Transcription of the episode “Evolving demographics: Rural schools in transition”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:17] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. David Fine, superintendent of the Dover Union Free School District in Dutchess County, New York. We want to talk about some of the ethical challenges facing schools in a small rural district. Welcome, David. 

[00:00:32] David F: Thank you. It’s great to be here. 

[00:00:35] Amy H-L: Could you tell us about the Dover district and its demographics? 

[00:00:39] David F: Sure. Dover is about 90 minutes north of New York City. It’s in Dutchess County, which is part of the lower Hudson region near Westchester, a stone’s throw away from Putnam County and Rockand County, so those counties share a lot of the collaborative leadership discussions among superintendents. Dutchess County is a little more rural. It’s about 8,000 in the Dover community. We have about 1400 students in our school district, and it’s been a district where folks come and they stay for a very long time. I recently took over for a superintendent who retired after 30 plus years as a teacher, a social studies teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, superintendent. So it’s really a nice community and growing. 

[00:01:33] Amy H-L: And what does the economy look like in Dover? 

[00:01:36] David F: We are typically eligible for lots of aid and grants as it relates to our economic status. There’s some significant poverty in areas. There’s other areas that are building up. So it’s, it’s a wide range of economics within the community, but we would be considered probably like the second behind Poughkeepsie as it relates to social economic challenges. 

[00:02:04] Jon M: What are the demographics of, of the student body?

[00:02:07] David F: Mostly, significantly white. We have a diverse population as it relates to some newcomers coming into the district. Our ENL population has grown tremendously over the last five or six years. You know, our numbers are probably about 12 or 13% across the district, but in some grade levels, 25% or higher. And that’s a big shift for a rural school district like Dover because programmatically, there needs to be all kinds of different courses and opportunities for these youngsters and their families, how they engage with the school.

[00:02:45] Jon M: And ENL is English as a New Language. 

[00:02:48] David F: Thank you. Yeah. Sorry about that. English as a New Language. Yes. 

[00:02:52] Jon M: Do you have difficulty in recruiting teachers? 

[00:02:57] David F: We are probably about 15 minutes, 20 minutes, away from Putnam County, which pays more, about 35 minutes away from Westchester County, which pays significantly more. So to answer your question, Jon, we do. It is a challenge. I have found, especially this year, that we have been recruiting teachers. And everyone needs to pay their bills. Inflation is out control right now, but quality of life has been something that has been a bigger discussion at the negotiation table than anything else. Instead of driving 55 minutes away, instead of being in a large district, Dover is a nice small district. Everyone’s doing everything. So they’re really part of the change process. When you’re working in such a tiny small district, everyone is a stakeholder in that progress. All that said, I have lost teachers to other districts at the 23rd hour because they got 10 or $15,000 more on their salary, but it it’s been less this year than I saw last year.

[00:03:56] Jon M: Is it hard to recruit teachers for bilingual programs? 

[00:04:01] David F: Yeah, the certification, the bilingual certification, is not a typical certification that everybody has. If you have, I believe it’s 25 or more students in a particular grade, you would need to create a bilingual class. And they need a bilingual certification and the bilingual certification is not something a lot of folks have. It’s also in demand. We’re one of 11 or 12 districts in Dutchess County. So it’s not just Dover’s looking for an ENL or a bilingual teacher. So are my fellow colleagues. So we’re in competition with each other. We do communicate with each other. If there was a good second or third candidate that we didn’t take because we’re all under similar challenges as it relates to filling those positions. We do have something from the state, and I’m really hopeful that they’re going to do it again this year, which is called, Teachers of Tomorrow. It’s a grant that we wrote about a month and a half ago, and basically it’s to help rural school districts recruit and provide a little bump in their first year salary. So we might be able to put like $2,400 or $3,000 just on their first year salary. And, and sometimes that’s, that’s just, what’s needed to, to, to lock it up. 

[00:05:15] Amy H-L: When bilingual teachers come to your school, aside from their skills obviously in speaking both languages and communicating in both languages, what other skills do they need to help them work with these new immigrants?

[00:05:29] David F: They need to be able to have a global approach to the student, engaging their parents. It’s not just about not even speaking their language, because that’s not necessarily a criteria, but they also need to be able to administer the curriculum in a good way. They’re needing to do assessments and use that data from the assessments to figure out what’s challenging this youngster from being successful in the classroom. Is it the language? Is it literacy? Is it a learning disability? Is it some special ed things so they can get mixed in? I think schools have done a much better job recently with regard to the differentiation between language issues and special ed issues. Back in the day, there was a lot of that dual classification. He or she is ENL and also special ed. Now school districts are doing a lot of intervention, responding to what the students need, and really digging into the data to find out. Is it simply a language? Is it simply some other disability that we can address through special ed services?

