Patch asked Ellen Doherty to share some thoughts a few months into her third year as the head of John Jay High School. Doherty joined the Katonah Lewisboro School District in 2003, after working at Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES as a social worker and program supervisor. She started as the Assistant Director of Special Services, was later promoted to Director of Special Services, and in 2008 was appointed principal at John Jay. Doherty is also a licensed clinical social worker. She lives in the town of Cortlandt.
Bedford-Katonah Patch: How do the curriculum choices at the high school address the needs of a variety of students?
Ellen Doherty: We have a wide range of choices and we’re going to improve them with our long range plan. We have students in Advanced Placement classes, classes that provide college credit, great humanities and science research programs and a modern American culture series. What we’re working toward is meeting the needs of diverse students with different interests, learning styles and ability levels. We think about meeting students fundamental needs so when they do identify a passion, they are equipped to pursue it.
Bedford-Katonah Patch: And how will the long range plan improve upon what’s offered?
Doherty: We can enhance what we offer by increasing internship and experiential learning and offering more hybrid online options. For example, you might have a class with too low an enrollment at one school to justify offering it. With a hybrid model, you could open it up to other area high schools, and students could be taking a class along with a teacher and their peers across town. The other advantage of the hybrid is actually getting to meet the students from that class, more than once a semester—so it’s not just online relationships but authentic opportunities to meet those kids. This offers a benefit to students here, where there is not a lot of diversity.
Bedford-Katonah Patch: What other ways does the school prepare them for a global world?
Doherty: Well, we have fairly sophisticated students—many of whom have had worldly experiences with their own families—but we think there’s a way in which people learn together and problem solve together here, and there are ways to encourage meaningful engagement. One way is through clubs and athletics, that’s an important piece. We hear from colleges and employers that the skills that are valued and important are different now—students have to communicate effectively, but also be literate online and understand new media. They will be living in a global world and will encounter others who have had dissimilar experiences. So the more practice they have working alongside others, making decisions together, the better. We think about how we can best prepare them for life beyond John Jay—military, work or college.
Bedford-Katonah Patch: Do you think the district is out in front of some national changes in education?
Doherty: We are not inventing a new wheel, but we have done some bold, thoughtful things. For example, we eliminated non-essential regents to redesign classes and assessments to incorporate 21st century learning skills [like critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration.] New York State Education Commissioner Steiner has supported this idea.
Bedford-Katonah Patch: What are you proud of?
Doherty: The long range plan, the opportunities we have already created for students and the support of school board to clear our path to do this work. I’m very excited. In my third year here things are coming together. It’s also important to me to create a space where kids feel respected. We do that every day. There’s a difference between managing student behavior and being a part of a community. We are consistent and fair—which isn’t always equal.
Bedford-Katonah Patch: Is the discipline harder without a school resource officer?
Doherty: We miss him [Chief Secret of the Lewisboro Police Department, formerly Sergeant Secret, school resource officer]. He really helped students deal with all kinds of situations. But he still comes around and whenever we request him, he’s so responsive. He was the poster child for why you have an SRO. But we are blessed with a population that doesn’t present as many challenges as others—we don’t have gangs, fights are rare.
Bedford-Katonah Patch: Long range planning, running a school—do you have time for anything else?
Doherty: With our three assistant principals, and myself, we handle the day-to-day management of the school, and the planning takes place in off-hours. We care, we want to create an environment where kids can grow. Adolescence is a time of incredible growth—the frontal lobe undergoes tremendous development. We’re always thinking about how can we be in the room for them. This time is fraught with all kinds of challenges so we think about how to manage student life and the way to do it is to develop relationships with them and help them through mistakes.
Bedford-Katonah Patch: If money were no object, what’s at the top of your John Jay wish list?
Doherty: I’d like to redo the H buildings; the art rooms are old and need a revamp.
Bedford-Katonah Patch: What are some things students do here that they wouldn’t anywhere else?
Doherty: I think Campus Congress is a unique student governing body. Students look at issues seriously, and they have an opportunity to participate in policy discussions and sit on our board of education. I have been amazed by the positive school spirit here, too—kids engaged in homecoming and spirit week. We have tremendous faculty to learn from—Diane Nerwin, for one, who has exhibited photography at MOMA; it’s unusual to have a working artist of her caliber teaching here. We have extraordinary role models for young women, too—strong scientists like Linda Burke. It’s good for boys to see women in those fields.