Back to school
LAKE PLACID – Roger Catania took over as superintendent of the Lake Placid Central School District in the last month of the 2013-14 school year. The Enterprise sat down with him at the beginning of August to talk about why he wanted the job, his philosophy of schooling and working with an entirely new leadership team in the district.
Catania, 50, started working in schools when he was 22, beginning as a teaching assistant and basketball coach, then becoming a teacher once he got his degree.
He is married to Amy Catania, who runs Historic Saranac Lake, and the pair have lived together with their sons James, 10, and Louis, 13, in Saranac Lake since 1997.
Catania is originally from Scarsdale in Westchester County, and went to Binghamton University. His first teaching job was at an inner-city school in New York City. He then moved to Oregon, where he spent 11 years as a social studies teacher and a school counselor.
He moved back east about 16 years ago when he got a job as a school counselor in Lake Placid, working primarily with the middle and high school.
“And I absolutely loved it, and I became very connected with the kids and with families and with staff,” Catania said. “I have always thought very highly of our school.”
After that, he decided to earn a doctorate degree at the University of Virginia. His family moved down with him for part of the time, and he was there alone at other points, visiting Saranac Lake when he could. Last year, he taught a one-year visiting professorship at Alfred University in western New York, coming home on the weekends.
“It’s been a lot of traveling over four years,” Catania said. “The car’s taken a beating.”
Now that Catania is superintendent, he’s staying put, but working long hours and late nights to get everything done.
The following is an edited version of the Enterprise’s interview with Catania.
Why were you attracted to this area in the first place?
In some ways, the same reason a lot of people are: because it’s a beautiful area. This is a unique area in that we’re in the middle of a park. So, of course, we have the nature’s beauty, but we also have thriving communities, and that’s somewhat unique. You know, in the middle of national parks, you don’t have that. But in the middle of the Adirondack Park, you do.
But actually for me, and for my family, one of the things we really liked about communities here was how we have a lot of generational continuity. People who do grow up here have roots here. And I mean this in all the best senses of the word – that there’s a lot of commitment to the communities here.
So I think that’s true in Lake Placid. And I think it’s true in Saranac Lake. Kids can leave, but they generally don’t, because this is home. There’s this great commitment to the community, but there’s great commitment to extended family. So even our kids who do come from tougher backgrounds can often rely on friends, but also extended family who are out there to support them.
We kind of saw that because we were out west, and to some extent in suburban New York, you could see how transient people are, and you could see how much there’s this sprawling sense of growth, kind of unrestricted growth, and I think that affects people in ways that’s disjointing and it’s isolating in some ways.
And what’s great about this area is I don’t think you really have that isolation. You certainly don’t have that sprawl, because the Adirondacks don’t allow for it in communities. So you have these really unique solid villages and small cities that people become connected to and they commit to and they stay.
Not everybody stays. Winters are kind of cold. But people who last the first winter, they’re committed.
Why did you want this position?
This was for me an opportunity to try, for me personally, to do something different and new. Different because it’s not something I had originally planned to do. It was also an opportunity for me to make a contribution where I thought it could be made.
The district was at a point where it was really dealing with three very challenging situations all at once: financial difficulties, a heavy state education reform agenda that we were trying to manage and then struggling with the leadership issues here, which brought about a lot of change and transition. So there’s a lot of uncertainly and a lot of insecurity and as a result, I think, a real drop in morale.
And so for me, the opportunity to make a difference was that I could come back to a place where I knew and valued the people – the kids, the parents, the faculty – and could have what I think of as a broad perspective on schooling – on schooling in general and also in this district – and would have a sense of all those things that, a) we do very well here and b) where we’re struggling so maybe I could help us bring us together in order to move past these three challenging pieces.
Certainly, I can’t change the state reform agenda right now, but we’re going into the second year, and so I think helping to manage our comfort with it is something that I think I can contribute.
Certainly, I can’t change the financial situation, it is what it is, but I think what I can do is to help understand where people’s priorities are and help us to craft a budget that reflects those priorities. And that’s priorities across a broad pace of people, and I think that’s part of it, is that my hope is that the way I can contribute is through listening and understanding a variety of perspectives throughout the school district – the schools, the school district and the community – and try and operate with an understanding so that we can shape some goals and some priorities that reflect where we are.
I have a lot of trust and respect for the people in this community, so I really do want to help us to build programs here as well as budgets here that reflect the energy, the enthusiasm, the commitment that they have.
What’s your philosophy of schooling – how a school should be run or how a school district should be run?
I guess I would mention three things. I think that we need to help create a supportive and welcoming environment, a place where people want to be and feel valued. That’s number one, so I think the environment matters tremendously.
I think the second thing, it has to be an engaging environment. I’m talking very much for kids, but not just kids, also grown-ups. In other words, people need to be actively involved in what we’re doing here. So kids can’t just be passive recipients of information, teachers can’t just take orders and deliver them. They’ve got to be actively engaged.
And the third thing is, this all has to be towards a goal that involves a high level of achievement that, you know, we want to feel good about what we’re doing, we want to get involved in what we’re doing, but we want to be working towards a culture of achievement.
How are you finding the position of superintendent so far?
I’ve been doing this now for about two months, two-and-a-half months. In some ways I find it very exciting.
I’m learning a lot. I’m learning a lot about aspects of this school district that I wasn’t as familiar with. I’m learning a lot about building maintenance; I’m learning a lot about food services; I’m learning a lot about transportation services; I’m learning a lot about buildings and grounds; I’m learning about academic areas with which I wasn’t quite as familiar.
So that part’s really exciting. I’m somebody that has really embraced a career in education for what I think of as a genuine interest and appreciation for what we’re all about. So learning and becoming a part of these aspects is something that I really value and have enjoyed so far.
That being said, I’m amazed at how hard people work. I’m amazed at how much people expect of others who work here, including the superintendent. I think the superintendent’s job – it’s a big job; it’s a big commitment.
So I’m also learning just how much there is to do, how many pieces of the district that I need to be working closely with and be involved with. And so while it’s exciting and it’s enjoyable, it’s also, I don’t know, it’s a lot.
It’s certainly a challenge. Yeah, it’s a big challenge.
Can you talk about working with three brand-new principals?
Yeah, it’s the best part of the last month. One of my first responsibilities even before I took this job was to get involved in the principal searches and the principal hires.
And it was fabulous. We had a large number of candidates, a really inclusive participation and selection, and then, the good thing is that that resulted in three terrific people. And they’ve come in here with all kinds of energy and enthusiasm, very optimistic, and a real desire to work as a team. That’s what we’ve really started to forge here. The three of them work really well together. I feel like I’m enjoying working really well with them.
I’m really impressed with them. I’m impressed with how much they’ve learned in a short period of time, I’m impressed with their attitude toward the students that we have and to teachers that they’re just getting to know, and their willingness to learn about things here that, you know, again, it’s a new school for them. So there’s lots of things to learn, and again, like me, they’re learning about the buildings and all the different aspects of schooling beyond just the classrooms.
But yeah, I think we’ve had a terrific month, and I’m looking forward to preparing for the start of the school year. I think we’re all really excited about the start of the school year when we can actually get to work with all the students, teachers and staff.