Jeffrey Evener just about bleeds Groton, his home town. A graduate of the Groton schools, he married Beth, also a Groton native, and eventually became the Junior/Senior High School Principal and Athletic Director of the district he grew up in. He is currently the Mayor of the Village of Groton. So why the move to Lansing Middle School?
Evener was Groton Middle School Principal when the district decided to switch from a three-school model -- elementary, middle school, high school -- to a two school approach in which the middle and senior high schools merged. He was appointed principal of the merged school, but he says that his heart is with the middle school age group and the new arrangement in Groton was not a good fit for him.
"I truly enjoyed my time in Groton," he says. "It became a very daunting challenge mentally and physically to keep up that pace. You know, going to junior high events and games and dances modified games running and also junior varsity and varsity and dances and proms and graduations... I really did enjoy it, but my heart is with the middle school age group. Those 10 to 14 year olds. That's what I taught. That's what I like. I like the fact that I could come to work every day and act like a 13 year old kid, so to speak. So Lansing seemed to be, on paper, a great fit."
Last Friday he met with the Lansing Star in his Lansing Middle School office. Among other things, he has been cleaning the space and moving out old files. The office is a bit spartan right now. But the man himself exudes enthusiasm and energy. We talked about his path to Lansing Middle School and about the philosophy and style he will bring.
Lansing Star: Where are you from and tell me about your family.
Jeff Evener: I was born and raised in Groton. I grew up in the Summer Hill area, which is just outside of Locke and right next door to Groton. I attended Groton Schools, K-12, class and 95, and never left.
I attended SUNY Cortland, got my undergrad and masters in my CAS at SUNY Cortland. My wife Beth is also a true blue Grotonite, born and raised. She attended Cortland as well. She's a 2005 graduate of SUNY Cortland, and most recently Syracuse University as a school counselor. We just celebrated our second anniversary this past July 26th.
What was your career path that led you to Lansing?
I graduated with an undergrad degree in 2002 from SUNY Cortland. I was able to get a job with the Auburn City School District as a 7th grade social studies teacher. I student taught 8th grade social studies in Auburn and I must impressed somebody along the way. I was at East middle school at the time -- it's now Auburn Junior High School. I taught some great social studies for a few years and in the meantime teaching summer school for Onandaga BOCES. I was working on my Masters degree and then went right into my certificate of advanced study in educational leadership SUNY Cortland as well.
From the classroom I was hired as the K-12 social studies curriculum supervisor. At the time there were four of us, one for each of the four core areas. A great group of people to work with. I learned a lot about curriculum instruction. And then from there I was promoted to director of secondary curriculum. I served in that capacity for a number of years. In total my time there was 9 years -- five years as a teacher and four years as an administrator.
Three years ago and opportunity came about to go back to my hometown as the Middle School Principal and Athletic Director. It was hard to leave Auburn. Auburn became my second home. I made a lot of friends and still have a number of friends there -- dear friends. I still miss working there. I miss the kids. One of my former student is playing minor-league baseball. I can't believe I had him in seventh grade. He was just a little guy at the time.
What was your time like in the Groton district?
I was fortunate to get the job in Groton. For two years I served in the capacity of middle school principal and Athletic Director. And then we restructured a bit.
The dynamics of the district had changed. Enrollment was decreasing so the Board of Education, Superintendent, leadership team and a few staff members were working on going back to a Junior/Senior high school model which it was when I went to school there. It was 7 through through 12.
So we went through a transition to let to a two school model as opposed to a three school model. Elementary school, per-K to five, Junior/senior high school 6 to 12. I assume the duties of junior/senior high school principal my last year in Groton and I truly enjoyed my time in Groton.
But like a lot of communities like Groton, it's very small, insular. You know everybody. You're related to a lot of people. So it became a very daunting challenge mentally and physically to keep up that pace. You know, going to junior high events and games and dances modified games running and also junior varsity and varsity and dances and proms and graduations. I really did enjoy it, but my heart is with the middle school age group.
