By Dan Edelen
Caps sailing in the air. Hugs and high-fives shared between teens. Tears on the faces of proud parents. As the longest-serving school superintendent in Massachusetts, Gerald Paist ’61 will witness his 38th graduation at Pathfinder Region Vocational Technical High School in Palmer this spring.
“Every graduation since 1974 has been a joyful occasion,” he says. Sharing in that joy and following the lives of former students as they make their way in the world keeps the 72-year-old young.
In his work as superintendent and chief executive officer of the district anchored by the Pathfinder school, Paist oversees 680 students, more than 150,000 square feet of campus buildings, and a $12 million budget. He cites the district’s development over his many years as his proudest achievement. In that time, enrollment has shot up by 50 percent, matched by the campus’ total square footage. Nine towns have come under the umbrella of the district.
“When I retire one day, I hope people look at this district and say, ‘That’s what he did,’” says Paist, a history graduate with a master’s in teaching from Harvard. “Before this school was built, people had to go out of town to get a vocational education. But since then, it has been one success story after another.”
Paist’s own success comes at the end of a path begun in childhood, as both of his parents were involved in teaching. His mother taught private piano and cello lessons. His father, a high school music teacher, provided a link to Lafayette through his college roommate, John Raymond, the beloved choral and music professor. The younger Paist, already forming his own ideas on education, found what he was looking for in Lafayette.
“Back then, I thought education courses were shallow unless they included an infusion of the liberal arts,” Paist says. He pursued liberal arts to the full, adding chemistry, math, French, and history. But the one-professor education department at Lafayette, his parent’s experiences, and the thrill of student teaching at Easton High School confirmed his direction. After receiving his degree in history, he went on to earn a master’s and doctorate in education from Harvard, which forever rooted him in educating the next generation.
Yet there was a twist, thanks to a teaching job in a blue-collar town.
“Vocational education is 180 degrees from where I started,” Paist says. The turnaround came as a result of recognizing that the children of metalworkers, auto mechanics, nurses, and secretaries needed dependable future jobs too.
“My educational philosophy is rooted in a democratic society,” Paist says. “In a school system like this, we prepare students to be productive and responsible members of society, providing them technical and academic skills to acquire gainful employment, continue post-secondary studies, enter the military, or a combination of those. We offer students with diverse abilities the opportunity to reach their full potential.”
With increased pressure from states to deliver an academic education that meets the same test scores as a traditional high school, one of Paist’s jobs as superintendent is to find the difficult balance between academics and technical job training.
In addition, he puts in 70 hours a week managing a pool of 86 teachers and 40 support staff—some former students at Pathfinder—interfacing with the school board, navigating the treacherous waters of state educational laws, ensuring financial backing, arranging development of the campus, and still finding time to walk the halls to connect with Pathfinder students.
Today, changes in federal and state expenditures add to Paist’s concerns, as Pathfinder adjusts to changes in the economy and business. Vocational targets keep moving, with high tech engineering and health care coming to the fore.
“Vocational education has been trade oriented,” Paist says, “but in today’s society, academic rigor is more critical. The labor market is looking for skills in a wide variety of disciplines.”
Regardless of the pressures he faces to keep his school district ahead of societal shifts, graduation makes it all worthwhile for Paist.
“Though it’s a formal, sophisticated affair, every so often it’s an emotional event, sometimes regarding a student’s health issues,” Paist says. “Or a student talks about his life before coming to Pathfinder, how difficult it was. How he had to earn his own money, had problems at home, had no bed to sleep in. How everyone told him he’d never amount to anything. But now he is an accomplished landscaper with his own business. Tears would be coming down his face and the faces of people in the audience. Then come the roar and the standing ovation. You have to see that. Then you know it is all worth it.”