Five area schools have new principals

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by Richard Creaser

Five area schools will have new principals to start the 2013-2014 school year.  Brighton Elementary has perhaps the most radical change in store as Denise Russell not only takes over as principal but is joined by ten other new hires.

In interviews over the past few weeks, the newly hired principals each touched on part of a recurring theme — community.  The small size of the towns creates not only the school’s biggest weakness but also its greatest strength.  Small towns sometimes have fewer resources, but they also often have a greater sense of community and often enjoy more involvement by parents and townspeople than larger towns and cities do.

Two of these administrators will be familiar to some of the students.  Robert Midi returns to Newport City Elementary to serve as interim principal for the coming school year.  Mr. Midi had previously spent 18 years as the school’s chief administrator.  In Albany Todd Rivver, a former teacher there, returns to provide leadership following the retirement of Jill Chaffee.

In Brighton, Deborah Ahrens returns after a one-year absence to teach grades one and two, Chris Lawson arrives to teach middle school math, Tammy Wise to teach middle school language arts, Beth Rodondi to teach middle school science, Carolyn Mader will teach music, and Kevin Smith joins the team as a special educator.  Linda Beaumier, Brittany Gonyaw and Dana Jacobs arrive as paraeducators and O. Ray Willey is the school’s newest bus driver.

Eric Erwin, former assistant principal at Newport City Elementary, takes the helm at Lakeview Union School in Greensboro.  Kelli Dean, former assistant principal at Barton Academy and Graded School, takes leadership of Holland Elementary.

Despite the many changes in store for the coming school year, what remains the same is that all five principals are fully committed to the task of providing a quality education for the region’s children.

“Creating the best possible learning environment is always the bottom line,” Mr. Midi said.  “That’s always the goal.”

Creating that perfect environment starts with a school’s administration, Mr. Erwin said.  Not only must the principal oversee the educational needs of his students but also address the development of his staff and serve to educate the public as well, he said.

“To a large extent the principal is a public servant,” Mr. Erwin said.  “I need to be able to educate the public about the operation of the school, the needs of the school and explain how gaining the resources necessary to meet those needs will affect the education we can provide.  I feel that if I give people the information they need to make well-informed decisions they are better positioned to make the best choices for their children.”

Determining what is best for a community’s children is not an easy task.  Opening lines of communication is the first step to assessing and understanding the kind of school a community wants to have.  In many rural communities, the school occupies a critical place in the fabric of that town.

“It’s about creating an environment that invites involvement,” Ms. Russell said.  “I want people to be able to come to me and let me know what they think is important.”

Getting people involved in their school involves demonstrating an understanding of the nature of a community.  To that end, Ms. Dean feels she can relate to the people of Holland, having grown up in the Northeast Kingdom and lived in many similar communities.

“I can understand the role the school has in small communities because I’ve lived in it, I’ve worked in it myself,” Ms. Dean said.  “I’m sensitive to the needs of our small schools.”

That basic understanding will be important as Ms. Dean leads Holland Elementary in the next year.  Voters defeated the school budget at Town Meeting primarily out of a frustration over a lack of connection to the school.  Ms. Dean has vowed to build and repair those bridges that divide the school community from the rest of the town.

“I can’t do it alone,” she said.  “Luckily I have a school board that is also working to make those connections.  Holland School is the center of this community, and people certainly want to know that their tax dollars are being used well.”

Making those connections is part of the joy of being the administrator in a small school.  Those connections inevitably begin with the students in your care, Mr. Midi said.

“Even in a community the size of Newport you can make connections to the wider community through the students,” he said.  “The children have aunts, uncles, grandparents, a whole host of people they are related to.  You can reach those people providing the kind of educational environment that gets the kids excited and talking about what happened in school today.  The word gets out pretty quickly.”

Mr. Erwin is particularly grateful for the amount of support he has already received from the community.  Greensboro and Stannard, the two communities served by Lakeview Union, have proven particularly interested in their school community, he said.

“But I can’t take their interest for granted.  If I want to maintain that relationship, I need to get out there, meet people and keep them interested in what’s happening here.”

The close knit nature of small towns is conducive to building relationships, Mr. Rivver agreed.  Daily interactions both at and outside of the school provide an opportunity to keep community members engaged.