That's what attracted you here?
It was surprising. I didn't realize Jamie (Thomas, former Lansing MS Principal) was going to retire. His and my paths had crossed through BOCES, at regional principals meetings. He is just a terrific, terrific human being. Big shoes to fill for sure. So from Groton I came here. I've been here since July 29.
After just one month, how do you like it here?
I am just so impressed. I mean, I had high expectations to begin with of the people here. I know a lot of people from Lansing. The Lansing and Groton communities are pretty close. But the level of commitment and care and dedication that I've seen in parents, students, the teachers, my office staff, district office staff. They have been so welcoming.
It's almost a dream come true. They say 'pinch me.' It's just been fantastic since I've been here. I'm just so elated and lucky, very fortunate to be hired here. Lansing has a very excellent reputation for their academics, athletics, as a school community and as a town and as a whole community.
The people have been great and I'm just so fortunate to be here. I go home every day and tell my wife I'm so lucky. I'm so lucky. I'm so so so lucky. And not to slight my old job -- it just wasn't a good fit for me. I'm a middle school person. That's what I got my masters degree in, early secondary social studies education. So I like this age group and it's a better niche for me.
What prompted you to run for Village of Groton Mayor?
I've always been interested in politics. My grandfather, Barney Marlette, was mayor for a number of years. His gavel is on the shelf there. It's always been something I wanted to do. About eight years ago I was poked and prodded into running for the Village Board. I served one term as a Trustee. The Mayor at the time decided he wasn't going to run again. It created an opportunity. I had to be talked into it. Being Mayor is quite a responsibility. I'm in the tail end of my third and last term. It will end next March.
Are you running for a fourth term?
It's time for somebody else. It's time for fresh ideas. You hear the term 'career politician' -- that's not me. We have the resources and the people in place to continue to make Groton a great place.
It's been a lot of fun. I've met a lot of great people and learned a lot of things. One of my career aspirations is to be a superintendent of schools. There are a lot of parallels to that. Working with a board, working with a community, budgeting, capital projects, community relations.
It's time for somebody else. It's time for me to concentrate on my career -- family is number one, and career, too. I really want to invest myself here.
You have a longer commute now.
It's a nice ride. When I was working at Groton it was less than a mile so I never really had time to wind up or wind down. Even though it takes about 15 minutes to get here, it's enough time to debrief, to wind down a bit, then go home, go to the gym, and do whatever I need to do to be present for my wife. I think that's important.
What have you been doing in your first month here?
In cleaning out the office I've learned quite a bit. There were names I recall on memos. Bob Service and Gordon Clump. Mr. Clump was my school superintendent when I was going to school in Groton. I'm getting to know the office staff and the custodial crew, a top notch crew here. Unbelievable. They've been working day and night to get this place ready for opening day.
Meeting parents, meeting students who are coming in to get their locker combinations, their supply lists. I'm getting the lay of the land. I've taken myself on some unguided tours throughout the building.
The people I've met are amazing. They are so friendly and helpful.
Have you met with the faculty yet?
Some of the faculty. A lot of teachers have been coming in to get their rooms set up. Talk about exemplifying dedication to teaching. The building has been quite full with staff. It's been nice to put names with faces and opening day I will know some of the staff.
Tell me about your personal style as Principal.
I will be out of this office more than I am in it. Paper work is meant for when staff and students aren't here. I know there is stuff that has to get done in the office, but my number one priority is that I'm visible. I'm there to greet the kids in the morning. I'm there waving goodbye in the afternoon when the busses are leaving. Rain, sleet, snow, it doesn't matter. It's important for me to be there for the students to let them know I am their principal, yes, but also here to support you, guide you and make sure that your four years here are great.
This is a good district, but every district has its challenges. What do you see as key challenges the district and/or the middle school faces in the coming school year?
