There is a natural inclination, when analyzing institutions --- public or private, athletic, symphonic, economic, or political --- to look at the leadership of what’s being studied. We look at the President, the CEO, the Head Coach, the Conductor to dissect what we really think about the nation, the business, the football team, the symphony orchestra. And so it is with high schools --- the Principal (originally Principal Teacher) is the leader, the focus, the lightning rod. Over 42 years as a professional educator I encountered more than my fair share of Principals and recognized that it is not only a challenging position like those others but very few can lead a Fortune 500 company, conduct the New York Philharmonic, win a Super Bowl, or be considered for a place on Mount Rushmore.
David Schein had been the principal at Irvington (NY) High School before taking the position as Blind Brook’s founding principal. Irvington sits about 14 miles to the west of Rye Brook and, demographically, was a comparable district (predominantly white, affluent, NYC suburban), so Dave had some idea of the cultural terrain coming in. The young (37), Harvard educated (BA/MAT) David Schein arrived in Rye Town (later Rye Brook) with a clear progressive vision for this new junior/senior high school --- and proceeded to hire a staff he believed could carry out that vision.
David Schein had presence. That is, he was a man who commanded your attention when he entered a room. Tall (6’3” or 4”) with dark hair and intense dark eyes, Dave didn’t have to raise his voice to get your attention --- in fact, his simple quiet presence could silence a room (or auditorium). He often held a Sherlock Holmes pipe (sometimes unlit), which served as a useful prop when making his point. Upon meeting Dave, it didn’t take long to know you were engaging with a deeply thoughtful educator --- and one who had a realistic view of the challenges schooling presented as well as a sense of humor about it. He guided Blind Brook for most of its first decade and it’s hard to imagine what the school might have been without Dave at the helm.
Earlier in this narrative I related the story of the “a pitcher, a quarter, and a bucket of water” to illustrate how comfortable the students had become with Dave by 1976, the year of the first graduating class. There are other student stories I will share to further illustrate how Dave was seen by the students. Before that, though, I’d like to relate my own view of Dave and then share the recollections of two of the early staff members to create a clear picture of David Schein, the founding principal of Blind Brook High School.
When we look at great leaders in the fields I mentioned earlier --- sports, music, economics, politics --- an important key to any leader’s success is that (s)he is surrounded by a variety of talented people, sometimes characterized as role players. While some of those in (seemingly “lesser”) roles may be quite outstanding (“stars” in their own right) it is the exceptional leader who can bring a variegated group together as a successful/winning team. In Dave’s case, he had the opportunity to hire the bulk of the new staff for the school --- and Dave’s talent was to not only assess teachers (one wants to get the “best", of course) but also see the bigger picture of what the “team” will look like. And here’s where Dave’s commitment to progressive education and vision for Blind Brook dovetailed perfectly. In an ideal educational environment, every student should be able to find (at least) one teacher they can relate to and confide in --- to be their “go-to” person on the staff.
Dave’s ability to assemble a staff of committed educators who shared, and understood, his student-centered vision, was uncanny. Let me share the recollection of David Press, our brilliant, eccentric, computer math/artist teacher. David was hired early on to teach computer programming (yes, in the mid-1970’s!) but, as with many BBHS teachers, did far more during his tenure at the school --- as well as create some of the most amazing art you will ever see (davidpressdesigns.com).
Here's David Press’s recollection.
David Schein, the sole reason Blind Brook was Blind Brook. I can’t say that strongly enough.
Usually, a principal gets hired and meets his or her staff. Then over a number of years as staff moves on, a principal gets to hire his or her own staff and maybe try to change the flavor of the place. It can take decades and whatever the ingrained culture was, it’s hard to change slowly person by person and year by year.
David Schein!! He was hired away from Irvington High School (he was my younger sister’s principal) to start a new staff almost from scratch - there were a few already there from the Ridge Street staff and culture BUT Dave had the extremely rare chance to establish his own majority culture instantly. It’s a chance administrators dream about but very few get. I think David drooled when he left IHS.
So, what was it about his hiring and shaping of the place that made it so special?
