Ridgefield High Principal Stacey Gross looks back at her eight years
Echoing the experience of thousands of students who have become graduates with her support, care and — sometimes — discipline, Ridgefield High School Principal Stacy Gross will be leaving the crowded hallways, the lines of yellow buses and the flood-lit night football games for a future only vaguely mapped out.
“It was a difficult decision to make, to decide to retire — but I did feel like this is the right time,” Dr. Gross said.
She’ll see the school through the end of this academic year, and step down in June.
“I’m really happy to say that even after eight years, coming to Ridgefield High School is the best professional decision I ever made,” Dr. Gross said.
“I’m proud of all we’ve accomplished as a community. We’ve had some celebrations, and weathered some difficult times, but we did that as a community and I’m proud of that.”
Among the major accomplishments she listed were: starting the Anti-Defamation League’s “Names Can Really Hurt Us” program at RHS; bringing former pro-basketball player Chris Herren to the school with his anti-drug message; introducing a wide variety of new courses; completing the lengthy accreditation process with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which reviews the school every 10 years or so.
The Names Can Really Hurt Us program — an in-depth exploration of diversity, bias and discrimination issues — is presented to all RHS 10th graders, with 11th and 12th graders joining the school staff in helping facilitate the discussions.
Herren, who achieved the dream of playing professional basketball for the Boston Celtics and then threw his career away through drug abuse and addiction, has been coming to town regularly, speaking to students at the high school during the day and then to parents at night.
“He is amazing,” Dr. Gross said. “You could hear a pin drop in that auditorium for 90 minutes.”
‘Climate and culture’
But what Dr. Gross put atop her list of accomplishments, in a Dec. 5 interview in the RHS main office, was something less concrete — not an event or a program or a specific process.
“Most important, the improvements to the climate and culture in the building — and that’s really been led by our student body,” Dr. Gross said.
How did the school’s climate and culture improve?
“I think at the beginning of my tenure at the high school we had one or two difficult Spirit-Homecoming weeks,” she said. “And the students really took the lead to improve the climate around that event.
“Also, I would say, improving the climate around the differences students have, and increasing student input and say regarding schoolwide decision-making.”
Asked about some of the new courses that she’s proud of having added to the school’s offerings, Dr. Gross mentioned robotics, web design, a new reading program, and advanced placement music theory — the last an addition growing from efforts to enlarge the school orchestra and band.
Dr. Gross came to Ridgefield High School in the 2012-13 school year. In the eight years since, she’s been through six superintendents or acting superintendents — although that number counts two different stints by current and former Acting Superintendent Dr. Jean Paddyfote.
She grew up in The Bronx and Yonkers, and graduated from Lincoln High School in Yonkers.
“I would imagine every teacher I ever had would be shocked to know I became and teacher and a school administrator,” she said.
Her collegiate and postgraduate work, including her doctorate, all took place at New York’s Fordham University.
The move into the RHS principal’s office capped a career in education that included years as a special education teacher in Greenwich, assistant principal at Greenwich High School, principal of Western Middle School in Greenwich and then two years as an assistant superintendent for the Greenwich school system — her least favorite time, she admits.
“I didn’t enjoy central office,” Dr. Gross said. “I really wanted to be around kids and teachers.”
Plays, games, meetings
Being Ridgefield High School’s principal is a job that has kept her busy — and not only during the school day.
“I’d say over the years I’ve been to hundreds of school events, which includes plays, concerts, sporting events, proms, dances, Board of Education meetings, PTSA events,” Dr. Gross said.
“That’s a very big part of my philosophy as an educator, being visible and seeing students in lots of different arenas — and I do believe that’s the reason lots of students feel so connected to me.
“That’s a time-consuming choice I’ve made as an educational leader and I believe the payoff with students has been worth every moment of it.”
One significant change that Dr. Gross has seen is the increasing concern and attention focused on student safety — particularly the threat of gun violence after the horrific recent history of mass shootings in schools.
“The role, as principal, of overseeing safety and security is dramatically changed,” she said.
A less threatening change concerns the advent of electronic communication platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
“The influence of social media on the school day, and students, is tremendous,” Dr. Gross said.
But her perception of teenagers as a group has not greatly changed.
“I was a special ed teacher in preschool through high school, and for me high school students are my absolute favorite,” she said. “I feel that is the perfect niche for me.
“The students can be complex — they’re dealing with a lot of things as they become young adults — and I love being able to partner with them through that journey.
“I don’t think teens have really changed over the time I’ve been working with them. I think the issues that they have to deal with have changed. But they remain kids learning to navigate the world, and our job is to support them.”
One of the issues high school kids have to deal with — still — is the prevalence of drugs and alcohol, and the wider culture’s subtle and not-so-subtle pressures on young people to try various forms of intoxication.
“I haven’t seen dramatic change in that. Kids sometimes make bad choices and experiment in dangerous arenas,” Dr. Gross said.
“I’ve always believed every moment should be a learning opportunity, including when consequences are involved. I try to show kids that even when there’s been a bad decision, there may be consequences in that moment, and the next really important step is: How do we move forward in a positive, successful manner?” she said.
“Adolescents make bad decisions, but that’s part of being a teenager and part of the high school world.”
And this brought Dr. Gross to what is the most emotionally painful aspect of her tenure.
“During my time here we have had a number of students who, unfortunately, passed away — that was difficult,” she said. “But I feel I was able to create an environment with my team that supported students, staff and parents.”
Fortunately, events at the other end of the emotional spectrum — moments of light, laughter, fulfillment — outnumber the dark times.
“There’s also joyous moments,” Dr. Gross said. “Some are big moments, like graduations and programs winning HALO awards, athletic championships. But also smaller joyous moments, when students achieve their personal goals, on a daily basis.
“If you’re only looking for the big moments, I imagine you wouldn’t enjoy your job very much, and feel very successful,” she said. ”You want to celebrate teachers’ and students’ individual accomplishments.”
What will she do after next June’s graduation?
“I do not have a specific plan,” Dr. Gross said. “I am looking forward to having some down time. After that I’m sure I’ll become involved with other opportunities.”
Dr. Gross lives with her husband live in Westchester County and has a stepdaughter in her 20s who is also in the area.
“My husband and I are looking forward to traveling,” she said.
“I do worry about not seeing kids every day,” she added. “Because I feel that’s a really important part of what I am as a person. So I think future endeavors might involve working with kids in some way...
“I feel I’ve been really lucky throughout my entire career,” Dr. Gross said. “I’ve worked in places that supported my professional growth and my personal dreams. And I’ve tried to give that back to the people who work with me.
“And I feel so lucky to be able to work with kids my entire career, which is what I’ve found joyous to do.”