I think every school system is in the same boat now. We're into the fifth year of the common core learning standards. We're in the second or third year of the Regents' reform agenda. The challenge for me as a building principal and part of a larger administrative team is insuring our teachers have the knowledge and resources to do these things well.
Because they're being asked to do a lot. I believe there are a lot of misconceptions about what the common core is. The common core is simply a list of standards. We had new standards in 1998. We had new standards in 1995. I see these as just the next generation of standards. They're still asking kids to read, write, listen and speak. That hasn't changed.
The degree to which students do that has ramped up incredibly. So the gap I need to help fill is the gap between what our teachers know and are able to dio right now and the tools for professional development I get get in their hands to do their job at a higher level, and with a degree of efficiency, because they are being asked to do a lot more in the same amount of time. I see that as the key challenge for administrators.
People look at us as the experts on the common core learning standards, but we're learning them at the same rate as everybody else. So we're tying to sink our teeth into what reading look like at grades 5, 6, 7, 8, and what is the progression for those reading standards. And what does it olook like in practice. That's the conversation.
Getting teachers to collaborate more, to talk about professional practice. That's where the challenge is, in providing that time.
Just about every educator I have spoken to for as long as I can remember has lamented that federal and state standards have forced them to 'teach to the test', not leaving time to teach their subjects in a well rounded way. Is it possible to provide a well rounded education any more?
We can provide a well rounded education. That's our job as a school that embraces the the middle school concept of teaching the whole child. The academic, the social, the emotional, the psychological. We can do this.
Tests have always been around. Tests are never going away. You need to get your driver's license -- take a test. To be a lawyer -- take a test. To be a doctor -- take a test. To be a teacher -- take a test. So tests aren't going anywhere. We're always being asked to take tests.
I don't think it's a bad thing that we're assessing our students' abilities on what they know and are able to do. That's part of learning.
We should be teaching these kids how to take tests as part of their education. taking the test and understanding what it is asking you is just as important as the questions on the test. Test taking is a skill. So they should be part of our curriculum. When a student sits down in fifth grade for the ELS State Assessment what that test looks like should not be a surprise to the student. It should be a walk in the park for them.
Teaching kids how to take the test is a small part of a larger curriculum we should be teaching.
But do the mandated tests leave time to do that?
I think any teacher will say there is never enough time. You could lengthen the school year to 300 days. There wouldn't be enough time to teach everything you should teach and everything you want to teach.
Can we do it well with the time we have? Yes, absolutely. From what I've seen in the very short month I've been here, the faculty and staff at Lansing Central School District is top notch. They will do anything they're asked to do and do it well.
At the same time, as an administrator I see state assessment scores as one subset of data that we use to make decisions. It is not what we base all of our decisions on. I see those state tests as a dipstick of where we're at at the time. These are some of the knowledge and skills that either they did well on, or we need to focus on in the following school year.
I wish the data turnaround was a lot quicker, but it's not. It's just one small piece of our overall decision making process. The more stress you put on the test, you'll be chasing your tail. If all you focus on is chasing test scores you'll never get there. But if we concentrate on curriculum, instruction to master curriculum and assessments that match what students need to know, we're going to continue to offer a robust education. Our kids will do well on the tests as a byproduct of that.
This school has used a team model where parent/teacher meetings are with the team and not with individual teachers. That makes it difficult for parents who want to speak to one teacher about their student's performance in a specific class. What is your approach to teacher-parent communication?
My philosophy is that parent communication is a hill worth dying on. It is something that, as an industry and a profession, we should be doing on a consistent, regular basis. Who knows these students the best? Parents do. We should be using these parents as a resource to find ways to get students to perform, behaviorally and academically. I see parents as a resource. I've never seen relationships with parents as adversarial.
If we're not communicating, shame on us. As a former teacher and in the role I am in now I talk to parents constantly. I find parents to be so helpful in getting to the root causes of many problems that students face in school.