“Part of it is enthusiasm,” Mr. Rivver said.  “People can tell when you are passionate about something and they respond to that.  We’re not building iPods or engines, we’re educating children, and what can be more important than that?”

While a small community can facilitate engagement, small communities also have a small tax base which creates a challenge for administrators.  The budgeting process is one area where community involvement is particularly important.

“When you have limited resources you want to make sure that you make the best possible use of those resources,” Ms. Russell said.  “We need to make education relevant to the present and future needs of our children and our community.  Sometimes we are trying to teach them skills we don’t even know exist yet.  It’s about preparing them to be effective learners.”

Technology is one of those ways to expand learning opportunities and, if done well, can do so with limited effect on the bottom line.

“Island Pond is somewhat isolated because of its geography, but it doesn’t have to be,” Ms. Russell said.  “If we use technology well, we can provide our students with the same kinds of opportunities afforded students in New York City.”

How to implement that technology is one area where understanding a community’s values is particularly important, Mr. Erwin said.  To some people schools are seen as a protective force against outside influences.

“Technology has exposed our children to a lot of influences, a lot of information that can be both good and bad,” Mr. Erwin said.  “Our job is to help them make the distinction between the two.  It’s the duty of schools to help students use and understand the technology.”

Ms. Dean is in a unique position among all of the new principals.  Her position is defined as 80 percent principal and 20 percent fifth- and sixth-grade social studies teacher.  While that distinction may be reflected in the division of her salary, it becomes less obvious in practice.

“I am going to devote the time necessary to make sure that I accomplish both roles 100 percent,” Ms. Dean said.  “I think it will be a good combination, allowing me to keep fingers in all of the pies.  I love teaching and I think that it will actually be re-energizing to get the opportunity to interact with the kids in the classroom.”

Ms. Dean also hopes that by creating a bond with students outside of the principal’s office, it will help her better understand the needs of students and staff.  Building relationships outside of the office is also something that Ms. Russell hopes to accomplish in Brighton.

“Maybe I’ll be more approachable with a violin in hand,” Ms. Russell, a classically trained violinist, said.  “Sometimes you can’t always be the principal.  Sometimes you need to step outside that role and show a different side.”

Showing that other side can be rewarding on many levels, Mr. Rivver said.  Sometimes building those relationships can be as easy as getting to know the students by name or greeting them as they come off the school bus in the morning.

“Principals are perceived as the disciplinarian,” Mr. Rivver said.  “When you build those relationships, establish those connections early on, discipline becomes less of an issue.”

Addressing disciplinary issues is invariably founded on establishing respect, Mr. Erwin said.  Schools are perfectly positioned to encourage respectful actions and dialogue, he said.

“We’re working very hard to teach rules for acceptable behavior,” Mr. Erwin said.  “But it is a challenge because when you look at adult role models, politicians in particular, you don’t see that.  You don’t see them talking it out in a respectful way.”

Mr. Midi offered some words of wisdom to his new administrative colleagues.  In order to earn the trust and the respect of their community, they must be willing to clearly establish what they stand for and exhibit a willingness to follow it through.

“People trust you for your word and that’s very important in a small community,” Mr. Midi said.  “If people know what to expect, know what you stand for, even if people don’t always agree with it, trust is formed.  Don’t just say it, live it.”

Mr. Midi also encourages members of the community to remain involved and engaged with their local school.  While the principal is there to listen to your concerns, the school board is also able to voice those concerns on your behalf.

“We need to hear those voices, especially during the planning and budgeting process,” Ms. Dean agreed.  “It’s hard to know what everyone values.  It can’t just be my vision, it has to be a vision based on what we all agree is best for the kids.”

