NORTH SALEM, N.Y.-- A 1989 New York Times article reported that workers in mangrove forests of the Ganges Delta in India deterred Bengal tiger attacks by wearing face masks on the backs of their heads. Twenty-eight years later, Mahopac “Indian” Vince DiGrandi voluntarily walked into a den of “Tigers” when he took the helm of North Salem Middle/High School on Aug.15 —sans mask.
“It’s all about visibility,” he said. “I love to go into classes and teach with teachers or learn with kids,” he said, adding that he will get to 10,000 steps a day on his FitBit “without a doubt.”
After the announcement of his departure from Mahopac Middle School in the spring, where he had served as principal since 2013, he felt compelled to defend the move, telling Halston Media that it is “unheard of in education” for administrators to stick with a district for as long as his North Salem predecessors did and the opportunity to apply was “once in a lifetime.”
Dr. Patricia Cyganovich and Dr. George Bovino served as North Salem’s principal and assistant principal for 30 years, and both announced their retirements last spring.
The longevity of their district careers, plus the small class sizes and unique 6-12 age group, attracted him to the role, DiGrandi said.
Having put the rumors to bed, the only thing swirling around him now are the stacks of papers and books he sorts through as he gets situated in his new office. The drivers for his career switch remain the same, as does his loyalty to and esteem for the Mahopac district.
While others were traipsing through the Ganges in 1989, DiGrandi was graduating from Mahopac High School, which is in the district he would find himself working in years later; an opportunity, he said, that was surreal and unique and one he will always appreciate. The proximity of his old digs to North Salem (about 15 minutes) is comforting, he added.
Additionally, the switch offers some conveniences, such as a shorter drive from his home in Bethel, Conn. Nor will he have to change his wardrobe to accommodate new school colors, he joked, as Mahopac and North Salem’s colors are similar (Mahopac’s are blue and gold and North Salem’s are blue and yellow). Luckily, due to their drastically different sizes, the school teams are not rivals, either, so he won’t find himself caught in the cross fire.
DiGrandi said he looks forward to contributing to the positive and passionate atmosphere he sees in the North Salem district.
“I want to be a student here,” he joked, after citing the school’s range of classes and after-school programs. Fortunately, so do the students.
“This is the center of life for these kids,” DiGrandi said. “They always want to be here.”
DiGrandi, who went to the University of Nebraska on a baseball scholarship before finishing his education at Fordham University in the Bronx, said he has an appreciation for the positive influence sports can have on a student. However, he said North Salem offers plenty of opportunities for students to cultivate teamwork skills and learn to navigate wins and losses while following their individual passions.
While 75 percent of North Salem Middle/High School students participate in a sport, there are plenty of other clubs in areas of interest such as music and art, he said.
“There is something for everybody,” he said, noting the school’s 3-D printer and associated computer graphics classes.
At Mahopac Middle School, educational tools and events such as Immigration Day, when students research their ancestry before embarking on an Ellis Island-like experience created by their social studies teachers, were prevalent. DiGrandi said he is happy to see that the North Salem district allows students and teachers to flex their creativity via authentic learning experiences versus “rote memorization,” citing the OPTIONS program, where students explore areas of interest through real-world internships, and projects where they’re asked to dream up a memorial they would add to Washington, D.C., and why, after their field trip to the capital.
“To me that’s a huge academic choice for a kid to be so creative,” he said. “The more I can get kids out into the real world, the more authentic the experiences are.”
DiGrandi said his priority right now is getting to know everyone and building trust with students and teachers.
“You have to get to know the person, be that the kid or teacher first, before you can teach them or learn from them,” he said. “I need to know them before I can lead them and they need to know me as well.”
All jokes aside about wanting to be a student himself, DiGrandi admitted to not knowing everything and being OK with that. He said he looks forward to what the students and staff at the school will teach him.
“I can honestly tell you I know I don’t know everything. I’ll find somebody who does know something about that topic, and I’ll leverage them,” he said. “There is no place for ego in education, I’ll tell you that.”
He said he is glad that the new assistant principal, the former chair of the science department, Kathleen Murphy, has worked at the school for 11 years, and can help him learn the ropes. She assumed her role Aug. 14, and the two will be navigating their new positions in tandem. Both said their aim is to get their bearings, versus come in shaking things up right off the bat.
“It’s a high-performing district, so my mindset is how do you move from good to great?” he said. “They’re very good, so how can we tighten up some things, and be creative, and [improve.] That constant mindset of improvement I think is what excites me the most,” he said.