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 [email protected]