By Tessa Raebeck
When searching for a new job last year, Katy Graves saw more than 70 superintendent positions available, but she only applied to one: Sag Harbor.
“Absolutely what piqued my interest was the size of the community and the size of the school,” Ms. Graves said Monday.
Sag Harbor’s new superintendent of schools, who will begin a three-year contract on July 1 at an initial annual salary of $215,000, said she applied to Sag Harbor “because it’s what I know. I know small towns.”
Ms. Graves’s current district, the Stamford Central School District in the Catskill Mountains, is a small rural school district with one school building housing about 370 students in pre-k through 12th grade.
Sag Harbor is larger than Stamford, with a proposed enrollment of 1,030 for the 2014-15 school year, but offers the tight-knit community she was searching for.
“I really wanted small, because in a small district, you still have the connection with children,” she said. “And I think for real school improvement and to get every student to their personal best, you need that connection with children. You really need to have that real interaction between mom and dad and the family and be at concerts and be at ball games.”
Ms. Graves, a mother of four with one child with special needs, has served in public schools as a teacher, administrator and board member during her career in education.
Dr. Carl Bonuso, interim superintendent for the past two school years, will pass the reins to Ms. Graves and provide guidance during the transition.
“Sag Harbor obviously has been a very strong school district that has great ties to the community and what my number-one goal is is to listen and learn initially,” said Ms. Graves. “I’m going to work on getting to know the administrative team, getting to know the community, getting to know the teachers and the staff and especially getting to know the students, because you don’t ever want to go in and fix something that’s not broken. And sometimes the things that work the best in the school district aren’t seen to a new leader.”
Prior to joining the Stamford district in 2012, for four years Ms. Graves served as assistant superintendent for the Windham-Ashland-Jewett Central School District in Windham, a rural resort community upstate with a population of less than 2,000.
She was also principal of the Otego Elementary School, assistant principal and placement coordinator for ONC (Otsego Northern Catskills) BOCES and a home economics teacher for 12 years.
One school, which Ms. Graves chose not to name, had just been placed on the state education department’s Schools in Need of Improvement list and was ranked as the county’s lowest performing school when she entered the district.
“You don’t want to make radical changes,” she said, “but I worked with the staff to say, ‘Hey, we have [two years to get off the list], let’s work as a team, let’s work together—what is working and where do we see parts that are fragile?’”
By looking at where the district was doing well and building on those successes, Ms. Graves said she and her team had the school not only off of the list, but also ranked as the highest performing school in the county’s 19 districts.
Ms. Graves uses an asset-based approach, where, rather than focusing solely on the problem areas, administrators look for a school’s strengths and build upon them.
The new superintendent has a certificate of advanced graduate study in educational leadership, a master’s degree in health science education and a bachelor of science degree in home economics and clinical dietetics.
“My first week in the classroom, I just knew I loved it. It didn’t mean I was great at it right away, but I just loved it, I loved working with the kids, I loved the atmosphere,” she said.
The international baccalaureate , currently being expanded in Sag Harbor, is not offered at Stamford, but Ms. Graves said she is familiar with it.
“It’s great because it gives students a global perspective and it gives them an opportunity to think about their thinking and, of course, it also builds in the community service piece, which I really love,” she said.
“I found that students really thrived doing volunteer work and really got to ‘Velcro’ to community members and that community members got to see students in a different light,” she said of her early work as a Key Club advisor, adding that as an administrator, she always tries to ensure kids are doing volunteer work.
Of the Common Core curriculum, an issue of much debate across the state, Ms. Graves said, “It has excellent pieces, but how it was introduced was just a huge burden for our teachers and for our school districts… and it made it hard to defend… and then it was being evaluated at the same time it was being introduced, so I think that made it very, very sad.”
Under Ms. Graves’s direction, Stamford has not had to pierce the state tax cap on the property taxes a school district can levy, in part because it worked with the neighboring Jefferson Central School District.
“We’re sharing managements between the two school districts, we’re sharing teachers, we’re sharing bus runs, we’re doing a lot of sharing so that we have been able to step back from piercing the tax cap,” she said.
In addition to hosting office hours for community members to come meet her when she comes to Sag Harbor, Ms. Graves intends to go out to specific stakeholders in the community and meet with them.
“You go to the parades, you go to the events in town and you just make yourself available to talk to folks so they know who you are,” she said.
One way she makes herself visible to students is by going around to all the classrooms and introducing herself as the person who decides snow days.
“Once the kids know that you have a job, that you decide snow days, they will introduce you to their grandparents and their parents in the community,” said Ms. Graves, adding she wants everyone to feel comfortable “approaching you and talking to you and getting to know you.”