by Vicki de Vries
Only the cognoscenti know that in 2006, H.C. Crittenden Middle School received the Blue Ribbon Award for its outstanding performance and effective programs, or that science students at Bryam Hills High School are consistent semi-finalists in Intel’s Science Talent Search. Not to mention the numerous awards in athletics, music and other areas of achievement.
Clearly, the Byram Hills Central School District must be doing “something right.” What’s its formula for educational success? To ferret out the answer, Inside Armonk interviewed some of the shakers and movers inside the educational enterprise.
Hail to the Chief
Dr. Bill Donohue, Superintendent of Schools for almost two years, and an administrator in the district’s school system since 1990, says, “Besides having students who are eager to learn, we have a winning chemistry of supportive parents who care about their children’s educational achievement and well-being. Combine that with smart, caring teachers who see each child as an individual and work hard to help that child develop individual talents.
“Another important formula to ensure success is to have coherent plans and leadership throughout grades K through 12. This means that the goals, values and priorities are the same at every school building. Also, we work hard to ensure that the curriculum builds logically from one grade to another. As a result, you will not hear our teachers say, ‘I have to re-teach my students the things they should have learned last year.’
“I am extremely proud to be able to say that Byram Hills strives to achieve excellence in every program we create for our students. We want all of our students, no matter their interest or ability, to realize their potential and goals to the fullest extent possible. One of the most exciting things an educator can experience is a student who discovers a new interest and runs with it. With our resources we are able to provide such opportunities in an array of areas from the arts to science research to computer programming.”
Donohue is also proud that “so many of our teachers go out of their way to provide ‘TLC.’ For example, when a student moves into our system, the teachers work closely with that student to help him or her acclimate, transfer their successes, and strengthen any areas of academic weakness. Likewise, when a student or family member is in crisis, we feel that parents can count on our staff to rally and respond.”
Breaking Down the Formula for Byram Hills’ Success
Now that we know Donohue’s special formula for educational success, what is the four principals’ take on it? As one would expect, they each interpreted it in a way that resonates with their individual schools and the kind of students they serve.
So, for example, Principal Peggy McInerney said, “At Coman Hill School, we’re committed to educating the whole child, not just academically but as a person. We’ve been focusing on the three pillars of learning behaviors: respect, responsibility, and safety. We’re helping our K-2 kids see these three topics in different contexts.”
Another type of formula that McInerney, teachers and staff rely upon deals with “the three C’s”–care, courage and compassion. Care refers to the need to listen to others, whether it’s children, parents, or colleagues. One needs courage to stay focused and resolute in achieving one’s goals whether they’re for the school, for the children, or for the teachers and staff. Compassion implies showing empathy and emotional support.
“Without these three C’s, McInerney said, “it is very difficult to acquire wisdom for dealing with all the situations that come up in the typical school day let alone in terms of long-range planning.”
Principal Debra Cagliostro at The Wampus School oversees teachers and students in grades three through five. For her, the formula for success revolves around the sense of community that the teachers create with each other and with the students. “Everyone takes pride in being part of a team,” she said, “whether it is the whole Wampus team, grade-level teams or interdisciplinary teams. Our teachers work together in designing units and assessments as well as in ‘tweaking and fixing’ areas in the learning experience that need adjusting. This type of collaborative dialogue impacts our students in a big way.”
Another factor that impacts Wampus students is the emphasis on the whole child. “We’re dealing with emotional wellness as well as academics,” Cagliostro said. “We’re examining what kinds of stress elementary children are prone to have and ways in which we can support these children…. Our students need to feel cared about, they need to be allowed to be curious, and they need to feel part of a community of learners.”
Upon leaving Wampus, students say good-bye to the self-contained classroom. Helping “tweens” in the challenging transition through early adolescence at H.C. Crittenden Middle School’s more independent environment are interdisciplinary teams of teachers in the content areas of math, English, social studies, science, and world language. Each team of students shares the same schedule, same teachers, and same activities, but sameness does not characterize the learning experience at H.C. Crittenden.
Though the formula for success must now account for the needs and interests of middle-school students, the basics remain the same. Dr. H. Evan Powderly, principal at H.C. Crittenden Middle School, summarized the formula this way: “The success of any school is a complex mixture of great teachers, good students from homes that support education, and continual effort to improve our performance as educators. We have high expectations for our students, along with high support from teachers and staff.”
Dr. Powderly, like all of the principals, is proud of the awards, programs and initiatives that are distinctive to his school. Last year, H.C. Crittenden was recognized as a Reward School in New York State for its educational excellence through an increase in student achievement and closing the gap in student performance. Besides the annual Shakespeare Festival in late spring at which eighth-grade students memorize parts of “A Mid-summer’s Night Dream” in both Elizabethan and contemporary English and perform in period costumes, Powderly is pleased with the many activities, such as Revolutionary War Period dramatic monologues, mock trials, GoBots, and travel portfolio, which “are a great deal of fun combined with educational impact.”
For Byram Hills High School Principal Chris Borsari, the success formula also includes the way the school district is organized around a K-12 perspective with all the students of the same age attending the same school. The curriculum is mapped to provide continuity and a step-by-step foundation for student learning. Better known as the “Princeton Plan,” it seems to have worked well in the Byram Hills School District.
Compared to the Middle School where the learning experience focuses on “convergence, team organization and shared activities,” students at Byram Hills High School begin to experience the phenomenon known as divergence.
“Divergence,” Borsari explained, “simply refers to the idea that students are given opportunities to develop and follow their passions and interests.” Students have greater freedom to take the types of courses they want to, all of which is in keeping with “the emergence of teenagers as independent individuals.”
Borsari is particularly pleased not only with the excellent faculty that are so supportive of the students, but also with the students themselves. “We have a most unusual student body–they’re actually kind to each other.” He partially credits that to the character education program the School District initiated over 10 years ago on the elementary-school level.
The Buck Stops Here–Not!
Achievement doesn’t end with graduation. Donohue shared, “…Two of our recent graduates are about to open on Broadway: Pulitzer-prize winner Tom Kitt’s new musical is If /Then, while actress Lauryn Ciardullo is in Disney’s Aladdin.” Then, there’s the record 96-99% of graduating seniors who enroll in colleges immediately following graduation; over 70% of whom are accepted by Tier 1 and Tier 2 colleges.
Parents interviewed agree that the formula seems to be working. Pam Lynn, whose two sons graduated from BHHS in 2008 and 2012 respectively, says, “There’s something for everyone in the school district, and I am quite pleased with the level of rigor and challenge that my two sons experienced. It definitely prepared them for college.”
Lynn said that both the academic side and the extracurricular side were excellent. What made her sons’ education truly outstanding, however, were the transformative mentor experiences they had with faculty, and the fine help they received from knowledgeable guidance counselors. The mentors helped to motivate her sons to achieve and work as hard as they could. Today, the older son is a senior software developer, while the younger son is a sophomore in college.
There is even outside validation: Donohue said that the School District is a member of the TriState Consortium of Schools and is thus “required to be evaluated by teams from similar school districts. These evaluations help us to determine if we are achieving our own goals and give us suggestions for improvement.” [Readers are encouraged to check out “Why Byram Hills is a Great Place to Learn” at http://www.byramhills.org/curriculum.cfm]
It’s hard to argue with success. Hats (and mortar boards) off to the Byram Hills Central School District!
Vicki de Vries is a freelance writer, editor and educator who enjoys living in Westchester “country.”