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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 13, 2009
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
VOORHEESVILLE Brian Whitley will be Voorheesville’s first middle school principal, and he’s filled with ideas about how the job should be done.
Appointed last Friday for a post he is to assume Sept. 8 at the start of the new school year, Whitley speaks in rapid-fire fashion, his ideas fully formed as they are uttered.
“Middle schools need to serve a dramatically different and specific set of developmental needs intellectual, emotional, and physical,” said Whitley.
That age group typically students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades has long been the center of his interest.
Whitley is currently a middle-school principal at Shenendehowa and has a background in counseling.
Theresa Kennedy retired in June after nine years as an associate principal of the middle school at Voorheesville. The school board, just this year, created the post of principal, which Whitley will be the first to fill.
In a farewell tribute to Kennedy on Moving Up Day, eighth-grader Mark Guido said that a personal goal of Kennedy, herself a Voorheesville graduate, had been to divide the middle and high schools into separate schools altogether.
He also said, “Throughout her years here at Voorheesville, she has provided constant guidance in our academics and morals, shaping us into better people every step of our middle-school journey.”
The district’s new superintendent, Teresa Thayer Snyder, is excited about Whitley’s appointment.
“He’s a dynamic young administrator, very pro-child,” she said, noting she worked with him at Shenendehowa.
Thirty people applied for the job, Snyder said, and a committee of “stakeholders,” including parents, teachers, teachers’ aides, and administrators, winnowed the field from what Snyder termed “an unusually strong pool of candidates.”
The first candidate to be selected turned down the job because of the salary.
Whitley will be paid $92,000 annually, Snyder said, and will work all 12 months of the year.
“The board decided it is time to establish an independent middle school,” said Snyder this week.
Voorheesville’s secondary school used to be called Clayton A. Bouton Junior-Senior High School. It should no longer be seen as a junior-senior high school, said Snyder. “We’re going to focus on the needs of those between the ages of 11 and 14,” she said.
That’s difficult when the buildings are attached, she said, and the perception is to think of the middle school as a little high school.
Defining middle school
Whitley outlined for The Enterprise the major characteristics that define a middle school.
“We can’t treat middle school students as high school students,” he said. “A good middle school does several things.
“It makes students feel at home through teaming,” he said. A middle school has four teachers one from each core subject of English, math, social studies, and science who work together. Voorheesville already has this team approach in place.
The groups of students that come together through this team approach shouldn’t be larger than 100, and smaller is better, said Whitley. The grades at Voorheesville typically have fewer than 100 students.
“As a result, you build good relationships,” Whitley went on. “One of the most important things for students to be successful...is to have each connect with at least one person.”
Second, he said, an advisory program should be built into the schedule, “so students have a home base.”
Third, he said, “In middle school, we want to give them a smattering of everything. We want to give them a taste of different classes.” This includes, in addition to the four core subjects, health, music, art, and a foreign language.
“Middle school,” Whitley concluded, “incorporates social and emotional things in with the educational experience.” He said, for example, it should address bullying, helping students to develop coping skills.
“Basically, they have to learn to function as adults,” Whitley said, adding that such learning is not automatic.
Asked about the dip in performance on state-required tests that typically occurs in middle school scores are higher in both elementary school and high school Whitley said, “There are developmental explanations for that.”
He also said, “Test scores are just one measure...If we provide students with a well-rounded educational experience, the test scores will come around.”
Whitley and his younger sister were raised in Rotterdam. Their father was a facilities manager at General Electric and their mother a secretary to a dean at Schenectady County Community College. After retiring at 55, Whitley’s father taught technology at Shenendehowa.
Whitley said he always enjoyed school and did well as a student. He played varsity tennis and soccer in high school, and his favorite subject since middle school was English.
He went to the State University of New York College at Oswego because he wanted a liberal arts education that would let him explore a variety of subjects.
“The SUNY system offered a great education for the dollars,” he said.
Whitley majored in English, in “writing arts.”
His junior year at Oswego, he had a pivotal experience as an intern in the career services department.
“I helped students prepare their résumés and cover letters, and talked to them about what they wanted to do with their lives,” he said. “It clicked with me, and I went to graduate school for counseling in education at The College of Saint Rose.”
After two more years as a full-time student, Whitley had earned his master’s degree. “I was fortunate to get a job out of the gate,” he said. He was hired by Cairo-Durham High School in the Catskills.
He called his year there “a great learning experience” but said, “I felt like I wanted to work with younger students.”
Whitley went on to become a middle-school counselor at Mohonasen. The experience that most shaped him there was an after-school program he taught for at-risk students. He worked with an assistant superintendent to get a grant from United Way that allowed him and another teacher to work for two hours each day, Monday through Thursday, after school with a score of struggling students.
“Most of them were failing all four core subjects,” said Whitley. “We worked with them one-on-one, helping them with their lessons and their homework.”
Whitley called the program’s success “dramatic.” At the end of the year, 80 percent of the students had become successful, he said. “I felt like we could make a big difference if we put our attention in the right place.”
During his “whirlwind” four years at Mohonasen, Whitley also completed his administrative certification at the University at Albany by taking classes at night.
He then became the assistant principal at Mohonasen High School before moving to Shenendehowa, where he has been the assistant principal of Koda Middle School. The name, he explains, is a Native American word for “friend.”
Whitley, who on Monday was still absorbing the good news about his appointment, said, when asked about his goals at Voorheesville, “My approach will be to start by meeting with parents and teachers and students to talk about what they see as strengths and shortcomings, and to see what they would like their school to look like.”
He asked, for example, would “stakeholders” prefer a block schedule with long periods for in-depth study or the traditional nine-period day? “What will it take to make this feel like a special place?” he asked.
Asked how long he intends to stay in the Voorheesville post, Whitley said, “I’m not looking too far ahead. Voorheesville is a premier district. It’s academically excellent, which will make my job easier...I’m still kind of digesting the news, but I’m happy about it.”