[00:06:37] Amy H-L: And you have the facilities to do that sort of evaluation?

[00:06:42] David F: We do have the facilities to do that evaluation. Our ENL folks are a part of that process. We also have a director of literacy and we also have a CSE office, a Committee of Special Ed office, and they work very closely together. Because it could be a real problem when a youngster is dually classified because you’re not necessarily addressing or targeting the real issue. And now you have a youngster that, and it does happen, but now you have a youngster that a lot of cooks are on the fire and we’re not actually looking at what the real challenge is.

[00:07:15] Jon M: A number of the ENL students are immigrant students from Latin America, primarily from Ecuador and Guatemala. What brings these families to Dover? 

[00:07:26] David F: When we spoke last, I spoke with my assistant superintendent, who was a teacher here and also grew through the ranks and also lives in the community. And I asked her that question. I think folks are migrating out of the city. There’s more elbow room. In some regards, there is financially, it’s a better move for them and their families. We do have railroads, a MetroNorth close by or within a stone throw of Dover. It’s beautiful. You know, it’s green, it’s cleaner maybe than other places that they, that they may wanna, you know, from the compacts of a city life. So I think those were the reasons. It wasn’t anything like eye opening, but those seem to be the the bigger reasons why folks are coming up. 

And it’s a good school district. Their kids are in a good place, in a good school district. The school district itself, like I mentioned. There have been some significant changes over the years quickly with a rural school district educating a homogeneous group of youngsters in a generational sort of manner. Moms and dads went through Dover, children, grandparents, all that kind of stuff. And that’s a beautiful thing. And as of recently, you know, the influx of different families coming into the community has been. I feel, and I know other folks would co-sign to that, embraced and open to integration and, and figuring out what we can do to accommodate. 

The Students with Interrupted Formal Education, the SIFE students, you know, they need a whole different sort of track when they come into a school. And a small school district is limited in some ways because we have, you know, a program for our bilingual youngsters or our ENL youngsters, but a student who’s 16, who hasn’t been in school in 10 years and just was dumped into New York state, what do we do with him or her? So we’re working really hard with our counseling department, and we’re fortunate enough to have some additional aid money to boost up our ENL program, which includes these Students with Interrupted Formal Education. So we’re going to be able to create what they call the Newcomer Program if we have the numbers.

And there’s a commitment to that, knowing that a youngster in a Newcomer Program may or may not graduate in the typical four years, because the first year might just be, this is what a Regents is, this is what algebra is, here’s how we get into and out of the school. All basic things like that. Survival, getting parents engaged in the school district, which goes back to Amy’s question of what’s a good bilingual teacher or ENL teacher doing, bringing those folks into the school system, getting them engaged and giving them permission to advocate and engage with their child. It’s really important. 

[00:10:23] Amy H-L: That seems to touch on this whole concept of inclusivity, no?. 

[00:10:28] David F: It really does. And the kids, since I’ve been here, the student body has been pretty active in advocating for that inclusivity. When I came late spring last year, I, I can feel the student body wanting that voice and wanting to engage in those conversations. So we did a voluntary meeting over the summer to plan out the school year. And we had about 15 kids meet me on zoom over the summer and voluntarily just talk about what we can do this school year, month to month, you know, nationally, they have different months ranging from autistic awareness and things like that, pride month, things like that. So it was nice to sort of live it with them this year. 

[00:11:10] Amy H-L: Wow. So aside from the school’s primary purpose of educational institutions, you seem to be playing other roles in the community.

[00:11:23] David F: It’s a lot of roles, Amy. You know, a movie theater or a bowling alley used to be, from what I remember or heard. So the school’s definitely a big part of the community. Dutchess County is, is a large area, and we are on the eastern side of Dutchess County. There’s sort of a mountain that divides us. So this side of the county has a few school districts, but the resources and the agencies are limited. So if you wanted to, you know, get some mental health support, or you needed some assistance in some areas, you would have to go to the other side of the county over the mountain, which is a good 35, 40 minutes. Last summer, there was a STEAM– Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math– program in Dutchess County, but it was a good 40 minutes away. And I pushed these two students to go and it was free, and it was hard because our families work one, two, three jobs, to get them over there. But they did it, for a full week. It was a whole tech program. And I remember at the end, they did this school graduation at the church over in the city of Poughkeepsie and both of the moms said, this is the first time we’ve been out of our community because this is where we kind of stay. 

All that said, the school plays a big role in the community, which I love. And it definitely fits my style. I like engaging with the families, and bringing them in to be part of the solution, to have ideas and suggestions, to advocate, create evening events, movie events, different weekend events for them. And the teachers and the administrators have been great, being a part of that as well.