Add to that the extraordinary duo of Cora Lattanzio and Sue Arkawy as very long-term community-based powerhouse managers AND one George Trautwein who was the most exceptional educator I ever had the pleasure to work with.
Blind Brook in those years owes its spirit of humanity, philosophy of education and the “house of joy” energy to David Schein. It was an honor to be able to contribute to and support BBHS. It also made me smile when other mere mortal administrators after Dave ran up against the then established spirit of a caring and independent staff that was a mainstay of the culture he established.
One favorite story about Dave. He drove to work from Irvington listening to WQXR, the classical music station, in the morning. He knew he’d be walking into the main office with Cora and George usually chatting at Cora’s desk. He’d walk into his office, quickly turn in the radio then walk over to Cora’s desk and pointing to his office say something like “Isn’t that Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C major?”
Of course, he had been sitting in his car waiting for the announcer to name the next piece they were going to play then he’d scurry up the stairs to his office to be there in time to impress George.
That was Dave’s impish sense of humor, and I loved him for it. Man, those were the days!
Another poignant recollection regarding Dave’s leadership comes from Sal Corda, whose distinguished school Administrator career began working for Dave as an Intern in 1974. Here’s Sal’s story.
One of the requirements for certification back then was a full-time administrative internship for a year. Most of them were unpaid but I got lucky. The head of the Ed Admin department knew Harley Dingman, who was looking for an intern for the high school, anticipating that the small high school would need an assistant principal. I was recommended and, fortunately, Harley and Dave decided to give me a chance. That’s how I got to Blind Brook in April, 1974.
Dave Schein was the best high school principal I ever saw. He had a vision of what the school could and should be. After everyone went home, we would sit and talk about it. He treated everyone with respect. Dave was an amazing selector of teaching talent. Think of the people he hired. He was very adept at scheduling a school. Small schools are much more difficult to schedule than big schools and Dave was a master at it. Above all, Dave was kids first. He made decisions based on what was best for the kids, and sometimes it got him in trouble. For example, he wouldn’t schedule an AP Bio course until he hired a teacher who he felt cold teach it. When some rather pushy parents (I’m being kind here) came in and complained about it, he stood fast in his rationale and told them, “I’m not going to put kids in an AP class where they won’t be able to be successful just so you can tell your friends at the beauty parlor that your kid is in AP Bio.” Yikes!! Tact was not one of his strong suits. He was about kids first—not parents, not teachers, not pleasing the Board.
Dave was a teacher and mentor to me. When, after my internship was over, he hired me for the AP job, he told me, “OK, hot shot, (I was 27), don’t ever forget you are a teacher first.” I never did (I hope). He told me he hired me because he thought I could connect with a group of kids who did not quite fit in the Town of Rye mold, more the Port Chester mold and he did not think he could do that. Can you imagine an experienced high school principal telling a first-time administrator, still wet behind the ears, that he did not think he had what was needed to connect with a group of kids the way they needed someone, and he wanted to find someone with the skill to do it? What humility! What dedication! He taught me what to look for in a lesson; how to schedule a school; what to look for when hiring; all the little things you must pay attention to for a school to run well smoothly and be a place where kids could learn. He never forgot he was a teacher first. He modeled what I needed to know. How lucky I was to learn from the best.
The focus on “kid’s first” was Dave’s mantra. I often say Dave only had three priorities regarding Blind Brook: #1 – the kids; #2 – the teachers; #3 – everything else. But let me share two more student stories to complete this portrait of David Schein.
Here’s a recollection from Gary Wood, Class of 1983.
Brief memory about teachers and David Schein- I was called to Mr. Schein’s office and when I got there my friend was sitting in a chair with tears in his eyes. We had set off a stink bomb earlier in the day. Mr. Schein played good cop, bad cop with us, and I admitted my involvement. (I’m glad he played good cop with me. He’s an imposing figure) Mr. Schein let us go with no punishment. I imagine he thought in the scheme of things it was a harmless sophomore prank. (I think we were sophomores.) I saw him later and apologized because I had initially denied involvement. At the time apologies were particularly uncharacteristic for me. I look back with respect at what I view as a moderate course of action by someone in charge. At this point in my life one of the best things I can do in a stressful situation is to take a breath and think what the moderate course of action is. Thank you, Mr. Schein.
