Transcript of the episode “Districtwide decisions: day to day ethical considerations”

Jon M: [00:00:15] I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:16] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dan Callahan, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education in the Peekskill City School District in Westchester, New York. Welcome, Dan!

Dan C: [00:00:32] Thank you for having me. It’s a real pleasure for me to be here. 

Jon M: [00:00:36] Tell us about Peekskill, especially its demographics and economics, its culture. What’s Peekskill like?

Dan C: [00:00:43] Sure. Peekskill is a fantastic city. We’re a small city. We’re located up in Northern Westchester, which is about 45 minutes to an hour north of New York City. We’re a very diverse city and we’re a very diverse school district. We’re about 70% Latino, close to 20% African-American, and  about 7% white. Then about 3% everybody else that kind of mixes in.

We have a pretty high free and reduced lunch rate, but our city is really up and coming. We’ve seen a huge demographic change over the past 10 years, and we’ve seen a revitalization of our downtown. And there’s new construction going on around the waterfront. We’ve seen new museums and art galleries and restaurants. So it’s an exciting time to be in Peekskill. And we’ve seen great changes in our school district. A lot of progress, a lot of growth in scores, in  enrollment, programming. So it’s a great place to work. I’m very fortunate.

Jon M: [00:01:43] How have the demographics changed over the past, say, 20 years or so?

Dan C: [00:01:48] You know, I would even say it’s even less than the 20 years. Peekskill used to be a very large community that was about 50% African-American and 50% white. They didn’t have a very large Latino population. And in the last 10 years we’ve seen our population, our Latino population go from about 20% to close to 70% of our school district. And with that, we’ve seen a large number of growth in our ENL students.

Jon M: [00:02:15] That’s students for whom English is a New Language.

Dan C: [00:02:18] Yep. You know, we seem to have a large number of students coming in from places like Ecuador and Guatemala, and that’s reflective in the city as you see those types of restaurants and small shops are starting to pop up from those cultures.

Jon M: [00:02:31] How have the schools had to adapt to the changing population?

Dan C: [00:02:36] Well, that’s been one of our big initiatives here. We’ve brought on Newcomer programs for students that are brand new to not only our school, but our city and our country. And we try to not only teach them the language, but teach them what it’s like to be in Peekskill, what it’s like to be in New York, what it’s like to be in America. It’s a big change for people coming to a new country, especially for students. And the schooling, it might be very different. At the schools they’re used to in their former country may not be similar to the schools we have here in New York. Especially, you know, classes, programming. So there’s a lot for us to develop. 

In addition, you know, in our high school, we began putting in classes that are taught primarily in Spanish, you know, these students’ home language is Spanish. And as we know, strengthening one’s home language help does help them strengthen a second language. So we found it, you know, if you want to meet students where they’re at, we figured we would offer some of our core classes in their native tongue.

Amy H-L: [00:03:36] Dan, I’m sure that every day you’re faced with ethics-infused decisions. How do you balance the competing needs of being consistent, treating all students fairly, and being compassionate to individual students and their specific set of circumstances?

Jon M: [00:03:59] No, that’s a great question. Amy. Every decision we make, we try to look at every situation individually and try to take the needs of the student, you know, that particular student, in this, in one particular situation, and we try not to compare, even though there are times we do have to be consistent in decisions we make, if situations are similar. And one of our hardest parts, you know, as you talk about the ethics of it, is the needs of that student may be in complete conflict with the needs of maybe the institution or our organization. So then we really have to weigh what decision do we want to make? What is in the best interest of decisions we’ve made in the past, so we’re consistent with our institution, or that may be in direct conflict with what the best decision may be for that individual student.

You know, none of us, you know, kind of like doctors, that’s a do no harm approach and no educator wants to harm a student in any way, you know, whether it’s dealing with grades, dealing with behavior, social emotional, you know, we always want to do what we can in the best interest of our kids. And that sometimes puts us in direct conflict with other decisions we’ve made in the past. So we do try to weigh in there. We form a team of people. We get as much input as we can. We look at all the data surrounding the situation, whether it’s school data or family data situations that surround that individual student. And then hopefully we’re making the best interest for everybody in mind and especially the student.

