Tom Cozzocrea knows he has big shoes to fill, but he’s ready for the challenge.
Earlier this month, the Mahopac Board of Education hired Cozzocrea as the new Mahopac Middle School principal. He will take the place of Vince DiGrandi—a beloved figure in the school community—who left this summer to take a principal’s position in the North Salem School District.
“Replacing someone like Vince is a challenge; I have heard great things about him,” Cozzocrea said. “But I think the school is in a really great place. The atmosphere and the staff are really positive. I am looking forward to that. There is already a lot of structure in place and the staff and students enjoy going there.”
Cozzocrea, 44, said he hopes to take what DiGrandi created and build on it.
“I will be able to take advantage of it and continue to grow the many things he established and bring a little something extra myself,” he said. “I’ve really observed and have seen all the things they have in place.”
Cozzocrea is no stranger to Mahopac. He grew up in Carmel and is a Carmel High School graduate. He said he knows there is a rivalry between the two schools and thinks that’s a good thing.
“I know how great Mahopac is from growing up in Carmel and I want to implement some things I’ve learned in Carmel,” he said. “I loved the rivalry between them. That passion brings the community together. It brings people together with the pride they feel for their town. I look forward to being an Indian.”
Over the last 12-plus years, Cozzocrea worked for the New York City Department of Education. His first nine years were spent teaching fifth grade and he’s worked the last three years as an administrator.
Cozzocrea received his bachelor’s degree in communications from SUNY Oswego. He earned a master’s degree in education and a master’s degree in school building leadership from Mercy College.
He attended the New York City Leadership Academy program in preparation for taking a leadership position in an urban school. Most recently he was principal of a pre-K to eighth-grade school in the Bronx.
Cozzocrea said he will set goals and priorities for the school once he gets to better know his faculty and the students and is able to pick their brains a bit.
“I want to get to know my teachers and staff and learn their strengths and what they are best at,” he said.
The new principal said that he knows the district has recently made great strides in improving its technology and he wants to take advantage of that and see it continue.
“I want to be part of the technology, which is getting stronger because it’s so important in today’s education,” he said. “The idea of collaboration is really important among teachers. They can spend so much time working in solitude, but technology makes it easier to for them to collaborate. And the more trust we have [between teachers], the better.”
To make sure technology is implemented in the most efficient manner, Cozzocrea said ongoing training is essential.
“As we implement the technology, we want to make sure the staff is trained and our students feel comfortable with it and we can implement it in the best way possible,” he said.
Cozzocrea also said he’s aware that Mahopac schools are known for their arts and music programs and is a staunch supporter of them.
“I think the arts are really valuable,” he said. “We need to expose [students] to as much as possible. They are so willing to learn when they have a passion and we need to get them to understand what that is. If we don’t do it, they could be losing out. There are opportunities in these fields that they can enjoy for their whole life.”
He added that he believes in getting students to think about college and the areas of study they may want to pursue starting in middle school.
Cozzocrea, who lives in Pawling with his wife and two children, will officially take the reins of the principal’s job on Aug. 28. He is ready to hit the ground running.
“I want to understand the community and the students,” he said. “I want to talk to the students and see what areas they would like to have changed and what makes them love going to Mahopac Middle School and what they would like to see in the school. I want to be able to help my staff and I am looking forward to learning from them as well.”
He said he envisions his administration as a collaborative effort, not a dictatorship.
“Every successful school that you walk into has a collaborative environment where everyone has a voice,” he said. “I will have an open-door policy; that’s 100 percent true.”