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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, June 9, 2011
Chosen for his compassion and voice
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND Guilderland’s new high school principal was a dropout. Thomas Lustic says the experience drove him to be an educator, and he can relate to the disenfranchised.
Lustic was selected for the Guilderland post from a pool of 86 applicants, including two in-house candidates.
“He distinguished himself through his sense of compassion and his articulateness,” said Superintendent Marie Wiles. “He had experience in a large urban school and is currently in a small-school setting…a rare candidate with the breadth of experience important here in Guilderland.”
Wiles also said, “He’s interested in what a high school should look like in the future not just how we deal with diminishing financial resources but how to prepare students well with what we have.”
Lustic will start work in July at an annual salary of $107,500.
He will replace Brian McCann who is retiring this month after two years as the high school principal, following 17 years as an assistant principal. Guilderland High School hasn’t had a long-term principal since John Whipple retired in 2003 after 14 years. A series of six either short-term or interim principals followed.
Lustic was raised in West Islip, on Long Island, largely by his grandparents, he said. Both his mother and grandfather were teachers and his grandmother was a school secretary.
“I did not like school,” he said. “I felt disenfranchised. Because of that, I wanted to go into education and find a connection.”
He lived with his aunt in western New York during his high school years and dropped out of Williamsville North in the 10th grade. “I did not enjoy high school at all,” said Lustic. “I was going through personal things, family situations…I was trying to discover who I was and school wasn’t fitting into that.”
Lustic had a variety of jobs shining shoes as a locker-room attendant at a country club, working at a car dealership, and working for a veterinarian.
“As I got older, I wanted something more not money or a career,” he said. “I wanted to contribute something.”
He loves animals and worked for the veterinarian for a number of years. “I was surrounded by Cornell graduates; they’d talk about their experiences,” said Lustic. “I started to yearn for what I’d missed.”
At age 31, Lustic went to Niagara County Community College. “I fell in love with learning,” he said. “I’ve always been inquisitive. As a young boy, I’d drive people nuts with my questions.”
As he entered his fourth decade, he said, “I longed for answers and was willing to work long and hard to get them.”
After two years at the community college, Lustic went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Buffalo State College, majoring in secondary English education. “My eyes had been opened about who I was. I wanted to give something back that had been buried in me.”
Empathy and honesty
His first job was filling in for a high school English teacher on leave at a school in St. Augustine, Fla., working with students at risk. While he liked the job, Lustic was eager to get back to New York State and landed a job at Geneva High School in the Finger Lakes area.
A poet himself, Lustic most enjoyed teaching his students the Romantics. “I taught them Frankenstein first as a way in,” he said of Mary Shelley’s novel.
Lustic started a creative writing program at Geneva High and also advised the school newspaper and the ski club.
Lustic wishes now that he had more time for both writing and skiing. “That great American novel is still in me somewhere,” he said.
While at Geneva, Lustic completed a master’s degree in educational administration and also an administrative certification at the State University of New York College at Brockport.
He said of his studies at Brockport, “A lot of the administrative program focused on curriculum and instruction, which helped me in the classroom.”
After seven years at Geneva, he moved next to Eastridge High School outside of Rochester in the East Irondequoit Central School District where he worked as an assistant principal. The school has an enrollment of 1,300, he said, about 500 students fewer than Guilderland High School.
Lustic headed a ninth-grade academy, which functioned as a school within the larger school, and also dealt largely with discipline. He considers three things important in disciplining students.
“First, is the ability to have empathy for what somebody else is going through, being able to walk in their shoes,” he said.
Second, he said, is honesty. “Kids appreciate that….You have to establish trust, and show them there are consequences to their actions. Then you have to show them the skills and the tools to move forward.”
Finally, he said, “You have to identify with kids and listen to them…A lot of times, adults in their lives haven’t listened to them.”
After three years at Eastridge High School, Lustic left for the Hamilton Central School district in Hamilton, N.Y., which he described as “an amazing little village.”
“I’d worked in larger schools and was interested in a smaller school,” Lustic said of his reason for the move. He served as secondary principal for students in sixth through 12th grade a total of about 320 students, smaller than a Guilderland graduating class.
“It’s appealing to wear many hats in a small school…there are no assistant principals or curriculum directors; it makes you well rounded,” he said, adding that he also wanted a chance to work with middle-school students.
Lustic is now in his third year at Hamilton. His position is being eliminated. “Enrollment is declining throughout central New York,” he said. “It made fiscal sense to go to a different model.” The current elementary-school principal will serve as the administrator for kindergarten through 12th grade next year.
Lustic said he has always liked the Albany area. “I started researching and was awestruck with the enormous opportunities kids are offered at Guilderland,” he said, naming programs from music to sports.
“I miss a larger, more comprehensive high school,” he added.
Asked how long he plans to stay at Guilderland, Lustic said, “I’d like to retire from there.”
He just turned 50 and said he plans to work eight to 10 more years and then perhaps will do some college teaching and volunteer work.
Asked about his immediate goals at Guilderland, Lustic said, “I want to establish relationships and listen. I need to immerse myself and become familiar with the culture.”
He also said he plans to work collaboratively to solve problems. Like districts across New York, faced with state aid cuts and growing pension and health-care costs, Guilderland has cut close to 100 jobs in the last two budget cycles.
“There’s no one magic solution,” said Lustic. “Number one is to see if kids are better served and then look at the fiscal ramifications.”
He also said, “We have to have a conversation as a nation on what we really value. There’s a lot of talk about education and education reform and investment in our future. If we really believe that…then what are we doing to demonstrate that?”