[00:13:03] Jon M: Youth mental health is obviously a big concern all over the country. Given the distances involved, what are some of the ways that you’re able to support students’ mental health on a day to day basis, and what are some of the challenges that you face, you know, as a more rural school district?

[00:13:21] David F: You know, it’s more now than ever across all schools, period, not just in New York state. And there’s a lot of focus on the mindset with the teachers. It’s not just algebra’s important, physics is important. The Regents are, you know, assessments, graduation, academics, but the social emotional piece of our students are, is, is as paramount as two plus two. So we’re continually talking about that with our schools and our staff, because it’s hard if you you’re not cut from that ilk, if you don’t really live that, and believe that you just kind of go in and you do your thing as it relates to the curriculum and you know, you do your thing. And, you know, we have been real mindful of having those conversations, um, remembering to– relationships are primary and paramount. We’re also bringing in a program that our school counselors are going to implement K through 8. We also, Dover has been engaged in a couple of different programs where it’s focused on the behavioral responses of how we look at trauma with students and how we respond and how we report things.

All this said, there’s not a significant amount of agencies that can support us outside the school. Parents have to drive. We’re trying to figure out how we can boost that up, not just for Dover, but for our neighboring school districts on this side of the county. 

[00:14:53] Amy H-L: Could you speak a little more about those relationships? 

[00:14:55] David F: At the end of the day, it comes down to trust. Parents have their own frame of reference with respect to school. Sometimes we’re the enemy and sometimes we’re not the enemy. And when we are the enemy, just because they had a bad experience in their school, doesn’t mean it has to be the same here. So it’s a training with our administrative team about how to respond, how not to personalize. One of the greatest common factors we have with families is their child. We want the best for them as much as they. Regardless of where they’re coming from or how they respond or how they act. Most families, what I have seen in my career, they want the best for their baby.

If we kind of meet there, I think parents feel that and they get that building relationships with children is primary. They need to be comfortable with you. You can’t just be a tie. You can’t just be, you know, some person in a suit or nice shoes. It’s not why I’m not wearing a tie today, but, and that takes time, you know, that takes time just because I happen to be the superintendent doesn’t mean I’m in charge of his or her sort of agency. I’m in charge of some rules, but you know, they also have a say in the process, going back to just basic trust.

[00:16:17] Jon M: Speaking of relationships, what’s the process of building relationships among staff and faculty as a relatively recent newcomer as a superintendent? How do you go about looking at the culture of the school and seeing directions that you’d like to see it, you know, tweaked in, if there are some?

[00:16:38] David F: It’s a good question, especially when you step into a position and the prior administration has done a wonderful job and did a great job, but there’s a history there. So probably up to maybe yesterday, my decisions may still echo in the brains of others as prior administration. So it takes time to build those relationships. It takes time for people to know that my door is open. Being engaged with the schools and the community following through on things you’re going to say. I’ve learned early on that you don’t want to just speak up here to your staff. You want to speak in terms of manageable, attainable goals so they can feel it and see it, not say things and it sounds good, but never comes to fruition. And that’s just taking small chunks. But I realize that as a new person in the school district, they’re not automatically going to love you and they’re not automatically going to not love you. And at the end of the day, I think those feelings will be, you know, depending on who the person is, will feel how they want to feel. But just being honest with them, transparent, clear, consistent. 

[00:17:57] Amy H-L: How were those relationships, both among the faculty members and between the faculty and the students, impacted by the pandemic? 

[00:18:07] David F: I think the pandemic just put everybody on its head for a couple of years and we’re still sort of in a hangover state. I started where there were masks. My prior district, I was there for a number of years, so I knew everybody with or without a mask. Coming here, it was really hard to engage, to create those relationships, for obvious reasons. So once the regulations changed, I felt like it allowed me to be more like David and it allowed others to be like themselves.

And, as we’ve all experienced, there were plenty of people that I felt like I just met them for the first time. Meanwhile, I’ve talked to them a whole bunch of times. It was hard. And even with kids. And it’s still, it’s taken a while. It’s not like it went away. You know, it’s taken a while for kids to, not feel comfortable without a mask, but to almost reteach themselves how to socialize and engage and… I want to do things next year, where it takes us away from technology, put the Chromebook away, no technology Tuesday, let’s go to good old chalkboards and paper and pencil for a day and just talk to each other and engage with each other. And it took the teachers a little while to do that as well, because they were so used to this forum as opposed to groups and kids getting up in classroom, projects. I definitely have seen, as we transitioned into the spring, more and more of that happening, which is just a win. 

[00:19:39] Amy H-L: And what social emotional issues are you seeing on returning to school, aside from this sort of relearning to be students and teachers?