Can you give some examples, some of the kinds of things that you have to make decisions about? 

Dan C: [00:05:28] Sure. I can give you certain things that are most recent. Here we’re halfway through the school year. Second quarter is about to end and there’s a couple of students that are interested in possibly dropping classes. And our policy right now, if you talk about what our organizational practice is that at this point in the school year, you’re not allowed to drop classes. But this year, especially with COVID and what some families are going through, other responsibilities the student may have to take on, especially at a high school level where, you know, students may have family responsibilities and they may have to work, so being in school full day may not really be possible and what’s in the best interest of that student and that student’s family. So now we have to weigh the decision of our policy and our practice of not being allowed to drop classes versus this student that, you know, maybe can only be in school for the first half of the day as they have responsibilities elsewhere. Do I punish that student by sticking with our practice or do I look at that student as an individual and all the circumstances surrounding that individual case and decide to allow that student maybe to drop a class or two because that’s the best thing for them at that time? You know, that’s a prime example we’re dealing with right now is as we’re about to start the third quarter of our school year.

Jon M: [00:06:43] So what’s the process by which you would take on an issue like this? And whom else do you involve in making that decision? I mean, you know, that situation, or I can imagine others where it seems like there’s no right answer in the sense that you can’t, you can’t both be consistent necessarily and be compassionate. So how do you work that through?

Dan C: [00:07:09] Well, first off, I never make a decision in a vacuum by myself. You consult with your building principals and your building administration, the teachers that may be involved, the guidance counselor, obviously the student, and the  student’s family or the parents may have to be involved. If there’s any clinicians that are involved with the student, a social worker or a psychologist, you want to gather as much data as you can. As many viewpoints, as many lenses, because everyone looks at every situation from their own perspective. Then I may have to talk to other people that maybe have history with similar decisions. So I know kind of what the backstories are, the decisions we’ve made prior, you know, so it’s a team of people that get together. And while you may not be able to come to a unanimous decision, you know, you can come to some consensus on what the best decision to make about this individual situation.

And then, you know,  process is to document everything, make sure we have everything written down so we know the decision we made and why, in case I need to reflect on that, or someone else needs to reflect on it in the future about why we made that decision.

Jon M: [00:08:15] And then you enter–you had mentioned when we were talking before that you keep track of these decisions in your systems database.

Dan C: [00:08:23] Yeah. You know, probably all schools have forms and paper for everything, you know, we’re that kind of society now. And then we have a student management system that allows us to put all the information in. It has all the kids’ records from their behavior to their attendance, to their grades, to any sort of communication we’ve had with parents. It’s like a one-stop shopping for information so that we can always go back and find information when we need it.

Amy H-L: [00:08:48] So we’ve been talking about ethics as applied to individual students and their families. How does the district address inequities systemically?

Dan C: [00:09:03] Well, equity is a big thing for us here in Peekskill. Westchester County happens to be a very rich county in the country. And a lot of the districts that surround us would be considered wealthy, affluent. Peekskill would not be considered wealthy and affluent from a financial basis. So something we always try to do here is to make sure that our students in Peekskill have all the same opportunities that any high school student in Westchester has, whether you are from Scarsdale or Chappaqua or Peekskill. You know, if you’re a 16, 17, 18 year old high school student, where you deserve to have the same opportunities. Where you go to school should not be a punishment. No, there should not be barriers or obstacles to internships, classes, college opportunities, career opportunities. All kids should have those opportunities.

And that’s a big thing we do here. I can tell you that this past year and dealing with the coronavirus, to make sure that our students were able to compete academically, to make sure their grades were kept up and that nothing was held against them, we handed out thousands of Chromebooks. Any student that needed a Chromebook for online learning was given a Chromebook. Then we found out some students didn’t have wifi. And through a joint school and community partnership, we were able to get hundreds of myfi devices, which are affordable wifi, you know, and we were able to give kids internet. That way they can keep up with their classes. If they wanted to stay home and work virtually they could. You know, they didn’t have to put themselves in, if they thought it was unsafe to come to school. They could actually stay home and make a family decision about coronavirus. So when it comes to equity, we are always looking to make sure that our students are given the same opportunities as anybody else. And I think we do a fantastic job with that. Now our students go to some of the best colleges in the country, just like kids from every other high school in our area. So I could confidently say that, you know, I would put our Peekskill students up against, you know, students from any other school.

