna stands in an empty Jackson Street school playground, which was named after her, with Jackson, the school’s therapy dog. Agna is retiring after 24 years as principal and is spending her last months working from home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gwen Agna sits in front of an empty Jackson Street School with Jackson, the school’s therapy dog. Agna is retiring after 24 years as principal and is spending her last months working from home. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jackson Street School principal Gwen Agna, top, accompanies students second grader Janelys Santos, left, fourth grader Jaiani Rodriguez and third grader Sieanah Taylor from their Hampshire Heights neighborhood in Northampton on Wednesday for Massachusetts Walk & Bike To School Day. Taken May of 2015. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING 

Staff Writer
Published: 5/4/2020 8:36:09 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Gwen Agna initially hesitated when she was offered the role of interim principal at Bridge Street School in 1993. She stayed up all night writing a letter to then-school superintendent Bruce Willard “about all the things I couldn’t do,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t yell at children. I don’t fix boilers,’” thinking that was how she would spend her days as a principal. 

But Willard convinced her to take the offer, and “I found it was the most wonderful job,” Agna said recently. “I was really taken with it.” She was sad to later step aside and give the position to the permanent replacement, Johanna McKenna, she added.

In 1996, Agna became the principal at Jackson Street School, but she didn’t give much thought to how long she would stay in the position. Twenty-four years later, she’s retiring as the school’s principal at the end of the academic year and ending her 32-year career in the district.

“This has been my best job that I’ve ever had,” Agna said and laughed. “There’s so much that happens in the day of a principal.” 

For Agna, a typical day went like this: Each morning, she arrived between 7:30 and 8 a.m., sometimes meeting with families and staff during that time. She then stood outside to greet students as they got to school. Twice a week, she led a morning meditation over the loudspeaker.​​​​​ “We’d basically breathe our way into the school day,” she said.

“After that, it depends on what was in store for me that day,” she said. “It wasn’t very predictable.”

Many days, she visited classrooms to check in. After the school got a therapy dog — a labradoodle named Jackson — in 2018, she brought him along, too. 

Agna is not yet sure how she will spend her time in retirement, but for now she plans to stay home with her husband, Thomas Marantz, in Northampton. The couple is looking forward to welcoming their second grandchild in the coming weeks.

From Southeast Asia to Northampton

Both Agna’s parents were physicians in the U.S. Public Health Service, and she was born in Southeast Asia in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The family moved to Ohio, where they lived for several years before relocating to Haiti, where her parents worked at a hospital. 

“I do remember that — I was actually in first grade,” Agna said. “My mother had to teach me as well as be a doctor in the hospital; I was being homeschooled.” At the time, the country was controlled by a dictatorship. “It was a pretty scary time,” Agna recalled. “My parents were very outspoken, and they were cautioned that they could get hurt.”

After a year, she and her family went back to Ohio. Agna studied for a semester at Pitzer College in California and then dropped out. “I didn’t really want to go college. I wanted to have adventures,” she recalled. So, she got a job at a school in London as an aide and later completed her undergraduate degree and teacher training at the University of Nottingham. 

In 1988, Agna started in the Northampton schools as the district’s early childhood coordinator and later took on the position of equity coordinator, a job in which she worked on anti-bias training for teachers and helped redistrict the schools, among other initiatives. 

“I think one thing I learned right way is that Northampton is a pretty segregated town,” Agna said, talking by phone last week. “It still is.”

Jackson Street School was not seen as a desirable school by some when Agna started as principal in the mid-1990s, she said. With a relatively high poverty rate and number of students of color, “that brought out the institutional racism that all communities have,” she noted.

Agna worked to change that. “We don’t have any expectation that we can change the social situation outside of the schools,” she said, “but we can mitigate some of what families are having to deal with by provid​​​​​​ing a good safe environment in school and telling everybody that they belong and they have a right to be there.”

Jagy Riesz, 24, remembers feeling like she belonged at the elementary school. Riesz started kindergarten at Jackson Street School in 2003 soon after her family adopted her from India. “I was so scared. I didn’t speak any English,” she said.

Riesz recounted how Agna welcomed her to the school and knew everyone’s name. “I knew I could go to her,” Riesz said. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a person I can trust.’”