Lakeview Union School will have a special meet and greet with Mr. Erwin at the school on August 23 at 3 p.m.  Brighton Elementary will have a back-to-school picnic for students and parents at the school on August 26 at 5:30 p.m.

contact Richard Creaser at nek_scribbler@hotmail.com

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Rian Fried: a capitalist with a social conscience

One of Rian’s happiest moments was the wedding of his daughter Dorigen to Jon Hofmann.  To celebrate, Rian arranged for the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile to show up at the Stannard church.  Dr. Hofmann drove the classic rig as he worked his way through college.  My only photograph of Rian was of him making a self-portrait with the Wienermobile in the background.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

One of Rian’s happiest moments was the wedding of his daughter Dorigen to Jon Hofmann. To celebrate, Rian arranged for the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile to show up at the Stannard church. Dr. Hofmann drove the classic rig as he worked his way through college. My only photograph of Rian was of him making a self-portrait with the Wienermobile in the background. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

STANNARD — The new agricultural businesses that have flourished in the Northeast Kingdom over the past decade could not have grown so quickly without capital.  Many of the necessary resources were found by Rian Fried, a pioneer in the field of socially responsible investing who preferred to work quietly behind the scenes.

He was 65 years old when he died after a brief illness on July 3.

Rian, who I had the pleasure of knowing and with whom I served as selectman for many years, was instrumental in the success of many of the signature ventures of the Northeast Kingdom’s burgeoning agricultural renaissance.

I don’t remember when I first met Rian.  I do recall the first time I met Rachel Hexter, his wife.  That was the day I moved to Stannard about 40 years ago, when she was Town Clerk.

She left that job and went to work for the Orleans County Council of Social Agencies (OCCSA), an anti-poverty agency from the days when the federal government thought it could do something to help people who were struggling economically.

Rian also worked at OCCSA, an agency with an operatic history, and he turned up in Stannard one day.  OCCSA, whose director went out of his way to aggravate the powers that be, did not last much longer and Rachel and Rian went south to the Boston area.  He to get a master’s degree at the Kennedy Center for Government at Harvard and she to study law.

Rian ran an economic development agency in Brockton, Massachusetts, while he waited for Rachel to finish her schooling.  Wherever he set up his office after that he brought with him framed photographs of boxer Marvin Hagler, who hailed from Brockton and was undisputed middleweight champion of the world for seven years, including the time Rian spent in his hometown.

Soon after Rachel and Rian came home, he met Doug Fleer and the two took their mutual interest in stock trading and created a small investment company headquartered in an upstairs room at the house in Stannard.

In the early 1980s a dial-up connection was good enough to keep a couple of traders afloat, and they had the luxury of a dedicated telephone line.  Their specialty was what they called “ethical investing.”

Like any investment firm, Rian and Doug would check out companies to see if they were well run and were likely to make money.  Unlike almost any other firm, they also applied what they called social screens.

That is, they would see if a company produced armaments, did business with South Africa or discriminated against women or minorities.  Those companies were excluded from consideration no matter how profitable they might seem.

Nowadays that is called socially responsible investing and it is big business.  Even conventional mutual funds often have a socially responsible fund as one of their options.

In those days the two partners had to explain what they were doing to skeptical reporters and brokers who thought it strange to leave even dirty money on the table.

Rian and Doug were looking at the long term, and said an ethical company would not be as liable to lawsuits, strikes or other problems as unethical companies, and would eventually outperform them.  They also weren’t looking to get rich quickly.

I often found myself drifting over to their headquarters, which had some of the qualities of a tree house, only with a lot more paper.  At some point, Rian asked me to start writing editorials for their newsletter, a loss leader they called The Clean Yield.

Rian was a hard editor, but it was fun to write for the newsletter, and I really enjoyed the checks.

The newsletter became so successful that the company took its name.  It also outgrew the tree house and moved into downtown Greensboro.

Rian liked the Greensboro office, but was faced with a problem.  Clean Yield needed broadband Internet service to make its trades and none was available.  As an old community organizer he knew what to do, and got together a group of people who shared his need.

They combined resources and brought a high-capacity line into Greensboro.  The engineers set up an antenna that beamed a signal to a tower in Stannard that reflected it back to Greensboro.

It wasn’t long after that Verizon noticed that Greensboro had its own broadband service and brought a DSL connection to the town.

About 15 years ago Rian was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a serious form of blood cancer.  After a great deal of research he decided to seek treatment in Seattle, Washington, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

He received a bone marrow transplant, a harrowing procedure that was fatal to most of those who began treatment at the same time as Rian.

