Eagle principal retires after 18 years | VailDaily.com

Eagle principal retires after 18 years

Kathy Heicher
Special to the Daily
Eagle, CO Colorado
Eagle Valley Enterprise photoRetiring Eagle Valley Middle School Principal Jerry Santoro says kids grow the fastest in middle school

EAGLE, Colorado ” When he first visited Eagle, Colorado 18 years ago, New York City native Jerry Santoro suspected there would be some cultural adjustment involved if he took a job as middle school principal.

He arrived for his interview dressed in applying-for-a-job-in-the-city clothes: a blue pin-stripe suit, wing-tip shoes. About 20 people, including school administrators, parents and teachers, conducted the interview.

“Nobody was dressed like me,” he recalls, wryly.

Still, the interview went well; and he liked Eagle’s small-town feel. Heading back to Denver in a rental car, he stopped in the burg of Wolcott to refuel. Santoro waited in the car a few minutes, assuming that somebody would come out of the Wolcott store and pump the gas.

When nobody came out, he realized that unlike in the city, he needed to pump the gas himself. While he was standing there fueling up, two chickens ran across those shiny wingtip shoes.

This definitely wasn’t New York City.

“I loved that,” says Santoro, a talkative guy with a confident attitude, New York accent, and a devotion to education that still spills over into all aspects of his life.

After 30 years as a teacher and administrator, Santoro, 55, will retire when school ends this spring.

“I’ve been in school since I was six years old. I’d like to see what it looks like outside the school calendar. I want some non-scheduled time,” he explains.

Santoro was born in Brooklyn. His grandfather was an immigrant from Italy, who worked and died on the docks. Santoro’s parents raised their family in South Jamaica (“Southside”), a part of the borough characterized by working, lower-middle class poor. He and his brother were the first generation of the family to go to college.

“We knew the way out of that lifestyle was education,” says Santoro.

He pursued a teaching career, and found jobs at both middle school and high school levels, as a science teacher and then, in the early 1980s, as the school technology director. He worked outside of school as a scuba diving instructor.

His opening into administration came when the principal suffered a badly broken leg and couldn’t work. School administrators asked him to step into the assistant principal position.

In the summer of 1991, Santoro and his wife, Robin, were looking for the kind of community where they wanted to raise their two small daughters, Stacie and Jessie. Somebody forwarded Jerry’s resume to Eagle County; and the interview and job offer followed.

Given the politics and pressures of the job, most principals stay in those positions for an average of about five years. Santoro is finishing his 18th year at the Eagle middle school.

“It was a good fit, with the community, and with the staff. I think we’ve all kind of grown together,” he says.

Santoro admits that middle school kids are a challenge for educators.

“There’s a vast difference between sixth graders and eighth graders. Never again will kids change so much in a three-year period,” he says, “Kids need a lot of work at that time.”

Middle school teachers generally love that challenge, he says.

“If we were in the medical profession, we would be emergency room workers,” he says. “We like that pace.

“Over 30 years, we’ve learned a lot about how kids learn, and about how we should teach.”

In 1991, the middle school had 210 students. By the late 1990s, that number increased to 520. When Gypsum Creek Middle School opened, the numbers dropped. Currently, 280 to 300 students attend Eagle Valley Middle

The needs of those students have also changed, as the population has grown more diversified. Santoro is not a believer in compartmentalizing kids of different learning abilities into different groups.

“Good teachers who train and develop are able to work with any kids within a class … that’s the key to evolving education,” he says.

The dynamics of middle school students change every day, Santoro says. Maybe the child is affected by the death of a dog, or is worried about sick grandmother. Business models don’t necessarily work for education, because kids are not like products that come off an assembly line, he adds.

“Every kid has a story every day that they come in with,” says Santoro. “They’re not a product that you say ‘I’m going to manufacture it this way.'”

Santoro has weathered his share of local controversy and upset parents over the years.

“A principal job is a political position, too, like any leadership position,” he says.

The school has a simple mission statement: “We help grow kids.” Education is not about how a kid does on any given day ” it’s about who they become, Santoro says. That’s what educators must remember when dealing with new programs, local politics and outside pressures. “The challenge is to balance the mission with all these other things … you still have to ask, ‘why are we in this business?'” he says.

There have been many moments that brought joy to Santoro, including student raft trips, concerts, sporting events, the academic teams and honors programs.

“Middle school dances are hilarious,” he says.

He’s also proud of the role he played in the community. More so than some principals, Santoro made his school available to the general public. Colorado Mountain College scheduled classes in the building; and the local recreation district has enjoyed use of the gymnasiums

Probably the student who most affected him was Mark Schultz, who died of cancer in 1992 while he was a student at the school.

“He was a great kid, a leader. He worked hard in class, and stood up for other kids,” Santoro says.

There’s still a plaque with Mark’s picture on the wall just inside the school entry; and the school annually hands out a “Mark” award to the student who most exhibits the character and work ethic that made Mark stand out.

The outpouring of community support for the Shultz family was life-changing for the Santoros.

“To see a community so involved, so supportive because people knew each other … that made us realize where we were,” says Santoro.

What was the best reward for a life-long educator?

Seeing the students who have come through his school, and who are now successful adults.

“Somehow we played a role in that,” he notes, proudly. He’s hired several former students as teachers over the years.

“It’s wonderful to see the next generation being a part of what we are … that’s the legacy,” he says.

Santoro is particularly proud that his oldest daughter, Stacie, who just graduated from college, has been hired as a teacher at Gypsum Creek Middle School next fall.

In retirement, Santoro intends to find out if he can survive in a lifestyle that’s not driven by a school bell.

He plans to ride the 400-mile Ride the Rockies bike ride next month. He’ll work one day on summer weekends at Cotton Ranch Golf Club.

Next fall, he’ll work part-time for Western State College, as a field supervisor for teachers seeking certification through an alternative program. He plans to visit old friends. He and his wife, Robin, will continue to offer their “Love and Logic” parenting classes.

The Santoros plan to stay in the valley.

“We love it here. When we talk about home, it’s not New York,” he says.

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