SARANAC LAKE - It wasn't just the school district that drew her in. Diane Fox says the opportunity to live in a community like Saranac Lake played a big part in her decision to apply for the Saranac Lake Central School District's pending superintendent vacancy.
Fox, who was appointed to the job last week by the Saranac Lake school board, said this is the only superintendent position she applied for.
"There was a position open elsewhere, and people were saying, 'Oh, Diane, are you going to apply?'" said Fox, who is currently principal at Beekmantown High School. "I did some soul searching and said, 'OK, if I really am interested in being a superintendent, where do I want to be?'
Beekmantown High School Principal Diane Fox, seen here working at her desk on Tuesday, will take over July 1 as the next superintendent of the Saranac Lake Central School District.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"I've worked in buildings that were all closely connected to a community, and I knew that's what I wanted when I looked for a superintendency. I like being able to go someplace for a cup of coffee on Saturday morning. I want to be in a community and know the people around me. I was lucky that as I began that search, Saranac Lake was there, calling to me."
Fox was one of four finalists for the position, including an internal candidate, who were interviewed by the school board, a committee of school employees and a group of community residents. A total of 16 people had applied for the position.
She will take over for Gerald Goldman, who is retiring, on July 1. Details of her contract are still being negotiated.
HOMETOWN: Springville, near Buffalo; moved to Orange County in middle school
EDUCATION: Holds three degrees from SUNY Plattsburgh: an undergraduate business degree, a master's degree in teaching with a certification in K-6, and a school district
CURRENT JOB: Principal, Beekmantown High School
PREVIOUS EMPLOYMENT: Principal, Cumberland Head Elementary School; elementary school teacher, Saranac Central School District
FAMILY: Greg Claus, husband, a teacher at Saranac High School; Jamie Claus, daughter, a recent graduate of SUNY Purchase, lives in New York City
The Enterprise posed the following questions to Fox in a telephone interview on March 22. Some of her responses have been edited for length.
What brought you to the North Country?
When it was time to go to college, I knew I had to go to a SUNY school. Financially, that's what we were going to do. I wanted to spread my wings as far away from home as I could to be independent. So I came to Plattsburgh sight unseen, and I've been here ever since.
How did you get into teaching?
I graduated from Plattsburgh with an undergraduate degree in business, and I worked for a long time in retail. I had my daughter and decided (retail) was not what I wanted to do in life. I really soul-searched for what I wanted, and I went back to school for teaching.
My first job was at Assumption of Mary in Redford, and I taught first grade. There's nothing that teaches you more about education than being in a private school. You're chief cook and bottle washer, and really ingrained in the community and the school. I did that for two years.
I decided if I was going to make it in a public school job, I was going to have to be in a public school so people knew me. I subbed for a year in Plattsburgh and Saranac, and at the end of the year I was hired in Saranac for a half-time sixth-grade position. I did that for two years. Then there was an opening in the building, and I was hired as a kindergarten teacher. I then taught second grade for a year and fifth grade for at least four.
How did you become a school principal?
We had a change in administration at Saranac. They knew they would be closing the two small elementary schools, Dannemora and Cadyville, so I was approached by the superintendent and asked if I would be interested in being the administrator (of both schools) that year. It was a one-year deal because we knew they would be closing, but it was great because I had the opportunity to try it on. I decided I loved it and wanted to see if I could do that. I applied for different openings and was hired at Beekmantown for their Cumberland Head (Elementary School) building. I was there until last year when I moved up to the high school.
What do you know about the Saranac Lake school district's reputation?
I don't live that far away, so Saranac Lake, both the school and the community, their reputations are intertwined, and they precede them. Now, after I've been hired, everyone I meet says 'Saranac Lake? You are so lucky,' and they have some little story about coming to Saranac Lake for some event or they know something about the school. Just the whole vibe connected with the area is so positive. When I met with the board for my first round of interviews, then with the community and the staff, it just solidified what everybody was saying about Saranac Lake.
What do you see as your primary responsibility in being superintendent here?