After that Rian spend countless hours talking with people who were in the same situation, answering questions, helping them to understand their options and calming their fears.  So quiet was his generosity that I only learned after his death that he had spent hours talking with my ex-wife, who remains a good friend, when her second husband faced a possible bone marrow transplant.

As the socially responsible investment movement grew, Rian saw new possibilities.

Tom Stearns, the founder of High Mowing Seeds, said “Rian for a long time realized that using money and investment to say ‘No’ to things like apartheid, armaments and discrimination was not the only possibility.”  By finding ways to put money into businesses that shared his values, Rian found a way for people’s resources to say ‘Yes,’ Mr. Stearns said.

Before Ryan figured out a different way to do it, businesses that needed capital to expand had to become publically traded companies.  Eventually those companies, like Ben and Jerry’s, faced irresistible pressure to sell the company to the highest bidder, regardless of the founders’ desires.

Mr. Stearns said that Rian figured out a way to allow his investors to put money into High Mowing while insulating the company from such pressures.  He said the company recently started sending those investors big checks in repayment.

He said that Rian counseled and supported many of the other businesses in the Hardwick area.

One of those was Claire’s, a restaurant that was financed by selling shares to community members.

Its owner, Linda Ramsdell, said, “His passion and love for what we were trying to do there was invaluable and really special.”

She recalled his visits to the restaurant.

“It was always fun to see him in Claire’s.  He was always having a good time, no matter who he was with.”

Rian’s enthusiasm also extended to his hometown.  He was the chairman of the town’s planning commission for many years, a body on which I serve.  I’ve stayed on the planning board through many rewrites of the zoning bylaws and the town plan, in large part because I enjoyed working with Rian.

He was a fount of information and a great talker.  We shared a love for the blues and constantly tried to top each other with obscure knowledge.

I never succeeded in getting the better of him in those conversations or — if I’m honest — in any others.

When I told him about seeing the great blues harmonica player Junior Wells at a small Chicago club in the 1970s, Rian responded with the story about spending a strange evening with the musician at a long-ago party.

Rian, along with his nearest neighbor Jan Lewandoski, spent years trying to persuade Stannard residents Harold and Mavis Nunn to allow the Vermont Land Trust to have a preservation easement on their farm — one of the oldest in town.

Shortly after the documents were signed, the Nunns died.  Today Tom Gilbert and his family live in the old farmhouse and are preparing to start growing vegetables and running a small school on the land.

Rian was recruited by Sterling College to serve as a trustee, an honor he cherished.  When I saw him at Sandor Katz’s lecture there a few months ago, he regaled me with an enthusiastic account of a day-long strategy meeting he and his fellow trustees had just finished.

Most of all Rian was devoted to his family.  He was happy beyond measure when his daughter Dorigen join Clean Yield.  He told anyone who would listen that she was much better at the job than he was.

Rian was raised in Vienna, where his father was a diplomat.  One of our odder connections was the discovery that we had the same high school principal, even though he went to school in Austria and I was in New York City.

He was the eldest of six brothers who, despite distance, remained extremely close.

After his bone marrow transplant Rian always said he was not going to live to be an old man.  He regarded that as a simple fact and dismissed any attempt to dissuade him as wishful thinking.

In his business he had the same clear sightedness.  Because he had moved into an area of investment that, in less ethical hands, could have been an invitation to fraud, Rian had to be punctilious about Securities and Exchange Commission regulations.

One of the reasons that so few other people ventured into his area of expertise was that most people were unwilling to invest the necessary hours of painstaking research.

Nevertheless, Tom Stearns recalled, Rian insisted that his investors were more radical than he and pushed him to find opportunities to put their money to work to create social change.

One of the last projects Rian was involved in was the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center now taking shape on Main Street in Newport.

Its director, Eleanor Leger, said Rian was dubious at first, but eventually came around.

She said Rian asked insightful questions and “never let you think he was saying it was a terrible idea, even when he was.”

Rian’s investors made the difference between success and failure for the center, she said.

Even now, after knowing Rian for 30 years, I’m not sure whether his path from the anti-poverty programs of the 1970s to a twenty-first century program of creating new sustainable businesses through socially conscious investing was planned.

My guess is that it wasn’t, but that Rian, guided by his innate decency, found a path for others to follow.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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