For most commuters from New Jersey to Westchester, the Tappan Zee Bridge symbolizes stalled traffic, polluted air, and an aging infrastructure.
By Sol Hurwitz
For most commuters from New Jersey to Westchester, the Tappan Zee Bridge symbolizes stalled traffic, polluted air, and an aging infrastructure. But for Dr. Frank Alvarez, Rye’s new Superintendent of Schools and a resident of River Vale, N.J., the Tappan Zee is a bridge to a new beginning.
After nine years as superintendent in Montclair, N.J., “crossing the bridge, coming across the Hudson, tells me I’ve really changed places,” Alvarez said in an hour-long interview shortly after assuming his duties on July 1. “It’s like coming onto new land.”
It was his first week of work in Rye, but he was already up to date on the issues he’ll face when school opens on September 5. Well before his official starting date, Alvarez had visited every school, met with principals, senior administrators, and school board members, as well as parents, teachers, and students (whom he now warmly calls “our kids”). In a meeting with Athletic Director Rob Castagna, he was greeted with a surprise gift: a Garnets baseball cap.
Dressed in a button-down shirt, khaki pants, and loafers, Alvarez, 57, projected confidence, enthusiasm, and a friendly and open disposition. “I think Rye is a great community, steeped in tradition,” he said. “The School District has been well managed for years and I’m hoping I can continue that and take it to the next level.”
His approach will be “to take a close look at what’s working, honor the traditions, honor the culture, ask some hard questions, try to substantiate my perceptions with data, and begin to shape new programs or new directions.”
On the surface, it’s a dream job. Rye’s public schools are ranked among the best in Westchester, and Rye’s parents actively support them. Moreover, the superintendent’s salary is generous: Alvarez has a five-year contract and will earn $243,600 annually. Long service is a hallmark of Rye’s superintendents. Their average tenure is ten years.
But the job comes with an array of daunting challenges. On his first day, Alvarez was briefed on the arrests in June of three incoming Rye high school seniors charged with hazing, assault, and unlawful imprisonment involving several incoming ninth graders in a “Freshman Friday” ritual. The episode, which drew national media attention, rocked the community, raising questions about whether past warnings of improper student behavior have gone unheeded by parents, teachers, and school officials. A court hearing in the case is set for September 11.
For the longer term, Alvarez must wrestle with the question: How do you make one of the area’s best public school systems even better? (Rye elementary students’ test scores rank in the top five in Westchester; secondary students’ test scores rank in the top ten.) Alvarez sees room for improvement. “The issue for us as a district is to begin to go deep,” he said. “Okay, our kids are doing well, they get great scores, but are we promoting the kind of environment in the classroom that prepares them not only to perform well on tests but also to be constructive learners and productive citizens?”
Raising Rye’s standard of excellence poses difficulties in the face of growing enrollments and a sluggish economy. Alvarez will have to contend with a statewide spending cap, costly federal and state mandates, and overburdened taxpayers who resist supporting budgets and capital expenditures they consider excessive. A $20 million bond issue for the addition of new science classrooms and other improvements was voted down in December. In March, after the cost was trimmed to $16.4 million, it passed by a large majority.
Addressing the economic concerns of Rye taxpayers will be a priority for Alvarez. The most important lesson he learned in Montclair, he said, is the need to engage the community in a dialogue that encourages a diversity of viewpoints. “Ultimately it promotes better decision making.”
Among Alvarez’s many challenges in the coming school year will be negotiation of the teachers’ contract, which expires June 30, 2013. Rye Teachers Association president Dr. Jaime Zung said of Alvarez, “I’m looking forward to a very productive time with him.” Asked what the superintendent’s top priority should be, Zung replied, “To maintain the excellence of the Rye City schools.” The two have met privately for a discussion on how to achieve that goal. “We need to get to know one another,” Zung said.
Alvarez agrees. “The relationship with the teachers for me and for this administration is going to be critical. We need to get everybody talking about what’s important for our kids and what’s important for our schools.” Rye’s new superintendent believes in maintaining a continuing conversation with the teachers, away from the collective bargaining table. “How we nurture those relationships will set the tone for how we deal with negotiations and legal issues as they come up,” he stressed.
