By Annette Hinkle
The former principal of Pierson Middle/High School, talks about current Pierson Principal Jeff Nichols who will be honored at “The Best of the Hamptons,” the upcoming fundraising masquerade cocktail party at B. Smith’s to benefit a new joint venture between Youth Advocacy and Resource Development (The YARD Program) and the Sag Harbor Youth Center.
Tell me about this annual YARD party?
It’s really a nice event and very much a celebration of the return of Sag Harbor to the people who live here year round. It draws on the diversity of the community and brings everyone together for the start of the new school year and the fall season.
YARD was founded back in the late 1990s when you were Pierson’s principal. What was going on then and why was YARD needed, especially the after school program?
There needed to be more opportunity for the kids for productive, healthy activities after school. It seemed to me that gap was especially important for middle school kids. At that time, there weren’t many after school activities for them.
The notion was to establish a community center for kids where they are supervised and safe. More parents were working and there was the issue of latch key kids. YARD helped fill the void. The summer program, too, goes a long way toward that.
Even for kids in athletic programs, this was a place for them to go between the end of school and when athletic programs begin. They could get homework help and a nutritious snack.
The old saying goes ‘Idle hands are the devils work.’ This was the opportunity to keep the devil away.
How did inception of YARD change the environment of the school?
I think YARD fit into the philosophical notion of making the school a more welcoming place. Somewhere you’d want to be as a kid — where there are adults who care for you, who you trust and could relate to. Part of it was very pragmatic in terms of activities for kids, the other part was more conceptual in changing the way in which people, including parents, thought about the school.
That was an important step. To me, there’s very much a connection with how Jeff Nichols views his job and the philosophy of YARD.
So you think YARD informed Jeff’s management style?
I think so. It certainly fit his whole conceptual model of what a school ought to be — a place where kids want to be, a safe place. It’s a place for kids to make friends with other kids and a place parents felt they could entrust their kids. It applies not just to YARD but the whole notion of what the school ought to be. As close knit a community as Sag Harbor is, there are always kids who don’t feel as connected as others do. YARD was another opportunity to connect with other kids and adults.
Jeff came to Pierson in the mid-1990s and was dean of students before becoming principal when you retired in 2000. Tell me about his strengths in dealing with students.
Discipline wasn’t so much about punishment it was about correcting behavior. He also had a talent for getting to the bottom of things. He could see through some of the stories kids could concoct and get to the bottom of what a situation was all about.
If you go back 20 years the model of a high school principal was more like a military commander. It’s not surprising a lot of people who moved into principal positions were phys ed people. One thing that’s fascinating to me, though part of Jeff’s background is in phys ed, the school is not run on that military type model. I think the caring comes through.
How about the way he relates to the staff at the school?
What always struck me was he was a great judge of people. We used to interview together when we were hiring new teachers or staff members. He always had really good insight into the people we were interviewing. He has a real talent for hiring good people and I think it’s been one of his great strengths over the dozen years or more he’s been principal. He places great emphasis on the background of the candidates and their own academic performance. I think that’s done a lot to contribute to the academic improvement of the school.
Let’s talk about some of those improvements under Jeff’s watch.
Among his achievements is the whole IB program and raising the bar. There’s also been the emphasis on science and the Intel project — the fact the school has had so many semi-finalists in that contest is indicative of that.
What about his skill as an administrator?
One of the things he’s done is help the superintendents who have been hired learn the Sag Harbor ropes and navigate their jobs while getting their footing firm. No one assigned him that role, but he’s very much an advisor.
“The Best of the Hamptons” Cocktail Party and Silent Auction to benefit the new teen recreation program joint effort of Youth Advocacy and Resource Development (YARD) and the Sag Harbor Youth Center. Saturday, October 19, 6 to 9 p.m. at B. Smith’s Restaurant on Long Wharf. Music, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres from area restaurants will be served.
Tickets are $30 and include door prize raffle and a cash bar. For tickets call Debbie Skinner at 725-5302 ext. 750 or purchase at the door.