Rondout Valley Middle School Principal Charles Tadduni was recently named a New York State Middle School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State (SAANYS). The organization annually recognizes administrators in each of its 12 regions who stand out for their achievements. Tadduni, who represents the region that includes Ulster, Orange, Rockland and Sullivan counties, shared the honor statewide with Kevin Strahley in Broome County and Mary Beth Fierro of Oswego County. An awards ceremony will be held on May 4 in Latham, NY.
Tadduni will also be recognized as a National Distinguished Principal in a recognition program this fall in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
The SAANYS Middle School Principal of the Year award, with nominees selected by faculty, staff, parents and students, is given to a school administrator “who has set the pace, character and quality of education” for the children in their school and shown commitment to the students, families and staff. Honorees have also demonstrated exceptional contributions to the educational process.
In his six years as principal, Tadduni has implemented a number of innovative programs at the middle school to counteract the district’s rising poverty levels, which are indicated by the number of students who receive free or reduced-cost lunches. Five years ago that number was approximately 23 percent in the Rondout Valley, but is close to 50 percent today. “And that’s a huge jump, especially in such a short period of time,” notes Tadduni.
The percentage is of concern, he adds, because students from families living in poverty have unique challenges that affect their success in school; things that might include living in homes without heat or having to care for siblings after school because parents are working two and three jobs. “And it’s difficult then for students to switch gears when they get to school and be successful. So the question is, what can we do differently? We realized we can’t solve the issue of poverty in households, in our capacity as educators, so what can we do while they’re here?”
To help the teaching staff develop a greater understanding of the impact poverty has on students, Tadduni facilitated a book study using former teacher Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. Faculty members read a chapter a month and then brainstormed at monthly meetings to get the most out of the material, developing best practices along the way to share with one another.
“As opposed to being a philosophical guide or something preachy, the book offers real hands-on, practical strategies that teachers can use,” says Tadduni. “We know that building relationships with students is important, but it’s even more so with students living in poverty. They often have distrusting relationships with authority figures, whether that’s the police, the schools, or government agencies. So one of the key things that came out of the book study was that if we can bring down that barrier, and build relationships, that clearly gets us a leg up. The examples in the book show that if these students have one trusting relationship with one adult in the school, the statistics, in terms of their success and graduation, jump up off the page.”
One of the ways the district builds relationships now is through school-wide Monday morning homeroom discussions in which students start their day sitting in a circle discussing a specific topic with the teacher. “Things come up socially and politically, and we encourage teachers to have those conversations about things in the news that kids want to talk about,” Tadduni says.
“Another thing we did was to create an activity time for lunch and recess that students can partake in, whether it’s an art activity, band improv or yoga class with a teacher we have on staff who is a certified yoga instructor. When the students can choose to gravitate toward something they’re interested in, it gives teachers another opportunity to build relationships with students outside of the classroom. And it creates more opportunities when they’re available for conversation, so it helps to build community.”
Tadduni also wrote a grant for the school to become a “Farm to School” building, partnering with local growers to encourage good nutrition for the students by bringing in fresh, locally-grown produce. The middle school also houses several gardens and a greenhouse and serves whole foods in the cafeteria.
In an effort to help support students in managing stress, Tadduni has implemented mindfulness trainings as well as a yoga club, and two sensory rooms at the school support students with varying disabilities. The faculty benefits from mindfulness stress reduction techniques, as well, utilized at the start of each monthly faculty meeting.
On the horizon is the instigation of a “restorative justice” program at the school. Tadduni recently underwent training at the International Institute of Restorative Practices in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which works on the premise that people are more productive and more likely to make positive changes when those in authority do things with them, rather than to, or for them.
In terms of using the principles in a school setting, the program, if adopted, would allow students to resolve wrongs such as bullying in a manner that allows the victim a voice and the person who committed the wrong to make it right, as opposed to traditional punitive measures such as suspension. Family members affected by a school situation are also brought into the process. Tadduni says the school board and faculty have expressed interest in establishing the program at Rondout Valley Middle School, so the next step would be to work with the restorative practices institute to develop a training process for the school.
Tadduni received his bachelor and master of arts degrees from SUNY New Paltz and a School Building Leader certificate from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He has been with the Rondout Valley Central School District for 14 years, beginning as a teacher at the high school before becoming its assistant principal and then, six years ago, principal at the middle school.
He says he’s “honored, of course, and humbled” to receive the Middle School Principal of the Year award, noting that any time one gets such recognition it also brings with it the feeling of wanting to live up to it. “And it sounds corny, but I think it’s true, that when you get an award like this, it’s really a shared award. You get it because you stand on the shoulders of all the people working with you who are doing great work.”
Tadduni says he’s never forgotten the lesson he learned himself growing up in Brooklyn, awarded a scholarship to a private high school that focused a great deal on school spirit and traditions. “When you’re in a school that has a sense of pride, it really changes the atmosphere of how everybody feels and operates in the building.” Rondout Valley Middle School, with just 300 seventh- and eighth-graders and 50 faculty members, is small enough, he says, that a true sense of community is possible, where students are known as individuals and faculty and administration are close enough to share life concerns.
“The district is moving in the right direction, and that doesn’t happen by happenstance. I’ve had the opportunity since I’ve been here to hire some fantastic people, and we have teachers who go the extra mile, who share that same vision of creating a school community we can all be proud of where people are looking forward to coming to work every day. We’re all really excited and jazzed about what we’re doing.”