On the matter of class size, Alvarez said, “The research tells us that lowering class size only matters if the teachers are doing something significantly different. If you have a class of 14 students, and they’re still sitting in rows and getting instruction the old-fashioned way, through rote learning, it doesn’t necessarily get you better results.” He added, “Small class size matters if, for example, the teachers are involving kids in Socratic seminars, in project-based learning, in putting the knowledge they’ve acquired to use in solving problems.
Alvarez emphasized that he is not advocating increasing class size. “The beauty of maintaining small class size is that it allows us to be much more creative, much more innovative, to foster problem-based learning in the classroom, and ultimately to raise student achievement.”
At a school board candidates’ forum in May, parents expressed concern that among peer school districts Rye is lagging in math achievement. “I’ve looked at some of the preliminary data, but I haven’t compared it with other districts,” Alvarez said. “My sense was that there’s definitely room for growth there.”
Team sports, arts, and music “are all critically important for providing a full education for students,” Alvarez said. “We know that kids who are more connected to sports are more connected to schools, and they also do better academically. The arts and music are not only a wonderful outlet for students, but they also reinforce a lot of the basic skills, and there’s research to support that.”
Selecting a school superintendent is arguably a school board’s most important task, since superintendents influence the tone, direction, and performance of a school system. But Alvarez believes that the complicated process of educating children requires a collective effort. “As a leader, you try to move in a certain direction and bring the resources to bear to influence the projects and initiatives, but it’s really everybody working together.”
Alvarez comes to Rye with high praise from those who have worked closely with him in Montclair. “One of the first things you’re struck with is how intelligent he is,” said John Carlton, a former president of the Montclair school board whose six-year tenure on the board coincided with Alvarez’s. “But he doesn’t need to let you know that. He’s a wonderful listener, very observant, has a good sense of humor, and is respectful of people.” He added: “All superintendents make an incredible first impression. He has staying power.” George Wirt, education reporter for the Montclair Times, commented: “On a professional level, he has always been fair and honest. On a personal level, he is a genuine good guy.”
Alvarez’s decision to leave Montclair with two years remaining on his contract took many there by surprise. “I was there for nine years, very successful years,” he said. “I was Montclair’s second longest sitting superintendent since the mid-1970s, and I felt we had made significant gains in improving student achievement, in special education, and in building a new elementary school, a $35 million project, which came in $9 million under budget. I really felt it was time for another challenge.”
Last year, Governor Chris Christie imposed a salary cap of $175,000 on New Jersey school superintendents. Alvarez admitted that “the salary cap had some impact, not major.” Still, he conceded that the cap “prevents superintendents like myself from looking within the state.” It’s no surprise, then, that there has been a marked exodus of superintendents from the Garden State to Westchester and Rockland Counties. In the past 18 months, Port Chester, Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, and Nyack, along with Rye, have hired former New Jersey superintendents.
Montclair, one of New Jersey’s premier school districts, is more than twice the size of Rye, and Alvarez oversaw 35 principals, assistant principals, and senior administrators in the schools and the central office. He will have 15 in Rye. Does that mean he will have to be more hands-on? “My style has always been to be hands-on and to be out in the schools seeing what’s happening in the classrooms,” he said. In Rye, he intends “to spend more time in the schools than perhaps people have been accustomed to in the past. The most important thing for me is teaching and learning.”
Because he’ll be commuting from his home in New Jersey, Alvarez anticipates a long working day. An early riser, he’s usually in his office by 7:30. “I will try to get to many school events outside of normal school hours, certainly football games in the fall,” he said. “I see that as part of my job. It’s important to be a part of the community and to represent the schools well. I will behave as if I lived here,” he said.
In his off-hours, Alvarez hikes and spends leisure time at his house at Diamond Beach near Cape May. His reading focuses on books about education. A recent favorite was “World Class Learners” by Yong Zhao, which contains strategies to help students become independent thinkers and entrepreneurs.
Education is the career choice for most of the Alvarez family: his wife Nancy has spent 27 years as an elementary school teacher in Montclair, and his son Travis, 22, is in the Teach for America program in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky.
Alvarez did not rule out moving to Rye some day. “It’s a beautiful community, with obvious advantages,” he said. For starters, he would avoid the commute over the Tappan Zee Bridge.