Amy H-L: [00:11:11] That’s impressive. I would imagine that students often find themselves in athletic or academic competitions, robotics, for example, with teams from much wealthier districts in the area. How do you help support these students in these situations?

Dan C: [00:11:30] Well, it goes to us making sure that we have the same type of opportunities in our school that the other schools have. We’ve been fortunate. Our robotics program here in Peekskill has actually been one of the better robotics programs in our area. We also take the opportunity to host events. You know, we hosted the kickoff event for the first robotics competition. We host our own mid-year competition. People who qualify and win our competition got to go on to Nationals, which is in Indianapolis, Indiana. We raised money because our team actually had the opportunity to go to Nationals and we didn’t want them not to go for financial reasons. We have found great partnerships, you know, working with Clarkson University. They worked not only with our teachers and our coaches of the robotics teams, but they provided opportunities for our students to go up and visit their facilities, to see what it looks like, robotics at the college level. So, you know, giving our kids those type of opportunities is one way that we try to make sure that we are able to compete with anybody else that has a robotics type of area.

We’ve also reached out to our community to find out who in our community has helped us, you know, we’re partners with our BOCES. We’ve had some community members donate resources and time. We’ve had former alumni come back, you know, after they’ve gone to college and after they’ve gone into the career world, and they’ve shared with our robotics team techniques, and they’ve done, some call it mentoring or interning, on how to code better or how to construct better.

When, when you do your robotics, it’s a whole collaborative effort. And it takes the willingness of the staff who were in charge of those type of programs to make sure that we are not falling behind, that our kids are given all those same opportunities. And then when they do see, when there might be a deficiency, we address it. When we go to certain competitions, we’ll notice certain things other teams have that maybe we don’t. And we learn from that. And then what we do is try to redress that as we move forward. It’s not so much about getting to perfection, but always, always have progress.

Jon M: [00:13:35] Just a quick question. You mentioned BOCES. For listeners who are outside of New York State, could you quickly describe just what BOCES is.

Dan C: [00:13:44] BOCES is a cooperative educational technical school. What it is, it’s a consortium of 17 different districts from our area that work with BOCES and BOCES puts together programs that’ll serve all 17 of its neighboring districts. So we have kids that’ll go there for something like auto body. We don’t have any true old CTE [Career and Technical Education] or shop programs anymore. BOCES seems to have all those – auto body, small engines, programs for law enforcement, nursing. So kids that may maybe not want to go on a college path, with more of a career path, find that, you know, BOCES has opportunities and classes that most regular schools in our area do not offer.

The other thing  BOCES does is offer a tremendous amount of professional development and programs for schools, for our administrators, for our teachers. If a bunch of districts are struggling with the same issue, they will try to set up some sort of program to help address those needs. And BOCES is very popular in New York State. There are BOCES all over New York state. Every section, every area of schools, usually has has one. We’re fortunate enough to have two in our area. We have both Northern Westchester BOCES and Southern Westchester BOCES, and they are a tremendous partner for us. You know, anytime we have some questions that maybe we have trouble answering, they’re an email away, you know, and if they don’t have the answer, they’re pretty good about finding people that can help us.

Jon M: [00:15:04] So you were talking about equity in terms of dealing with surrounding districts and those wealth imbalances. What kinds of thing,  I know you’ve talked about having, for example, an equity audit, what kinds of things does the district do internally in terms of, sort of, systemic equity?

Dan C: [00:15:27] You know, we’d like to think all of our programs are open to all students. It doesn’t matter, your race, your gender, or sexual orientation, anything, that if we have a program, it is a program for all. It Is not a program for a select few. So an equity audit is something we learned in  doing some professional development with New York State a few years ago. And what we do is we look at all of our programs, and it could be our college level courses at the high school, our music and art programs, our athletics programs. We have a very successful dual language program at the elementary level. And the idea is to look, to make sure that no one subgroup is being held out of those groups, that every student that wants the opportunity is going to have the opportunity to enter those programs.

