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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Mystery Donation, An Unknown Name, And A Connection to School Climate

By Ken Lein — January 19, 2020 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Ken Lein, principal of Delaware Community School in the Albany City School District (Albany, N.Y.).

We often talk about big ideas like collective efficacy and “Know thy impact” (Hattie, 2009). Our worlds are enveloped by words like “fidelity” and “feedback.” Recently, I learned a deeper meaning to a phrase that we hear all too often, and that phrase is “school climate.” I now realize that as much as I may steer it as a school principal, the impact it has is not always obvious. It was a lesson that presented itself through an unusual series of events, which all began with a card from people that I don’t even know.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a card in the mail from a couple in Oswego, N.Y. I am a principal in the City School District of Albany, which is about a 175-mile drive from Oswego. It was a donation in the memory of Sam McCaffrey. I do not know the couple nor did I know Sam McCaffrey. In fact, according to the note, they had never met Sam, either. They were good friends with his Aunt Trish and Uncle Mark. According to the note, “He sounds like a special young man with a huge heart. The world needs more people like him”.

I asked my secretary if the name meant anything to her. It did not. She pulled up the obituary. Sam was a young man, we guessed about 30. From his obituary:

Sam was a true Renaissance man whose love of music, art, and history encompassed his life. Sam was happiest riding 'top-down' in his Jeep Wrangler through the Adirondack Mountains listening to his favorite tunes. His kindness, charisma, and benevolent nature made him loved by all who met him. Sam was a curious lifelong learner with many interests. He could be found birding in the woods, volunteering at Saratoga Battlefield, attending a book reading, or visiting a museum immersed in the beauty of art. Music fed his soul and attending live music events was his church."

Since I have only been a principal in the school for five years, I reached out to all staff to find out who might know of a connection to Sam. No one had anything to offer. So I began a letter to the couple from Oswego to thank them for their donation, but more importantly, to see if it was truly meant for us. I had written a few lines and left it on my desk as I attended to other things around the building. At this point, it was a curiosity and not a priority, so I thought I would finish the letter over the winter break.

A few days later, just after finishing the second of my required four lockdown drills, my secretary met me outside the main office area and told me that Sam’s mother and sister were here hoping to see me. I greeted them both and invited them to my office. I could see in their eyes that they were struggling that day. Sam had died less than two months earlier.

They were there because they wanted to donate money to the school that meant so much to Sam. I thanked them and asked them if they could please tell me Sam’s connection to Delaware Community School. It was more simple than I ever imagined. Sam had lived in our neighborhood for a number of years including the last three as he battled his illness. He was a graduate of a neighboring, predominantly white suburban district. Apparently, the diversity of our students brought him great joy and hope. In his circles, he spoke of our school often. His mom told me that his favorite time was when we did our whole school community parade to commemorate Hispanic Heritage month. (Our building is about 45 percent Hispanic, and there is an English/Spanish dual- language program here. We are also 25 percent new language learners).

His mom described how he called her as he sat in his sun-filled window watching the neighborhood when our students marched by. She smiled as she repeated “my little poo-chin-nas,” his variation of a Russian word that meant cobwebs. She wasn’t sure why he used it but said he did it with great affection. I shared with them the card and my unfinished letter about the other donation. They did not know the people who donated. It was another teary moment thinking about how Sam touched the lives of people they did not know. She asked for a copy of the card. I made a copy and gave her the original. More tears. I offered a tour of the building letting them know they were welcome anytime.

As we left my office, a P-K teacher had just led her students into the office area to sing “Jingle Bells” to me because they had missed me the day before. More joyful tears and smiles. As we walked the building, mom said to me, “It seems like such a happy place. No wonder it meant a lot to Sam.

I needed to learn more about Sam, so I visited some businesses in the neighborhood. I spoke with the owners of a small pub who knew Sam. I was told he was an incredible listener. They spoke about his ability to join any conversation, especially if it involved art or politics. They spoke about the memorial service that Sam planned. Interspersed among people telling Sam stories were music breaks from his playlist. The service ended with everyone drinking whiskey sours, a family tradition.

On my way home from this conversation, the owner texted me to tell me that “Astral Weeks” by Van Morrison just played at the bar, straight from Sam’s playlist at the service. Everyone I spoke to had similar stories. I have so much more to share, but space limits me.

In the End
The money donated is now called the Sam McCaffrey Field Trip Fund to offset costs for students who may not have the money to cover the cost of a trip. As we know, no matter what type of school we may teach in or lead, there are students whose families don’t have extra money but often take from somewhere else to make it happen. So many just struggle to have food on the table.

This is a story of impact that save for an unusual series of events would have gone unrealized. While sad, it is an uplifting story that brought meaning to my 30-plus years in public education. As I end a long career, the short time I spent with Sam’s mom (Karen) and sister (Emma), and the card that began this whole adventure meant more to me than anyone will ever know. As we begin the new year, know that our impact is far reaching, and the work we do is incredibly important in more ways than we may ever measure.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.