Despite the word “interim” in his title, the new superintendent of Hendrick Hudson schools shows no interest in simply keeping a seat warm for the next guy.
After more than 40 years of titles, from teacher in Yonkers to superintendent in North Rockland, Dr. Brian D. Monahan appears upbeat and eager to tackle the myriad challenges confronting today’s financially strapped public school administrators. “We’re doing more with less,” Monahan acknowledges on the eve of a new school year, but “we still expect the floors to shine when we walk in on opening day.”
“The challenge to do more with less is so critical,” he says, “because . . . for a kid in 7th grade, that’s the only time he’s going to be there. We have a responsibility to make sure that no matter how tough budgets become, he gets the best experience possible.”
After retiring in 2009 as superintendent of the 8,000-student North Rockland Central School District, Monahan took his skills and experience to Pace University in Pleasantville. He was teaching undergraduate courses in education and graduate courses in school administration when the 2,832-student Hendrick Hudson School District came calling this spring. The school board asked him to fill, at least for now, the vacancy created by Dr. Daniel T. McCann’s retirement after six years with the district. McCann announced in March that he planned to step down at the end of the school year.
That’s when Monahan stepped up, something that’s become a habit, on the job and off, for years. A Dobbs Ferry native, he’s been active not only in his chosen field—as a classroom teacher, administrator and college professor—but also in his community’s affairs, including service on the school and village boards as well as three terms as mayor.
“In my various roles—I’ve counted—I’ve been at over 700 board meetings,” he says.
Monahan met his wife, Terry, a fellow teacher, when he was pulling cafeteria duty in Yonkers in 1971. They have a grown daughter, Lisa.
While still at Yonkers, Monahan earned master’s degrees in English education (Iona College, 1972) and applied linguistics (Columbia University, 1977) before receiving a doctorate in language and literacy at Fordham University in 1982. He added a third master’s, in computer science, from Pace University in 1986, a year after moving from Yonkers to a decade-long run as associate vice president/vice provost at Iona College.
For 20 years, 1988 to 2008, Monahan also taught reading, technology and education as an adjunct professor at Fordham. In 1995, while still a village trustee, Monahan left Iona to join North Rockland as an administrator.
With the 2012-13 schoolhouse doors set to open today, Monahan took time last week to discuss a range of issues facing him as the latest schools chief on Trolley Road. They include a new, sometimes controversial approach to evaluating teachers and principals as well as new, sometimes controversial core-curriculum standards.
The state-mandated Annual Professional Performance Review Plan for educators—commonly called APPR, among other things—is a “challenge for us and, I think, for all school districts,” Monahan says. “It’s extremely data-driven and extremely specific.”
Enacted in 2010, but still being phased in, the APPR obligates each of the state’s almost 700 local school boards, for the first time, to install a system for assessing the effectiveness of every teacher and principal in its district.
While Monahan supports the law’s goals, “that doesn’t mean it is without work or challenges, especially as we do it, really, for the first time.”
Moreover, he says, it would be unfortunate if the law’s emphasis on student test scores devalued other classroom approaches to fostering understanding of the subject matter. Citing a class project in which students re-created the workaday world of a colonial village as an example, Monahan says, “You hope that you still have time to do things like that,” even if the benefits of such collateral efforts may be hard to relate directly to the questions on an exam.
Like APPR, common core curriculum standards now being implemented in Hendrick Hudson are a state mandate but part of a national education effort. Taking effect in 2014, the standards in New York and more than 40 other states are generally meant to increase the academic expectations placed on any student, from kindergartener through high school senior. But critics contend that the vast majority of Westchester school districts, well-funded and highly competitive, already exceed the standards spelled out by the state.
Hendrick Hudson’s senior-year science program, Monahan notes, “rivals what many kids across the country are doing in college. . . . The one-size-fits-all probably doesn’t apply as much here in Westchester as it does in other places, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have to do the work [of implementing the state's directive].”
Unlike a number of other districts, Hendrick Hudson has not added a pricey new administrator to oversee the curriculum initiative. Still, Monahan points out, “what it means is more work and finding time to do it.”
Implementation has fallen to Dr. Alice Gottlieb, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and professional personnel. “Dr. Gottlieb has done a great job with it,” Monahan says.
With the school bell poised to sound summer’s end, the new schools chief is bracing for longer days, for himself and, he hopes, his new young charges. Married—he met his wife, Terry, a fellow teacher, when he was pulling cafeteria duty in Yonkers in 1971—and father of a grown daughter, Monahan fully expects to be putting in 12-hour tours. Besides spending time behind his desk, he’ll show up at such things as soccer games, concerts and, of course, meetings of the HenHud school board.
As for students, Monahan is convinced they should at the very least be thinking beyond their last class of the day and looking for after-hours extracurriculars. Sending young people home at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Monahan maintains, “isn’t helping them grow as individuals.”
“All the research shows when kids are involved they do better in school, get in less trouble and have more-successful careers,” he notes. “So, that’s always been one of my goals. . . . We have an obligation to educate students, and I do believe that includes extracurricular activities.”