Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 07 May 2010 00:00
After serving 22 years as principal of Syosset High School, Dr. Jorge E. Schneider will be retiring at the conclusion of the school year. While Schneider’s tireless pursuit of academic excellence often challenged students, teachers, and administrators alike, Syosset High School is losing not just a leader, but a beloved figure; in fact, there can be no doubt that returning students to Syosset High School in the fall will miss his distinctive voice over the loudspeaker during the morning announcements. More than just a changing of the guard, Schneider’s exit from the district represents the end of an era that has spanned more than two decades.
For Schneider, the decision to leave was far from easy. “I stayed so long because I love the kids,” said Schneider, explaining how his career in education has come to span 43 years. However, apparently this spring, the time started to feel right. “On my birthday in April I said to myself, ‘You’re not going to live forever, Jorge’,” he said. “The world is a big place: When am I going to see the rest of it?”
Born in Argentina, Schneider came to the United States at the age of 14. Unable to speak a word of English, he credits his parents with instilling in him the discipline necessary to persevere academically in such difficult circumstances. “They didn’t know what to do with people like me, because there were no programs for students who did not speak English. So I had to do it the old-fashioned way: Roll up my sleeves,” he said. Through a combination of immersion and very hard work, Schneider became fluent in English and graduated from Jamaica High School; he then went on to graduate from college at CUNY, the only one out of his circle of friends in high school to do so.
A serious surfer and skier, Schneider originally planned to turn his business major into a career in sports retail. After college graduation, he became the manager of the Levittown ski and surf shop Sundown, where he assumed he would likely remain. However, there was a major problem; his wife, Susan, a social studies teacher, was on a much earlier teacher’s schedule, and the couple barely got a chance to see each other. At Susan’s suggestion, Jorge decided to try teaching in order to put the two of them on complementary schedules.
However, despite his major, Schneider was not qualified to teach economics; instead, it was the Spanish literature courses he had taken as electives that allowed him to become certified as a teacher of Spanish. He had taken the courses for fun, not knowing at the time how important they would prove to his career. “I loved it, but I was too young to recognize that perhaps you should follow that love- I thought I had to study business,” he said.
Going into teaching seemed like a bit of a gamble at the time, since he had not even considered becoming a teacher in the past, however it was a gamble that paid off in a big way. “I remember coming home from my very first day and saying to my wife ‘I love it- this is great. And the rest is history,” he said.
Schneider taught Spanish at Astoria Junior High School for 11 years, and then moved on to Lawrence High School. He served as principal of Lawrence High School for nine years before moving on to Syosset. In the meantime, Schneider continued his education, earning Masters degrees in Spanish and Administration, and a PhD in Reading, Language and Cognition (which is now called Literacy.) “I asked myself: What is it I can study that would help me to help all of my students?” remembered Schneider. The doctorate in Literacy was especially well-suited to the role of administrator, because the ability to better retain information through reading is critically important in virtually every subject taught in school.
At the beginning of Schneider’s tenure as principal, the school was not ideally structured for learning. He characterized the curriculum as “fragmented”, and not always up-to-date with the latest research. Through a 5 to 8-year process, Schneider reshaped the curriculum and the infrastructure of Syosset High School. He also closed the campus (“I was very popular for that,” he joked.)
But perhaps the biggest obstacle at Syosset was the fact that expectations were not high for all students. As someone who had learned English as a second language himself, it was very important to Schneider that kids with special needs be given the resources so that they too could excel, and be expected to do so. One of the biggest sources of pride for Schneider is the fact that during his tenure, expectations have been raised for all students, which naturally includes ESL students.
“Now Syosset has reached a level of excellence most schools dream of…and that took a lot of work from everybody, not only from me,” clarified Schneider. However, he made it clear that there is no room for complacency in education, there can only be forward and backward, because standing still is effectively the same as going backward. “People don’t understand that curriculum is something that is alive, because it represents our world- as the world changes, curriculum changes, and must even predict how the world is going to change,” he explained passionately. In a time when school district budgets are the subject of much criticism, Schneider was clear that moving forward is essential, and thanks to the need to keep textbooks current and keep up with technology, moving forward is bound to cost money. In 2000, there were only two computer labs at Syosset High School; now, there are six computer labs, every classroom has computers, every math and science classroom has interactive whiteboards, and the pace of technology is unlikely to let up anytime soon.
While Schneider admits that he is unlikely to miss the mountains of paperwork that accompany the job of principal, he will miss talking to young people tremendously. He said he will miss walking the halls and striking up conversations with students, which he has always found to be the perfect antidote to the occupational hazard of being the principal – dealing with the angry adults who sometimes find their way to his office. “People that don’t work with young people miss a lot,” he says with a wry smile.
Retired life will allow for some rest, but not too much; the athletic administrator plans to spend lots of time skiing in Stratton, Vermont, sailing, traveling, playing tennis and golf, training a new puppy, and of course, watching his grandchildren grow up.
In fact, Schneider’s oldest grandson, Dylan Schneider, is starting in kindergarten at A.P. Willits this September, a cause for celebration. “My legacy is my grandchild. As I’m leaving, he starts in Syosset Public Schools…in nine years, another Schneider will be here,” he said, referring to Syosset High School. “Obviously, I’m very interested in making sure that this place stays up here,” said Schneider, motioning with his hand towards the ceiling “Because my grandchildren are going to go through this system.” While Syosset High School must move on to a new era of leadership, there’s no doubt that the continued involvement of Dr. Schneider – once as principal, now as a beloved grandfather – will be more than welcome.