To give you a very specific example is we will look at our AP courses at the high school, the Advanced Placement courses, and our college level courses. And we will see who are taking those courses. We will break down the class roster and we’ll look at it. If we’re about a 50/50 split between males and females, do those courses reflect a 50 50 split in gender, or is it at least close? Are we missing any subject? Like are Latin males part of that group or African-American males part of that group?  And if we find that a group isn’t, no, then we go back to like a root cause analysis to find out why certain groups are not getting into those classes. And then we have to look at our own practices.

Are we marketing these programs to everybody? Have we set up some structures or obstacles that are keeping certain groups out? And then it’s our job to obviously go back and try to rectify some of these issues that we find. So every year we’re looking at all of our programs, just to make sure that it’s for everybody, every student should have the right and opportunity to take classes that they are interested in taking. And if we come across situations that we’re not doing that, you know, and again, there’s no, there’s no fault here. We don’t point blame. No, it’s not the teacher’s fault. It’s not an administrator’s fault. It’s not my fault. No, no one’s fault. The idea is to try to rectify the situation in the best interest of kids going forward to make sure that we don’t keep other kids out as that program continues to grow.

Jon M: [00:17:37] So, many immigrant parents have had very, as you mentioned, have had very different educational experiences and expectations in their own upbringing. How does this impact family/ school relationships?

Dan C: [00:17:52] Yeah, we have spent a lot of time on parent engagement and community engagement. A few years ago, we got a new superintendent, Dr. David Mauricio, and that was a big focal point for him. We do our best to try to educate parents. We’ve developed a brand new Parent Resource Center. We happened to purchase an old firehouse from the city and we turned it into a brand new Parent Resource Center. We’ve hired a parent resource liaison, somebody whose job is just about reaching out to parents and to educate parents. Part of that education is also to educate us, to find out what parents need. We’ve made sure, you know, with a large immigrant parent and especially Spanish is a primary language of where our parents and students come from. So we end up putting everything out in two languages.

As you talk about culturally responsive education. One of the parts  New York State identifies in the CRE world is a welcoming and affirming environment. So we make sure that our website can move to multiple languages so that people can read it, so that they understand more. We are constantly communicating with letters, using social media. All of the principals have materials all over their buildings and schools that are in multiple languages because we are that type of district. We are that type of community. We are very diverse, you know, we’re not just English anymore. So the idea is to try to meet the parents where they are. A nice thing about our Parent Resource Center is we offer parent workshops to help educate parents on not only on speaking the language. And we offer classes in English and Spanish. We offer classes in technology. A lot of what goes on in schools in Westchester County and all of America for the most part is online learning and hybrid learning. So we try to educate the parents on everything around our parent portal, uh, how to use Google Classroom so that they can better help support their own students at home, especially now in this type of year with COVID-19 and the coronavirus, you know, we have a large amount of students that are staying home and are working virtually. So it does put a lot of stress on the parents also to be a little bit of the teacher at home. So we’ve tried to run classes to help educate them on how best to use the programs that their students are going to be using. 

Amy H-L: [00:20:13] Often, there are tensions between students who have grown up in the U.S. And their immigrant parents, especially if there’s been some sort of separation during the immigration process. How does the district help support the students and families in navigating these tensions?

Dan C: [00:20:32] Well, it’s not just going to be the school. We’re fortunate here in Peekskill to have a lot of programs inside the city as well. A lot of outside agencies, a lot of people will call it social emotional learning as well. There’s a lot of clinician support. We’ll do our best to help educate parents. And yes, some students that are born here or live here, you’ll find the students speak English very well and maybe the parents don’t. The students understand schools and what goes on and the schooling is very, very new and foreign to the parent. So there was definitely  a gap in communication that’s there. We run parents nights with our guidance department and our clinicians to try to help educate parents. We bring in outside agencies like Latino U that’ll offer workshops to parents in multiple languages to try to help educate them.

