After 15 years in the West Islip School District, the last nine as the superintendent of schools, Dr. Beth Virginia Blau decided the time was right to retire, spend more time with her family and travel some. As the days to her long and distinguished career wind down, she is experiencing some sadness as she leaves the district she has spent most of her days.
"West Islip is my family. I'm a little bit nervous about retiring. There's never been a time in my life that I haven't either worked or gone to school. I've decided it's going to be sort of like when you're a grandparent and get to play with the kids when they're good and hand them back when they're bad. I will be around every once in a while and then I will say bye and hand it back," she said jokingly.
In recent years, Dr. Blau has worked with members of the West Islip Board of Education to make great strides in the school district. For instance, the International Baccalaureate Program or IB Program will be up and running in September.
Dr. Blau said the IB Program is starting out at the high school level and may be eventually be brought down to the middle school and elementary levels. "I think it will provide a different perspective on how we approach learning in general in terms of the kind of questioning we do of students and the amount of research and expectations we have of the youngsters," she said. "IB is the type of program where you look at individual topics more in depth as opposed to an Advanced Placement course."
Dr. Blau also points to the Alternative School, the dance program, the Educational Foundation, the Coalition Summit as accomplishments she is proud of, although she lists the Alternative School as her proudest accomplishment. "It affords students who may otherwise not have been successful the opportunity to graduate and we have 10 to 15 students in that category every year so it's very satisfying," he said.
In addition, the Foreign Language Program was extended down to the elementary school level so that next year, the district will have a kindergarten through 12th grade foreign language program.
While being the leader of a school district such as West Islip has it moments of joy and pride, it also comes with some difficult moments as well. This past year was a particularly difficult one in West Islip. In March, student and All-County soccer player Alexis Pilkington took her own life. The community is rallying to hold a fundraiser on July 23 to go to a memorial foundation in her name.
"This whole year has been extremely difficult. We've lost students. We've lost community members. This year was very challenging," Dr. Blau said.
On Saturday, June 26, members of the West Islip High School Class of 2010 will be graduating. "It's a terrific class. I went through their yearbook. It's one of the best I've ever seen. Almost all the members of our graduating classes go on to accomplishment great things. Unfortunately, I don't get to often hear about what they do after they leave us. I like to be able to hear about their accomplishments," she said. "I know that they're remarkably successful when they leave us, well prepared for any eventuality."
Graduation day is the culmination of years of academic work and social development. As each senior receives his or her diploma, it serves as a reminder of how complex education is.
For a superintendent of schools, there are a multitude of responsibilities. One of the toughest is putting forth a school budget that the community can afford each year while including in it, programs that will most benefit the students of the district. This year, the school board along with Dr. Blau decided to preserve its educational programs and put forth a budget that included a 6.91 percent tax rate increase (based on an estimate of aid from New York State). The community heavily supported the effort in the budget vote. "That has been extremely challenging. West Islip is burdened with a very high Homestead rate," she said. "The community does want its programs. We didn't slash programs like some other districts did. We left them in the budget."
Another responsibility of a superintendent is having to negotiate labor contracts with its unions such as the teacher's union. "I think our employees do know that we appreciate them. But, it takes a lot of give and take," she said. "With enough conversation and fairness coming to the table, we generally come up with a solution."
In West Islip, education is extremely important and as the leader of the school district, Dr. Blau has helped set forth young men and women into the world for the next challenge in their lives. She said she will miss the people the most, everyone from the parents to the students and the staff. "They are like a second family to me. I will definitely miss them," she said. "It's been a great run."
Dr. Blau's retirement takes effect at the end of July at which time her successor Richard Simon will take the position as superintendent of schools.