[00:19:50] David F: I don’t know if there’s necessarily a word for it, but there’s definitely a higher level of anxiety just out there in general. I think advocacy for themselves, you know, we have students that haven’t been on a field trip in two or three years, so they haven’t been out of their house or like the school. So that unto itself can do something to an individual. So it’s not anything that we’re necessarily saying, this is why they’re like that, but it it’s definitely having an effect on the opportunities that they now are starting to have. 

[00:20:27] Jon M: What are some of the ways that you’ve been able to work with the students and the faculty during this kind of transition back to at least not wearing masks?

[00:20:41] David F: It’s simple things like field days, it’s simple things like family nights, it’s simple things like bringing the student, staff, faculty game back, bringing the community back together, sporting events. Doing things on the weekend at the school, whether it’s spirit days and things like that. Yesterday, this week in particular, you know, we have two more weeks of school left, so there’s a lot of activities going on. Our current seventh graders are at West Point right now. We had the fifth graders yesterday, swimming at a park and they did like a barbecue. Like, it seems simple, but those are things those fifth graders didn’t have for three years. And if you do the math, that’s since second grade. So typically they would do that in second grade, third grade, fourth grade. Now this is the first time. So we’re capitalizing on anything and everything we can do in a safe, productive manner for these students outside the classroom in a positive way, just celebrating the fact that this is what we do in school. We’ll teach and learn. We’ll, we’ll provide a rigorous curriculum. But there’s also such great opportunity to recognize and celebrate things that we’re doing in and out of the classroom. Yesterday, we had something called field day at one of our elementary schools. It was like a wedding because all the elementary school kids were balancing eggs on spoons and having little relay races. And every mom, dad, grandparent, guardian brother, sister, were there, just celebrating the kids. And I asked some other staff that have done this for a while, and it’s always been a well-oiled machine, but there was just a wonderful number of community members that came to be a part of that.

[00:22:36] Jon M: It’s obviously a time of polarization around the country. And a lot of times this has been coming out at school board meetings and in terms of school curricula and books and so forth. Has that played out at all in Dover? 

[00:22:51] David F: I’ve seen uglier things occur, but there has been some political discourse or desire to have more political discourse, conversations between faculty, staff, and children stemming a lot from the student body, which is really cool. And it’s not necessarily coming from a place of, I want you to believe what I believe, but I just want to have a safe space to express myself. We’ve added more opportunities for that to occur. And honestly, it came from awareness and professional development with staff for them to feel comfortable. I was a special ed social studies teacher. There’s folks that are math teachers. They went to school to teach math, not to have political discourse in their geometry. But today we’re looking to be able to be a hybrid of that. So there’s been a lot of conversations with staff around how they navigate this because staying silent only makes it worse.

We’ve definitely been able to engage in that, you know, at the board meetings, the board has been extremely supportive of inclusivity, equitable opportunities for our students. Our community wants the best for all of the students. I think in society in general, there’s definitely a fear of, they’re force feeding things down our children’s throats or into the school systems. We’ve had those conversations, but it hasn’t been to a degree of distraction. Nor are we looking to do either of those.

[00:24:19] Amy H-L: Could you give us an example of how some of the kids have initiated those conversations? 

[00:24:25] David F: Sure. You know, it was done non-verbally when I first came here. You can just feel the energy, you can feel the desire to have open conversations. So I grabbed some youngsters that were in some after school clubs. We have a few after school clubs that engage in these discussions, Young Voices, things like that. And just talking with them and bringing them to the board meeting and having conversations at the board level. You know, one of the frustrating things I found was they all were sort of hoping –they were all from the same cloth. And that’s not the world. So I asked them, the next time we talk, grab a friend who does not believe in what you believe. And I have friends like that. So we did that, and our group doubled and, you know, we were able to have a better conversation around the issues at hand. 

And I’m sensitive to that. I’m not expecting every single teacher to do this, but there’s a nice group of teachers. And even this year, we did some professional development with some that are more and more comfortable, you know, engaging in these discussions. Because if you’re teaching the Renaissance, and something comes up around the wall, and the teacher can’t engage in that, it doesn’t just go away. It comes out in other ways. So I’ve been really proud of how our folks have been able to navigate those discussions with our kids, stay on track with the Renaissance, but also touch on students that, I’m using the wall as a metaphor, like, or don’t like, things like that.

[00:25:59] Jon M: Is there anything else that you’d like to mention that we haven’t talked about? 

[00:26:02] David F: No, I think this has been a wonderful experience. I’ve been looking forward to this. I, I appreciate everything, Jon and Amy. And thank you. It’s been great. 

[00:26:14] Jon M: Thank you, Dr. David Fine of Dover Union Free School District. 

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