I can tell you, one of the areas that we work on is, you know, we believe every kid should have the opportunity if they want to go to college. And what we find is some parents, while they believe in a high school education, don’t always believe in a college education. They believe that maybe their children need to go into the workforce and find a job and a career right out of high school. So we’re always trying to educate parents on the value of maybe what college could offer, even if it’s a community college or part-time college. And that’s sometimes a big argument. What we see at the high school level, there’s a difference of opinion between what the child who’s going to graduate, who maybe wants to go to college, and a parent who feels they need to help their family, you know, and go into the workforce. So we definitely do try to do as much education as we can showing the values of all of it. It’s not our job to get in between a family relationship, but it’s our job sometimes to help mediate and to help communicate so that everyone understands where the other person is thinking and what the other person has as what they want to do in their life. Whereas for a student, maybe what they want to see is in their career. You know, their opinion, a student’s opinion of their career may not fit with what the parent may want. And like I said, it’s not just about the school district. You know, the city itself has a lot of agencies and outside partners that help them to help us in that function.

Jon M: [00:22:47] You just mentioned a few minutes ago, culturally responsive education or CRE. And you mentioned the idea that the Framework from New York State talks about a welcoming and inclusive environment. What are the various factors involved in how the district implements the Framework? When you look at culturally responsive education, what does it mean on a district level or a school level?

Dan C: [00:23:10] Sure. It’s a broad topic, so I’ll cover a couple of areas. One, like I mentioned before, was about the welcoming environment and that falls in a few areas. One, it falls for me as somebody at the central office district level. Are we welcoming parents into our district? Do we communicate clearly? Do parents feel comfortable contacting us at this level? For building principals, they control their buildings and their schools. Do they have a welcoming environment? When parents come in, do parents feel welcome? Are there people there to greet them? Is the material in both languages so it’s easy to communicate? Are there people in that building that help speak the language? We have many parents that come in that only speak Spanish, that don’t understand English. So we try to hire as many bilingual staff as we can. It helps with the communication of, of some of our parents. For teachers, it’s about their classrooms. Are their classrooms a welcoming environmen? Is the classroom representative of what our district is like? If I look around a classroom in our community, I should see pictures on the wall of not only famous historical people that may be or white men like Thomas Jefferson or a George Washington, but I should see African-American men. I should see Latino men. I should see females, you know, I should see a wide diverse variety. Because that is what Peekskill is. So we want our classrooms and our buildings to reflect that as well.

So that’s one, as we talked about, just environment. The other part deals with curriculum and instruction. Does our curriculum reflect who our population is? Are we talking about Latino history, African-American history, female studies? And not just in, you know, March, when it’s Women’s History Month, or February, when it’s Black Hstory Month. We should be incorporating a diverse curriculum from September all the way through June. And you know, it should be reflected in what we read so that when we talk about the characters, the antagonists and protagonists, that it is a diverse group, it should talk about other authors. We should be reading stuff from, say, something like Toni Morrison, who’s a famous African-American female author, so that it reflects who our population is. So that as our students read these materials, look at the literature, the poetry, the books, they see themselves in the characters. They see themselves in the authors. So that’s another part about culturally responsive education that we’ve spent a lot of work on here, the last couple of years, revising our curriculum, purchasing new resources, talking to students, finding out what they want.

I can tell you at our high school, our high school administration has done a great job bringing in new classes, African diaspora, Latin American experience, two or three classes on social justice, criminal justice, talking about all of the key topics going on in our country today. They have a class on sexism, racism, and classism, you know, so these are great courses that our high school kids get to take about today’s issues that really are current topics that our kids are very interested. So that’s two areas that we’re trying to do a lot with CRE.

And a third area is professional development. We’re always trying to work with all of our staff to get them up to date on what the most common strategies and resources are, especially around the restorative circles and restorative practice. So that’s kind of our world around CRE, and it’s,  very, very broad and it’s a big bear to carry, but, uh, something we actually just did in our district is for the first time we’ve created an administrative position known as the administrator in charge of equity and diversity. And we took one of our high school assistant principals, Dr. Margie Daniels, and she is taking over our CRE work so that there’s always somebody that has the lens on culturally responsive education. You know, districts always have athletic directors that are in charge of athletics and sports, director of special ed that oversees special education. The time has come that we need someone to really oversee and always be the lens and champion for culturally responsive education in districts.