Gary’s story reflects Dave’s ability to maintain perspective when working with students --- and how well he knew the students at Blind Brook High School. Another example of that came from Michael Feigin, Class of 1978.
I credit David Schein with helping me get into Yale. When the guidance counselor put together a recommended group of schools for me, there were no Ivy League Schools on the list. Mr. Schein asked me why I wasn’t applying to his alma mater, Harvard. When I told him why, he said I shouldn’t be underestimating my abilities, and the worst they could do is say no. So, I applied to Harvard (didn’t get in…waitlisted), and, as you know, several other Ivy League Schools. I got into most of them. Thank you, Mr. Schein.
I think one would be hard-pressed to find many school principals who not only know the students in their school (and, yes, BBHS was small – 400 students) but are aware of things like where the seniors are applying to colleges. But that’s what Dave was like --- the kids came first, and he tried to get to know them as best he could.
One last story, from John Lipman (Class of 1978) is a good way to finish up this portrait. John is an ecological activist & writer and an author (https://atmospherepress.com/books/alfred-b-delbello-his-life-and-times-by-john-a-lipman/). Here’s John’s story.
Stanley Kaplan and I knew that the girl’s room was in close proximity to the boy’s room. We could often hear the muffled conversations of girls coming through the ceiling. And those ceilings were suspended ceilings, made largely of removable acoustic tiles resting on metal square frames, interspersed with solid sheet-metal plates.
“I wonder what’s up there?” This, we thought, would be our finest hour. We would be legend.
So, we had ourselves a peek. Removing one of the tiles, we could see that there was a thin metal crawlway coursing above the ceiling. And it seemed directed toward the girl’s room. Trying to contain my raging teenage hormones, we pulled a chair into the bathroom and crawled into the opening. Stan went first, and I followed. We thought we were being quiet, and that no one would hear us. Soon, we thought, we’d be staring into the girl’s room through one of the air vents, watching them put on make-up, perhaps even seeing one of them lower their trousers to use the toilet.
HIGHSCHOOL GIRL BUSH!!! Could it be that I would finally see it? Would God be so great as to reward me on this critical male mission? Oh, be still, my wild gonads!!
As Stan crawled forward, we suddenly began to realize the gravity – quite literally – of our situation. As reported by a small group of admirers who had saluted us in the boy’s room upon our send-off, the sheet-metal portion of the ceiling was actually bending down quite dangerously. It was also making noise.
Actually, a lot of noise. Our support team who remained below noted in retrospect that it sounded something like a dumpster being banged against the top of a garbage truck. According to Jim Kahn (who later became an attorney and is willing affirm this story into an affidavit), a girl ran out of the restroom, screaming, “Someone’s in the ceiling!”
At that point, we began to sense that a commotion below and decided that … it might be best to abort the mission. We crawled back toward the opening, only to see a dark shadow suddenly block the opening. “Is someone else here?” we thought.
A head popped through the ceiling into our sacred space. It was David Schein. He had a look on his face that could only be described as bewildered amusement, as if he had been waiting his whole career for this moment.
With a broad smile that stretched almost as wide as the opening itself, he said, “Why don’t ya come down here?”
We descended back into the bathroom. I knew Schein was doing everything he could to avoid applauding. One or two other teachers were present (I believe Steve Jones, also with a smile on his face). We actually put our hands against the wall without prompting, as if we were being arrested.
After a brief conversation where Schein asked what we were doing up there (knowing full well), we were assigned lunch-room clean-up for the rest of the week. It was a punishment that I greatly enjoyed, and the whole episode still, these many years later, brings a smile to my face.
And that, again, tells you a great deal about who David Schein was --- as a principal, as a teacher, as a leader, and, most significantly, as a person.
Most of us who taught at Blind Brook High School between 1973 and 1983 recognize that we were fortunate to work with great colleagues and an exceptional principal --- a very, very fortunate pirate crew with a brilliant captain.