“She never treated anyone as unequal. She treated me just the same as everyone else,” Riesz continued. “Northampton is a predominately white community. As a 7-year-old person of color from India, acclimating to Jackson Street was huge. I was so vulnerable and scared.” 

Ellen Sulzycki, 31, was in second grade when Agna became principal. She remembers Agna’s attention to diversity — she recalled a world map in the school with pins denoting where students and their families had come from. “Sometimes adults would just shush you for asking these questions about differences between you and other kids,” Sulzycki said. “But that never happened at Jackson Street. It was always celebrated and explained very well.”

Elba Cartagena’s three children went to Jackson Street after they moved from a shelter to Hampshire Heights in 2009.

“It was hard,” Cartagena said of the move. “They make us feel welcome, and she got me to do something that I never thought I would be part of: I was part of the PTO,” she said, referencing the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization. “It was really nice and beautiful.”

Agna was her family’s “biggest angel,” Cartagena said. 

When her daughter, Angela Jazmin, now 12, was in first grade, she was sent to the principal’s office for misbehaving. “She thought that being in Ms. Agna’s office was the coolest thing,” Cartagena recalled. “That’s how comfortable she felt.”

Cartagena and her family moved to Florida in 2014, and when they came back to Northampton for their first visit, “The first thing we did was visit Jackson Street School,” she said. “We go to Massachusetts regularly, and that’s what we do — We stop at the school.”

A long legacy

During her tenure, Agna has worked with numerous superintendents, been through budget cuts and made countless hires. “In 24 years,” she said, “you see people retire, you see people go other places. Now I’ve really basically hired everyone in our school.”

Over the years, Agna also launched a number of events that students still love. In her second year as principal, she started eating lunch around a table with students on Fridays, an opportunity each child gets twice a year. If someone suggested scheduling a meeting on Friday at lunch, she would say no — she had principal’s table. “It’s kind of sacred to me to keep that in my schedule,” she said.

Sulzycki remembers the principal’s table. “You would feel special: I get to eat lunch with the principal. It wasn’t intimidating, she was just a really friendly and caring person — you could tell that she really cares about you.”

Another former student, Sophia Glading-DiLorenzo, said Principal Agna and the teachers at Jackson Street were a “monumental” factor in her decision to become a teacher.

While in college, Glading-DiLorenzo was thinking about pursuing teaching, so she asked Agna for advice. The two met at Dobra Tea in Northampton. “She went above and beyond to meet with me … She sat down with me and spoke with me about teaching and told me about her experiences,” Glading-DiLorenzo said. “She’s so supportive, even thought I went to the school when I was 11.”

Glading-DiLorenzo, an associate teacher at Springfield Prep Charter School, is now working toward a master of arts in teaching at Smith College. At the college’s commencement this spring, which is planned to take place virtually, Agna will receive an honorary degree.

Agna announced she was retiring more than a year ago, but she couldn’t have envisioned the current situation — that learning would be remote and that gatherings would not be possible due to a global pandemic. Because schools are closed for the rest of the academic year due to COVID-19, Agna is finishing up her decades-long career in the city schools largely from home. 

“It was overnight that we closed the schools. We were having to scramble,” Agna said. She and others at Jackson Street School worked to get students the technology, such as Chromebooks, that they required. “There was an exhaustive analysis and planning to get everybody on board that needed it.”

“Clearly remote learning has a lot to be desired,” Agna continued. “So much about education is about relationships.”

The staff initi gave out work packets to families, and now teachers are posting assignments online and hosting weekly office hours to check in with students. Agna started recording story times for students and posting them on Zoom. 

“We have worked on ways to stay connected … The teachers have done an amazing amount of work to make sure that happens,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep this as real as possible.”

The PTO had hoped to host an afternoon tea party to celebrate Agna’s retirement, but that idea is now on hold. “I have a little affinity for tea and lots of teapots,” Agna said, adding that her interest comes from her time living in England. “Obviously, we can’t do that because it would crash every social distance protocol.” 

“Maybe once there gets to be some sense of normalcy,” she continued, “we could gather again to have some kind of closure. I would hope that we could … I think it would mean something to our community to close up and say goodbye. We’ve been together for a long time.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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