Jon M: [00:27:21] So like many other districts, Peekskill has been cited, in this case by New York State, for a number of years for disproportionate suspensions of Black boys and young men, especially those in special education. What’s the district doing to reduce suspensions and this disparity?

Dan C: [00:27:41] Yeah, it was about eight years ago, we were first cited for disproportionality in our suspension rate. So the first issue you have to do in that situation is admit there’s a problem. And this is where looking at data helps. Who are we suspending? Why are we suspending, what are they getting suspended for? And then after you look at the data, trying to go back to that root cause analysis I talked about before, go back to the beginning to figure out what we need to do differently. If we don’t do something different systemically here, we’re going to end up with the same suspensions and the same data. And cultural responsive education plays into this. As we start talking about restorative practice and restorative circles, finding new ways to discipline students.

I can look back to the fifties and sixties. Schools haven’t changed a lot when it came to discipline. If you did something wrong, you went to see the assistant principal, the Dean, and you got detention. If you did something very bad, you got suspended. That’s been around since schools were around, for time immemorial. As technology changes, you know, schools adapted. As curriculum changes, schools adapted. Schools didn’t really adapt to when it came to behavior. Only now are we starting to realize that, you know, to really address behavior, you need to find out why the student acts the way they do and what we can do to change, maybe the environment they’re in or to help the student learn from it. Just giving someone a detention or a suspension doesn’t change the behavior. You know, it’s considered punitive and punishment, but if you really want to effect change, let’s get back to why the student is acting the way they’re acting. Talk to the student, talk to the family, talk to the teachers that are involved, develop a plan that involves everybody about how we can stop that behavior from happening, because we all play a role in it. An assistant principal or a building principal, isn’t doing their job if they’re just handing out the punishment and then forgetting about the situation. What we want to make sure is that that situation does not occur again, or that if the student feels that behavior coming on, that there’s a plan in place to try to address it.

You know, so something we’ve done here in Peekskill is we partnered with the NYU Metro Center. They had an TAC-D [Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality] group that helped us form something called Guardians of Equity, which allowed us to bring in some professional development for our staff that is still currently going on. We are still talking about restorative practices. We’re still talking about restorative strategies and we’re giving teachers other opportunities and other strategies in dealing with behaviors in class. And not every strategy works. You know, sometimes you’ve got to try a few before you find something that is successful.

Amy H-L: [00:30:18] What advice would you give to someone becoming a superintendent or an assistant superintendent?

Dan C: [00:30:26] Wow. That’s a tough one. The job I’m in today is definitely different than the job I started eight years ago. And it’s the same job. What I can say about being a superintendent or an assistant superintendent is it’s a job that’s 24/7. There is no off day. Your phone’ll  ring pr  you’ll get text messages on weekends, at nights. Because while a school may be open only eight to three, the responsibility we have to the community and to our students, you know, does not have any time limit to it. And I think the one thing, advice I’d give any of them is it’s okay to admit that you do not know everything. The job has become so broad, so advanced, considering we just had the inauguration, you know, a president has a cabinet and all the cabinet secretaries specialize in those areas. You can’t really expect the president to be the master of all those different areas. A superintendent is a very similar situation between budget, curriculum, facilities, operations, safety. There’s so many areas I can add. You need to surround yourself with a team of people that are hopefully strong in those areas. You have to trust your people. And then when things do go wrong, and every school district has things that go wrong, admit there’s a problem and address it. I think being transparent as a superintendent or an assistant superintendent is very important nowadays, letting your community and parents know what’s going on, seeking their advice, whether it’s through surveys.

And then, you know, for me, the one advice I give every educator, I don’t care if you’re a superintendent all the way down to teachers, TAs, anybody. Remember that we’re supposed to do the best thing we can for kids. And at the end of the day, every decision I make, I need to know that the final decision I made was in the best interest of that child.

Jon M: [00:32:17] Thank you, Dan Callahan, Peekskill City school district.

Amy H-L: [00:32:20] And thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles. Subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs with a focus on ethics for schools and youth programs in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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