The Bridgehampton School District Superintendent, set to retire in August after 39 years in education, talks about why she thinks the Bridgehampton School is special, how she has seen the district grow in recent years, and the importance of shared services as community school districts continue to thrive on the East End.
What first drew you to education?
It is really an easy question to answer. Ever since I was a little girl I loved playing with dolls and while all my friends were playing the mommy role, I was always the teacher. So it started early and my parents picked up on that. There is something to be said for parents believing in what your future holds, and my parents did. They said, ‘You are going to be a teacher,’ we just know it. So in a way it was programmed in me early on.
What brought you to Bridgehampton?
I was first introduced to the district in 1985 and was hired as the guidance counselor/director, so I was working those two hats. It was just such an amazing place. There is something different about Bridgehampton from all the other schools in the area. Being born and raised in New York City, my experience in school was they were overcrowded and lacked a lot of resources. Coming here, you saw how you could get to know the kids, and you had almost anything you needed to help them learn. It was just an incredible opportunity.
What was the transition from guidance director to superintendent like?
It was a transition, and a journey. After six years as guidance director, I realized there was a lot I needed to learn before getting into the seat of superintendent, which is what I wanted. I left here, and went to Riverhead School as guidance chair for the lower grades. Then I went to Comsewogue School District were I served as assistant principal. There was something about being a little fish in a big pond, but it was truly a wonderful learning experience. I started my doctoral studies at Comsewogue, trying to understand how systems work, how kids learn. I was curious how some students have such success and how others don’t.
I had always known I wanted to be at Bridgehampton. I just felt I should be here, so I periodically kept my eyes open and after seven years at Comsewogue I saw Bridgehampton was looking for a principal, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that is me.’ At least I hoped, anyway. I was one year away from earning my doctorate and I was fortunate enough to get the job. It really felt like returning home.
The size of the Bridgehampton School has been a source of criticism for some. Why do you think this is, and is it imperative for the school to grow in order to achieve the kinds of successes you believe are important?
I have struggled with that because I was here in the 1980s when that issue first came up for me personally, and I remember feeling so strongly this school needed to remain small. When the issue came up again a few years ago, I just had to step back and reflect again. That is who I am – always wondering to see things in a new light after I have been exposed to more experiences. I heard what some critics said – that we didn’t have as many electives as larger schools, or we didn’t have the same opportunity for social interactions and yet, even stepping back and hearing the critics, knowing what I had experienced in larger school districts, I believed then and I still believe now in the uniqueness of a small community school. I think it should be preserved as long as it is feasibly possible and there probably will come a day where it is not economically feasible; but there is a value to having children come to a community school, the same school their mother went to, their father went to, their uncles and aunts.
With that there is an enormous pressure and challenge for whoever works here as a teacher, administrator or on the board of education. They have to challenge themselves to continue to improve the school. I don’t think any organization has the luxury of remaining at status quo and certainly for us, I think there is an analogy in “The Little Engine That Could.” That is Bridgehampton. We are the little school district and I believe we can bring out the best in our kids and the best in the community … I have been so proud of the teachers I work with and the support staff, because there have been so many who have rallied around that mantra – ‘I think we can,’ ‘yes, we can.’
We are at a point where test scores are up, we have expanded course offerings and our English language learning programming is soaring … We have a Career Academy that has expanded from just one student – and this is the uniqueness of Bridgehampton – who said I want to be a landscape architect. So we said, what can we do and we searched and found out the Ross School had a landscape architectural program, and it worked out. When the Ross School said they didn’t have enrollment to continue the program we said, wait a minute and that is how [landscape design teacher] Judiann [Carmack-Fayyaz] came to us. We went from one student with a personal request to more than 25 students in a program. We have a greenhouse, a shed and community involvement, with community leaders donating time, labor and materials to the cause. To me those are the special factors of being in a small school.
Talk of closing the Bridgehampton School’s high school has been controversial the last few years. What was your stance on that issue, from a professional perspective?
I think it would be the same answer. I really stepped back for a bit to hear what was being said and to try and understand why people wanted it closed and all I had to go on was what was stated publicly, but I still came back to the point that this school works. I have tried to reach out to neighboring school districts so we can broaden what we offer here. Sag Harbor has been wonderful and this goes back to [former superintendent] Kathryn Holden allowing our students to take advanced placement courses at Sag Harbor. That has been magnificent and that relationship has continued under [Superintendent] Dr. John Gratto.
Are shared services the key to keeping community school districts viable?
I think it will be a very important piece. I am happy to tell you, and you are the first, that [incoming Superintendent] Dr. [Lois] Favre and I received an email this morning and it looking like something we have been trying to pull together with [former interim business administrator] Dr. [George] Chesterton has come to fruition. That is to share a senior account clerk typist with the Tuckahoe School District. In addition to the academic piece of shared services, those back office functions can also be shared and it will make a tremendous difference.
What are your plans once you leave this district this August?
I have to tell you, I can’t say I have any plans yet because for me that means something is in place, but I do have a vision and goals that I am hopeful I will be able to piece together. I consider myself a very spiritual person and when I get anxious about the plan, I think, be patient. God will reveal that to me … I am hoping to teach at the college level, and do consultant work particularly focused on education, but more on the policy end – looking at system changes, how systems work. I am also looking for a really good opportunity or venue to volunteer my time and talents. A few ideas have come forward, but again, I think it will all be revealed at the right time.