John Williams, who lives in Long Beach, became superintendent of the Amityville Union Free School District in February 2008 after a three-month stint as interim superintendent. Before that, he was superintendent of the Sewanhaka School District in Nassau County and taught at Hunter College. Before that, he also had a career as an educator in Scranton, Pa.
What made you decide to apply for the permanent position at Amityville?
Amityville is a place where I really liked the kids. I found it to be very rewarding. The kids are very appreciative of everything that is done for them. They are courteous, bright and have great potential. I found that the professionals I worked with were very committed, and I've had a great time working with them. I've been putting off retirement because I have a lot of energy left, and I'm enjoying my time here.
Tell me about the student population.
We're very diverse. When I started here six [school] years ago, approximately 90 percent of the student population was nonwhite, and of that population there were two times as many black students as Hispanic. What's happened recently is we've had an influx of Spanish students, and students with limited English proficiency. Like many other districts, we've been cutting back but we've actually been adding stuff in the ESL [English as a Second Language] department because that's a necessity. We had 42 percent growth of the Spanish-speaking population last year alone, so that's a necessity.
Another important thing that has happened this year is for the first time since before I got here, all five of our schools and the district as a whole are in good standing in our New York State assessments. What happened with No Child Left Behind was that two of our schools -- Park Avenue Elementary and the middle school -- were in need of improvement or corrective action. That was a focus for us. We worked hard to align our curriculum and provide professional development.
When you were hired, the board of education tasked you with making the school a bigger part of the community at large. Talk about that.
They were anxious to have me reach out to the community. I think there was the perception this is a split community. There are very few things that bring the Village of Amityville and the hamlet of North Amityville together.
I've tried to be involved. I participate in the Amityville Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary and I'm very active with the North Amityville Implementation Committee, which is concerned with driving the way economic development happens there. I spend an awful lot more time in Amityville than I do in Long Beach.
So, what do you think of Amityville as a community?
It was very, very welcoming to me as a newcomer. I came here knowing no one and from Day 1 I found it to be a community that opened its arms to me and was very supportive to all that I've done with them.
What challenges does it face?
We remain a district where many residents have children that attend nonpublic schools. The challenge to us is to convince the people that it is still in their best interest to support this school district with their tax dollars. A healthy school district benefits everyone's property value and is the backbone the community.
What makes this place unique to others where you've worked and lived?
It’s that same situation I described before. I call it 'A Tale of Two Cities,' that diversity that exists here. You drive south through the village and you see beautiful Victorian houses, the lake, the trappings of wealth. When you drive south you see trailer parks, mobile homes. The only place they come together is the school. Everyone is together here and I think that diversity is a real advantage from a cultural standpoint.
Kids learn about other cultures, other races, other ways of life and that diversity is much more of a positive force than a negative one. Our kids, from a social aspect, form an awareness that is far ahead of most other kids I've interacted with.