The Colgate Scene
September 2003

Donnelly's rules

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

"...the real challenge is preparing kids for a future we have not yet seen."

A decade ago, after only two months as principal of Dolgeville (N.Y.) Junior-Senior High School, Jim Donnelly '82 would have had every right to entertain second thoughts about his new job.

During a Friday night dance at the school, Donnelly found himself being thrown against the wall while a former student -- who had been expelled for violence -- threatened to harm him and his family.

"I was hired to deal with a perceived problem with student discipline. If a kid swore at a teacher, he would be sent down to the office, the principal would talk to the student and send him back to class," said Donnelly. "There was a sense of a lack of accountability on behalf of kids, a lack of support for teachers, and the district had gone through five high school principals in nine years."

By the evening of that dance in 1993, Donnelly had issued more disciplinary referrals (suspensions) in two months than had been issued during the entire previous school year, including a group of girls caught with drug paraphernalia who were friends of the enraged former student. Although the local police were summoned, no arrests were made immediately, but an accomplice of Donnelly's assailant issued a chilling warning to the new principal while being led away.

"He said, `We know how to get even with you,'" Donnelly said. Because of the threats, Donnelly decided against moving his family to Dolgeville for several years, choosing to commute from his home 40 miles away.

"The first three to five years here were discouraging. It was a real battle. But I had a lot of support from the board and the community, and there was a job to be done," he said. "At the same time, the reason I went into education was to make a difference."

There is little doubt that Donnelly has succeeded in making a difference in Dolgeville. The percentage of Dolgeville students graduating with state Regents diplomas has grown by 80 percent, the number of students passing Regents examinations in English, American history, global studies, earth science and biology has increased between 90 and 300 percent and the number of suspensions has dropped by more than half.

In recognition of these and other accomplishments, Donnelly has been named the 2002 New York State Secondary School Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the School Administrators Association of New York State. (Just before press time, Donnelly was named one of three finalists for National Secondary School Principal of the Year.)

In nominating Donnelly for the award, a number of teachers noted that before his arrival, a mere 27 percent of Dolgeville students graduated with a Regents diploma. In addition, they wrote, he encourages students to think of higher education by offering the opportunity to earn college credit hours through an advanced placement program he established with a local community college.

The credit for the increased performance and success of Dolgeville's students is not his alone, Donnelly insists.

"Every adult, each board member, administrator, teacher, teacher assistant, secretary, cafeteria worker, custodian, bus driver, hall monitor, substitute and volunteer has played a significant role in making this a great place for our kids to live and grow," he said. "Without their tireless effort and dedication to our kids, this recognition would not have been possible."

At the center of Donnelly's efforts to change the disciplinary environment at Dolgeville are two basic rules.

"Number one, the most important thing that happens in our school happens in the classroom. If anybody does anything to undermine the ability of a teacher to teach, or an adult in the conduct of his or her job, it is not tolerated. Cursing at a teacher is a five-day suspension right off the bat. Then, we'll talk," said Donnelly. "Number two, every child, every student, every adult has the right to come to school or to work without fear of harassment, ridicule or being assaulted. Fighting is unacceptable, period."

Bringing about significant change at what is now a middle/senior high school took place during a time of great economic uncertainty for the town, located between the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains and the Mohawk Valley. The shoe manufacturer Daniel Green had been an anchor of the local economy for nearly a century. Its presence and that of other small manufacturers meant there were jobs waiting for local high school graduates. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was enacted, Donnelly predicted it would have a negative impact on Daniel Green's local operations. Meeting with parents and local townspeople at several public meetings, as well as with students, Donnelly delivered the same message.

"I said, `You can no longer count upon working at Daniel Green,'" said Donnelly. "I was speaking prophetically, I guess, because within seven years Daniel Green closed down. There was a real tug-of-war going on, because it was difficult convincing -- without conveying disrespect for the traditions of the community -- children and families that the world they are going to live in was going to be far different. All too often in education we are driving forward down the road while looking in the rear view mirror. We base what we teach our children upon our experience, our background, and the real challenge is preparing kids for a future we have not yet seen."

Of course, rural Dolgeville is hardly immune to the problems of the present, be they drug abuse, broken families, domestic violence or poverty. Within the school district, which straddles the border of two counties, at least half -- and perhaps as much as 60 percent -- of students receive free or reduced-cost lunches.

"There's a lot of pride in a rural community. We have many families that have to provide for themselves and supplement their dinner table through growing their own food and by hunting game," Donnelly said.

"A major thrust in the school is, how do we address the issues of generational poverty? There is research suggesting that a child coming out of generational poverty will come into a school with a vocabulary of about five thousand words, whereas a middle-class child will have a ten- to fifteen-thousand-word vocabulary, and a wealthy student will have about twenty thousand. Our job is to take those five-thousand-word kids and make them into fifteen-thousand-word kids."

Looking ahead, Donnelly is preparing for his next career challenge. He thinks about becoming a school superintendent, although he confesses there is something about the often-frenetic life of a principal that continues to have a hold on him.

"I remember reading Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America while at Colgate and thinking how corny and how irrelevant it was. But I am seeing de Tocqueville come alive now," said the former political science major. "I believe de Tocqueville wrote that because America is good, America is great. From the moment that America stops being good, it will stop being great. That passage always haunted me because I never understood it. Now, working in a high-need rural district and also being exposed to education, I can see how adult irresponsibility has impacted our children. In many ways, politicians sustain their careers based upon expediency and the economy's performance and ignore the greater issues of societal good. The residual costs are great. But, how we treat the poor, how we treat children is a great measure of what we value as a society. It is also an indicator of where we as a people will be in the future. If we do not support the moral and fiscal building of families and schools today, we will most likely be expected to build bigger prisons tomorrow."

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