My overreaching job is to provide high-quality, well-rounded education for our students, and to be a really good steward of the community's resources. I see a supportive school and community, and connectedness already in place. My goal is to help continue that, to foster that.
How can the school district preserve its educational programs given the ongoing fiscal constraints it's facing?
It's certainly something that Beekmantown is talking about all the time, so I'm not new to that discussion in any way. I was impressed with the listening tour that went on here, and the results of that. There's strong support in the community for some of those fundamental pieces of what the school does as far as their music program, their sports program. I think we have to start with an understanding of what the core value is in the community and the school, and keep that in mind as we look at decreasing some of the things that we do.
We also have to look at other resources, things we haven't looked to before, like (North Country) Community College, Paul Smith's College. Are there resources they could bring to bear, things we could to together to continue to offer our kids opportunities but not bear the burden completely on the school district?
A big thing, certainly from the federal level and (Gov. Andrew) Cuomo tried to do it, is competitive grants. We need to make sure we're tuned into that grant environment. If you're not out actively searching for grants and other opportunities for funding, I'm afraid that will come back to haunt us.
What educational programs or services would you like to see expanded or introduced here?
I don't want to step on the high school's toes coming in new, but we've done a lot of discussion here about distance learning, about setting our kids up with quality courses so they will have transfer credits when they head off to college. I know they do that in Saranac Lake, and I had a great meeting with the principal and talked about their core courses and the things they offer.
One thing Saranac Lake has that we don't have and a lot of schools have given up is a good, strong technology department. I would like to see if we would have opportunities to expand that, look at our coursework we're offering, make connections with some other institutions, see what our kids' needs are and see how we might meet them.
Do you think consolidating with another school district like Lake Placid deserves a hard look?
I do. We'd be remiss as a school district not investigating every opportunity we have to make sure our students are supported while taking care of our taxpayers and making sure we're using their money judiciously. If consolidation could work for both, it would just be wrong of us not to really look at it. But even if we get to the end of the process and decide consolidation is not for us, it will require us to say, 'Are we delivering our services to our students in the best way possible and in the most financially prudent way?'
My background comes from closing two community schools (in Cadyville and Dannemora). I have lived through that experience of, we have a great community school, and now our community school is closing. What I learned from that is it's almost more difficult for the parents than it is for the students. The parents are the ones with the history. If you do it gently and give them time to adjust, kids are pretty resilient with all that. But there needs to be a real understanding that you are talking about tradition and people's memories, so that will all come into play as we talk about the costs of consolidation. Some of it is financial, but some of it is identity and community.
Is there too much emphasis on standardized testing in our schools?
I think good teachers are open to having their students evaluated, because good teachers celebrate student success. The problem isn't that we are evaluating our kids; the problem is what that has morphed into, and that a single snapshot on a single day or two of our whole purpose for being is now a test. With (Annual Professional Performance Review), our whole year comes down to a score that we get because of how our kids do on a two-day test, regardless of what has happened for the other 180 days of the year.
We as a teaching profession - and I'm speaking as a teacher and elementary administrator - as our test scores started decreasing, we spent more time with test practice, and I think that was a mistake, as we look back on it. We moved away from the real teaching in a classroom, where we developed students' interests in learning, and spent much more time teaching kids how to take a test question. It's gotten to the point where we see that's not working.
Lost in this conversation are the new (Common Core) standards, and the new standards are bringing us back around to doing some things in the classroom that have been squeezed out by the testing. They're talking about 21st-century skills, inquiry, hands-on activities and critical thinking skills - things that take time in a classroom that, the more you teach to the test, the more you squeeze out. Although the core curriculum is heavy, it still is asking you to put those things back into your classroom.
Will you move here?
We'd like to live in the village to begin. My husband teaches in Saranac. It will be a 40-45 minute commute for him, so we'd like to rent for a year and figure it out. Maybe we might want to move out toward Bloomingdale a little bit to cut his trip down. We're hoping to be there by July 1.
I think it's really important that when I stand in front of the community and ask them to support a budget, that I am also financially supporting that budget. I just think every superintendent should live in the district where they work.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.