I'm adamant about teachers talking to parents. If I have staff members who are uncomfortable doing so I am the type of leader that will sit in the room with you. I'll sit in the room and help you make a parent phone call. I've learned tips and strategies along the way. (Contact parents) early and often, shock and awe approach. Even if it's positive phone calls: Mikey did a great job today in class. I just wanted you to know that.
Whether it's a quick email or a quick phone call, that builds a lot of trust. I think it helps teacher's job in the long run. It makes their job easier if they can put deposits in the parents' bank account, so to speak, when something good happens, so you're not only contacting parents when it's a negative thing.
Parents want to hear that stuff, too. We should be doing it. It's part of our job, and it's something I do expect of my staff, for them to be communicating with families.
What's your view on parents volunteering in a middle school?
If parents are willing to give up their time, why would we ever say no? We can take all the help we can get. If the student's experience in school is a good one the parents will have a good experience with the school, too. it's a reciprocal relationship. I want parents to be able to trust the school.
When it comes to parent volunteers, that's great. I love having adults in the building. It's good for students to see their parents in the school. From a principal's perspective if I have a dad walking around the building helping out and the child sees them, I'll bet their behavior will be good for a while.
I like the idea of parents in the building. The school should be welcoming to parents as much as we possibly can.
There has been some resentment of the charter school, because of the perception that it is siphoning money from Lansing's budget. But it seems to me that small rural school districts can't realistically be all things to all students. The first administrator who actually took a positive approach to New Roots was (Superintendent) Chris Pettograsso. She visited the school, and reported on her experience to the Board Of Education. She asked what Lansing could learn about what they do there that might be incorporated into Lansing's school culture in order to serve students who might otherwise choose the charter school.
Do you think a small district like Lansing with limited resources can be all things to all students, or should it embrace resources like a charter school to serve those few students who aren't or can't be served here?
Limited resource is a relative term. I was watching a video of Ray McNulty -- I think he was the Vermont State Education Commissioner at one point. He said something to this effect: 'I've seen public schools, Catholic schools, charter schools, private, not for profit schools. I've seen great ones and bad ones.' So I think we should all be looking at each other. I don't care what kind of school you are. What is it that New Roots is doing for that child? I think Chris hit the nail on the head with that one. What can we replicate here?
But the essential question is, what is it the student needs from us? And we must find opportunities and ways to make that happen. I can think of so many examples. One of my favorite students in Groton ended up at New Roots and was doing great. I was proud of her. I wasn't upset because my tax money was going to a charter school. It doesn't matter to me as long as she is getting a quality education, is getting a high school diploma. She's going to go on to college. And she's happy. At the end of the day if the student's not happy how engaged are they going to be in the classroom? How much are they going to want to participate in the extra curricular activities that we have here?
So I think we should be asking each other, what does this child need?
Teachers have a lot to jam into each day. How much time should they spend with any individual student who may need a little push or some extra help to succeed in school?
If a teacher says 'I don't have time' I say 'Yes you do.' What can I take off your plate to provide you time?' That is my job as a principal.
What are you most looking forward to on the first day of school?
I'm looking forward to seeing the kids. Seeing the staff, too. Everyone comes to school, dressed in their best. It's a great day. There is a lot of high energy. I can't wait to see them get off the bus.
And I want to see how this place operates when everyone is here. I don't have that sense right now because the actual business of what we're here to do isn't happening right now.
I'll end up following a couple of classes. I'll definitely be out in the hallways to see the ebbs and flows, and where the hot spots are. Those types of things. I always love the first day of school.
The best part of being an educator is, as adults we get to start over again every year. Students do, too. I always say this to students: if they say 'I had a down seventh grade year'... well guess what? You're going into eighth grade. You get to start all over again. That's the best part of what we do. We can reinvent ourselves every year, into something new, something different.
That's why I got into education. Where else can you reinvent yourself. It's such a great profession, and we get to work with kids. What's better than that?