Joe Zarrella, in a November 2009 interview with Fox 25 just after he earned a spot on the Braintree School Committee, appears every bit the high school wrestler he was, with a tight buzz cut and square jaw – and the government official he was becoming, with a sharp suit and thoughtful speaking style.
"I'm taking five classes right now [at Bridgewater State University], but luckily I'm commuting so I'll be able to stay involved in the community at home, and I'm out by eleven every day, so I'll be able to focus on school committee and the work ahead," Zarrella, 19 at the time, told Fox's Kim Carrigan.
"It's the goal of every town to provide its students with the best education possible, so I hope to use my age and recent experience in the high school to be a mediator between all parties involved in the school, to bring new ideas for development down the road..."
In a recent interview with Braintree Patch, Zarrella reiterated his goal to be an advocate for the town's students, helping guide the School Committee as it tackles a diversity of issues, and also reflected on his past and looked forward to this year.
Zarrella is now a sophomore at Bridgewater, majoring in political science and interning on Beacon Hill. His passion for civil engagement through politics was sparked by a current events class he took at under the tutelage of Jamie Wiggin.
"It bred a whole new outlook in me that I never really thought of before," Zarrella said, "and it really made me want to get involved in Braintree.”
A mock debate during the 2008 presidential election further motivated him to work in government. Teaming up with current Blue Hills Regional School Committee , Zarrella took on then-candidate Barack Obama's team as John McCain's campaign and won. Though his parents are apolitical, Zarrella said, his interest was fueled and "it just kind of took off from there."
He filed election paperwork in August of 2009, placed fourth in November, and was then appointed to fill the seat of Sean Powers, who received the most votes for that year.
"I knew the schools inside and out, I’d taken the MCAS, I'd taken the SATs," Zarrella said. "I had so much knowledge from actually being in the schools."
As the youngest member of the committee, Zarrella uses that recent experience to add his voice to subjects ranging from to the budget process, but also credits long-time officials like Mayor Joseph Sullivan, also a member, and chair David Cunningham.
"All the members advocate on behalf of the kids," he said. "They truly are there to make our schools better.”
One area to which Zarrella said he pays particular attention is the needs of special education students. His sister is in the SAIL Program at , and this personal connection has led him to work with local and state groups to boost awareness.
"I know the struggles that families have," Zarrella said, "just trying to get their kids to school every day with special needs, just trying to get them educated.”
Looking back on 2010, Zarrella said he was overall pleased with the committee and the school system's performance, though "there's always room for improvement." Full-day kindergarten was a first-step success, he said (“I really felt that was truly our community working"), and maintaining level services while hiring six additional teachers was something he was "extremely proud of."
This year, his focus will be on the school budget for the first several months, as Braintree figures out how to deal with a cut to its general local aid and a federal stimulus "funding cliff." He would also like to see more students get involved in volunteerism, in the schools and throughout town.
Over the summer and into the fall, Zarrella plans to use what he has learned so far on another campaign, as his two-year stint upon taking Powers' seat will expire after this year. "You learn something new every day," he said, adding that "it's really the people behind me that make this all happen."
When asked about future political goals, Zarrella steers right back to accomplishing what he's already been tasked with. In the interview with Fox 25, he was prodded by Carrigan to discuss his next move.
"I'm just looking forward to serving," he responded.
"When you run for president, be sure that you stop off and visit with us, OK?" Carrigan said at the end of their conversation.
Zarrella, thanking the reporter for her time, just laughed and shook her hand.