Written by Sophia Sunshine Vilceus
This past summer, many of us became aware that John Capozzi was leaving Elmont Memorial High School as Principal to step into a new role as Assistant Superintendent of the Sewanhaka Central High School District. Many people of the Elmont Community, including me, an Alumna of Elmont Memorial, were understandably uneasy about this new adjustment that would occur within the fabric of Elmont Memorial High School and the Elmont community at large.
This sense of uneasiness during a time of transition from one Principal to another stemmed from an understanding of the rich legacy that John Capozzi left at Elmont Memorial High School in his decade-long tenure as Principal. The community nervously wondered if a new Administrator would continue Former Principal Capozzi’s trajectory for Elmont.
Under Mr. John Capozzi’s covering, Elmont has had graduation rates ranging from 92 percent to 98 percent for over a decade. This year’s rate calculated by the school is 97 percent. Almost all the graduates earn a New York Regents Diploma and half earn an Advanced Diploma. 96 percent of the class of 2015 is going to college, according to Huffington Post’s “Graduating in the Shadow of Racism” by Karin Chenoweth.
Arguably more importantly, Capozzi was an avid advocate for minority students and ensuring that they pursue their education even in the midst of racism. Those are only a few of the many statistics that made it difficult for the Elmont community to openly embrace a change in leadership.
A statement released by Sewanhaka Central High School District explained that the District advertised for Mr. Capozzi’s successor both locally as well as nationally. The District established a committee composed of staff, administrators, parents, and community members to ensure that the individual selected as Principal would meet the needs of the District and community.
After a grueling interview process throughout the Spring of 2015, Mr. Kevin Dougherty was appointed as the new Principal of Elmont Memorial High School.
The Elmont Excelsior conducted an exclusive interview with Principal Dougherty (pronounced “Dockerty”), back in August of 2015, to get a better gauge of this monumental transition.
In the interview, Mr. Dougherty, who began his duties as Principal on July 15th, says he was able to spend the first two weeks with Former Principal, John Capozzi. This time together contributed to Dougherty’s smooth transition into the role of Principal. Dougherty was able to glean a great deal of insight from Mr. Capozzi, who he recognizes was not only an outstanding administrator but a renowned teacher at Elmont, at one point.
“He knows the Elmont community inside and out,” remarked Dougherty in the phone interview.
Theoretically, Principal Dougherty was often perceived as an “outsider”– a term that is not deemed offensive by Dougherty but rather embraced and understood. Because of his educational experience — as well as his own experiences of being a parent to two beautiful children, Levi, 7, and Raya, 3, with his lovely wife, Natasha — Mr. Dougherty says he can understand why some people in the Elmont community had their reservations about welcoming a brand-new face to such an acclaimed position at the High School.
“As a parent, that’s all you want for your child; you want your child to have an equal shot,” he said.
“You want your child to have the opportunity to make choices in his or her life…That’s what education does—opens up doors. I always try to manage a school in a way that I would want somebody to manage the school that my own children are in. That’s always been a guiding principle of mine—I want somebody to care for my child as much as I care about them. I have to give them off to these folks for eight hours a day, and I have to hope that they have their best interests at heart.”
Dougherty initially learned about the job opening at Elmont from someone he knew. They referred him to the District and Dougherty had a conversation with some people at the District level. But what really sparked Dougherty’s interest was the way the District was moving and the vision that they had for Elmont progressing. He knew that his leadership abilities were in line with the plan that the District had for Elmont.
“They really believe the sky’s the limit for our kids,” he said. “That doesn’t exist everywhere.”
Dougherty at heart is an activist for students. He notes, “Throughout my career, one thing that I have always prided myself on is empowering students and making them feel like they have the ability to reach their fullest potential and that there are few barriers that can hold them back.”
The more he learned about Elmont in terms of “its geography, that it resided just outside the city limits, but also that it was a very small tight-knit community that wasn’t a typical suburban sprawl,” Dougherty says he was intrigued. But what really captivated him about Elmont, was the all-day interviews from parents and students.
The interview process consisted of approximately six interviews. One day, Dougherty spent the entire day at the school as he got interviewed by parents, students, and teachers for about eight hours straight, with one three-minute break! Many people would be intimidated by that, but Dougherty was only impressed.
“Overall, I thought the parents were great,” Dougherty said in response to the intensive interviews. “They wanted to make sure that somebody that was coming in was genuinely invested in the students of Elmont…in making sure that they could be as successful as possible when they leave us after six years.”
The degree to which everyone was invested in Elmont ensured Dougherty that he could become an integral part of a community that sincerely cared about the well-being of its inhabitants.
“It really impressed me…how invested everybody was in the school, how much everybody really cared about the school and was really making sure that this next person who came in was the right person for their children,” he told The Excelsior.
“It really spoke volumes of the community itself and what a special place it was. That’s really what sold me on being interested in coming to Elmont. Before that, you’re going through the interview process and you’re not tied to the actual community. But once I put some boots on the ground in the community, it was quite evident that I thought that this was a place that I could not only be successful but [where] I could become a really integral part of the community itself.”
Within his first year as Principal, Mr. Dougherty says we can expect him to truly become an engaged Elmont community member, being out and about, and being hands-on in school and community-related events. By visiting athletic practices and interacting with both coaches and players, Dougherty has demonstrated his commitment to learning as much about the Elmont community and students as possible. It seems he has a genuine desire to understand the people that he is servicing.
Also, Dougherty says his first-year goal is continuing to promote successful initiatives that have already been in place at Elmont such as Science Research and the Model United Nations, which Dougherty says continue to be top-notch. He acknowledges that these programs continue to catapult our students into top Ivy League schools around the nation. Dougherty also boasts that he has much faith in the “incredible” teaching staff at Elmont.
As the Common Core becomes more intensive, Dougherty is excited about a new initiative called the Integrated Advanced Curriculum, starting in the seventh grade where all students are going to be exposed to the same high-level curriculum across the board, regardless of Academic level.
Dougherty believes in having open access to Advanced Placement courses and allowing every student to feel as though they have the same capacity to thrive. He really comes from the school of thought that says that all children need to have the same access to achievement. He is concerned with educating and preparing the whole child.
“It’s not just good enough to get into college; we need to make sure that we’re seeing our children through college as well, without burdening themselves with incredible amounts of debt. So that’s another focus of mine—continue to make sure that our children are prepared for college and that they have access to the courses that are going to get them best prepared — while also focusing on some of the soft skills in terms of grit, perseverance, that will help them to really, not just be successful academically, but also when they come up against obstacles what skill sets do they have to overcome the obstacles,” says Dougherty.
I stand with the Elmont community in rooting for Principal Kevin Dougherty. He certainly has some great shoes to fill, and we are so grateful for all the expertise, compassion, and vision that he is already bringing to the position. Congratulations to our newest addition to the Elmont Spartan Family!
Sophia Vilceus graduated from Elmont Memorial High School as her Class President in 2007. She went on to The CUNY City College of New York to pursue her undergraduate studies, then to Howard University for an advanced degree. Sophia is currently based out of Maryland where she is an Adjunct Professor of English at the University of Maryland, Montgomery College, and Prince Georges Community College. She has been published in Heart & Soul Magazine and The Praying Woman. Sophia says her greatest life’s work so far is her new book, The Last Pew: Journeying Back to God’s Will After an Affair, available for purchase now at Amazon.com.
For news, updates and events at Elmont Memorial High School and the Sewanhaka District throughout the school year, visit their website at http://www.sewanhaka.k12.ny.us/Page/9 or follow @ElmontSpartans on Twitter.