Scarsdale High School’s new Principal Kenneth Bonamo will be on the job next month. In an effort to learn more about the former Russian teacher and current principal of Townsend Harris High School in Queens, Scarsdale10583 sent Bonamo a few questions and here is what he shared with us:
Tell us something about your background in education: What initially lead you to a career in teaching and administration and how did you come to specialize in Russian? I always loved teaching. I volunteered in high school to teach elementary school students after school, and I would try to teach my younger sister the material I was learning in high school (much to her displeasure, I might add). When I started working as a substitute teacher at my alma mater, and I walked into a classroom for the first time, it felt magical. Within two months, I was hired full time. It was a wonderful experience. As I took on leadership roles as a teacher, the desire to focus more on leadership moved me in the direction of becoming an administrator.
Russian was the only language my high school offered. In my freshman year, I participated in an exchange program in which I hosted a Russian student and got to travel to Russia (then the Soviet Union). The experience changed my life, and I enjoyed and did quite well in Russian class. I started college as a pre-med major. My first semester of two lab sciences quickly led me to reassess, so I returned to the subject I loved. It turned out to be the right choice.
To what do you ascribe your success at Townsend Harris High School? I had the good fortune of working with an outstanding administrative team, dedicated teachers, talented students, and engaged parents and alumni.
What are the school values and how are they communicated to the students? Our school places a strong emphasis on the Ephebic Oath, in which students pledge to leave their city greater than they found it. The tradition of the school is to ask the entire student body recite it at Founders' Day and at graduation, to coordinate school-wide service projects, to honor students who serve with their own honor society, and to require 40 hours of service every year for the Townsend Harris Honor Certificate.
What similarities do you see between your current position and the new post as the Principal at Scarsdale High School? I think the profiles of the students are somewhat similar in terms of achievement and motivation. The level of community engagement and commitment at Townsend Harris is unusually high for a city school, so I think you could find some similarities there. I've also sensed an intellectual spirit and professionalism among faculty members that feels familiar. Both schools have a robust menu of athletic and other extracurricular offerings as well.
What have been the biggest challenges you faced at Townsend and what do you believe will be the biggest challenges in Scarsdale? In both cases, I think the personal challenges at the outset are integrating myself in the community, learning what the concerns and priorities are, and gaining credibility as a leader who listens, who consults, and who makes decisions as collaboratively as possible. The professional challenge in high-performing schools is finding ways to grow and move forward when most qualitative and quantitative measures indicate little room for growth. Finding those areas requires conversations and thoughtful reflection with many members of the community, and often the answer lies in allowing talented individuals the time and resources to experiment with initiatives.
From what you have seen already in Scarsdale, what do you think you might seek to change or add to the SHS experience? I think it's too soon for an answer to that. Much more time is needed to discover those areas where there is room for fine-tuning or new ideas.
How do you feel about state testing and Scarsdale's move from the AP to AT program? I am concerned with the overemphasis on test scores, especially when used to evaluate teachers, and especially in an environment again where it is difficult to show quantitative growth. So much of the high-school experience cannot be measured by a test. Students and teachers are not motivated by test scores alone. I think they are motivated by the opportunity to share and learn new ideas and experiences, most of which cannot be reduced to a multiple-choice question. Objective assessments have their place in terms of informing instruction and assessing student learning to the degree appropriate; they will always be with us. An overemphasis or over -reliance on these tests is ill-advised.
I think the move from AP to AT was bold and creative. From what I know of it, the AT program has allowed teachers the room for creativity that is sometimes lost in AP classes, while it also allows students to take the AP exams if they wish. It sounds like an excellent way to respond to the dangers of curriculum constriction and test anxiety.
What is most appealing about the new position? Scarsdale has a well deserved and longstanding reputation as a leader in education, not only in New York State but in the country. I am honored to have been selected to lead the high school and to be a part of such an outstanding district and community. The commitment of teachers and of the families to excellence in education is evident from the many conversations I've had, and I look forward to meeting more people who make Scarsdale the great place that it is.
On a personal note, what hobbies or interests do you pursue when you are not at work? I love to travel, to go to the theater, to read, and to spend quality time with family and friends.
Do you have questions for the community? I'd like to know what they'd like to see in a new principal, in terms of leadership and priorities. Where might there be room for growth, and how do we live up to the motto of Non Sibi in meaningful ways? What does that look like in practice?