Beloved principal bids farewell: Deb Rodgers retires after 12 years at Phillips Avenue


The final day of faculty at Phillips Avenue Elementary College Friday will end like most final days in class years previous, with the annual fourth-grade “clap out” — a particular send-off for college students transferring as much as Pulaski Avenue College.

However this yr will likely be completely different. Will probably be the final “clap out” for Phillips Avenue Principal Debra Rodgers, who, after 12 years on the helm of the Riverside elementary college, will bid her “Phillips household” a last farewell.

Rodgers, 56, is retiring after 33 years as an educator — 18 of them in Riverhead, starting in July 2004. She got here to Riverhead from Eastport-South Manor and began as principal at Roanoke Avenue Elementary College and moved to Phillips in 2010 on the request of then-Superintendent Nancy Carney.

In her workplace final week, surrounded by memorabilia, photographs and books — with a pet she’s elevating for Canine Companions at her aspect — Rodgers mirrored on her time at a faculty that’s been her second house for the previous dozen years. Lots has modified since in that point, beginning with the demographics of group served by the college.

“After I first got here right here, it was just about a cut up, 33% throughout the board, white, Hispanic and Black,” Rodgers mentioned. “And that has considerably modified. We’re over 80% Hispanic at this level.”

Rodgers mentioned the college employees is at all times asking, “How can we make it higher? How can we serve our college students? What are we doing to finest meet their wants?”

That has led to the event of revolutionary new approaches, equivalent to the twin language program at Phillips, the place greater than 60% of the scholars are English language learners.

This system works as a result of it strengthens the scholars’ abilities of their native language, which helps them grasp a brand new language, she mentioned.

The twin language program has led to college students graduating from the highschool with dual-language and bi-literacy abilities.

“You set that in your resume, you’re some very nice ability units while you graduate college- and career-ready,” Rodgers mentioned.

Phillips established the district’s first school-based meals pantry, which took place on account of conversations with employees members in regards to the wants of Phillips college students. They mentioned how college trip meant many college students within the college wouldn’t have constant entry to meals, she mentioned.

In response to State Schooling Division information, 70% of the college’s 565 college students are economically deprived.

“It really began with a pancake breakfast,” Rodgers recalled. “And once more, it’s a testomony to the employees right here.” Employees members volunteered to return to the college the day earlier than Thanksgiving, when college was closed. They donated all of the meals and all the pieces else and served breakfast to college students and their households, serving about 700 individuals all through the morning, Rodgers mentioned.

“After which from there, it was like, OK, so now what different outreach can we do?”

Rodgers mentioned they began speaking with Island Harvest about opening a meals pantry.

“Our head custodian at the moment agreed to wash out the closet,” she mentioned. And the Phillips Avenue meals pantry was born. It had quite a lot of help proper from the beginning. The Riverhead Central School Affiliation does annual meals drives for us and native organizations donated meals and different items.

“Due to superb donations,” Rodgers mentioned, the college has been in a position to provide each scholar with a backpack and all of their college provides. “A household shouldn’t have to decide on between a meal or their child’s college provides,” she mentioned.

“There actually is just not a single factor that I’ve completed alone,” Rodgers mentioned. “It actually, actually is a bunch effort and a group effort. And never simply the employees right here. However this group rallies like no group I’ve ever been in,” she mentioned. “And you realize, I’m thrilled to really be a resident of this group as effectively, residing in Aquebogue.”

Principal Debra Rodgers and fourth-grader Kevin Maas exterior Phillips Avenue Elementary College final week. Picture: Denise Civiletti

From the second a scholar attends kindergarten orientation, Rodgers mentioned, the college “welcomes the scholar and their household to out Phillips Avenue household.” Rodgers burdened the significance of getting households accomplice of their kids’s schooling.

The varsity strives to interrupt down boundaries, so “college isn’t this place that you simply solely get a name from in case your child’s in hassle,” Rodgers mentioned.

“The lecturers are doing an incredible job reaching out to households and connecting with them. And we’ve elevated that with COVID in several and distinctive methods,” she mentioned. The aim is to make Phillips “actually only a welcoming place and having the college grow to be the middle of this group.”

Rodgers mentioned when she first began at Phillips, quite a lot of lecturers within the district didn’t even know the place the college was. Because the district’s solely college “throughout the river,” in Southampton City, it typically felt separated from the remainder of the district.

The brand new principal set about to alter that, internet hosting each attainable district-wide assembly on the college, to verify individuals who labored at different faculties and oldsters whose kids went to different faculties within the district acquired to see Phillips and get to know “this superb college and this superb group,” Rodgers mentioned.

“We we’ve completed rather a lot to point out individuals the worth of of Phillips Avenue and and this group,” she mentioned.

Not the entire adjustments over time have been constructive although. The present menace local weather arising after a number of college shootings and measures faculties have needed to implement to guard college students and employees has had emotional impacts on everybody.

“You understand, previous to Sandy Hook, I by no means questioned whether or not I used to be going to be house that night time or not,” Rodgers mentioned. After the Sandy Hook bloodbath, that chance grew to become a actuality for lecturers and principals throughout the nation. “By no means, ever did that enter my thoughts.”

The brand new actuality made college directors take a tough take a look at issues and put together college students for the worst-case situation, and do it in a delicate, incremental means, Rodgers mentioned. There’s a district-wide college administration plan and “we’re protected,” Rodgers mentioned. “And so we educate youngsters we’re protected at each meeting.” The employees goes over emergency procedures to assist kids stay calm within the occasion of an emergency of any variety, she mentioned: discover your instructor, know which door is the emergency exit to make use of, know what to do and the place to go.

“Situational consciousness,” Rodgers mentioned.

Bringing dad and mom into the method is essential, she mentioned. “We allow them to know we’re doing all the pieces attainable to maintain their kids protected. We take security and safety extraordinarily critical,” she mentioned.

“I’ve been so blessed to do one thing that I used to be meant to do from the next energy — one thing that I’m extraordinarily enthusiastic about,” Rodgers mentioned. “And I believe main with love is actually sort of at its core, what I’ve tried to do,” she mentioned.

“And in main with love, it means that you’re accepting, welcoming and embracing everyone. And whereas my historical past could also be very completely different than others, we’ve got quite a lot of similarities, proper? And this group has been extraordinarily accepting of who I’m, and of my household and my spouse,” she mentioned.

“And those who aren’t accepting of who I select to like, settle for me for the contributions that I give right here at college. And so whereas we’d not agree on all the pieces, finally, we would like what’s finest for teenagers. I believe it’s at its core,” Rodgers mentioned.

“It’s a testomony to this group and the employees right here at Philips Avenue, is we’ve at all times saved that on the forefront. It’s in regards to the youngsters. And the employees has gone above and past for teenagers. It’s at all times ‘youngsters first’ right here at Phillips.”

Chrissie Turner of Flanders mentioned that’s been her household’s expertise at Phillips. “The youngsters come first,” she mentioned.

“All of the lecturers had been fabulous as a result of they work together with her,” she mentioned.

“Phillips actually is a household,” she mentioned.

“Not solely did my youngsters have an incredible college expertise however I made a lifelong buddy,” Turner mentioned. “I like her, I actually do.”

Melissa Copobianco, additionally a Flanders resident and a mom of 4 — three of whom have graduated from Phillips — echoed that sentiment.

She mentioned Rodgers is “an exquisite, mild individual, who could be very variety and thoughtful — affected person, understanding of the completely different dynamics kids come to high school with… She had such an influence on my kids. They’ve taken away a lot on tips on how to advocate for themselves and the way they really feel, and figuring out it’s OK to be distinctive.”

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