The last day of school at Phillips Avenue Elementary School Friday will finish like most last days in school years past, with the annual fourth-grade “clap out” — a special send-off for students moving up to Pulaski Street School.
But this year will be different. It will be the last “clap out” for Phillips Avenue Principal Debra Rodgers, who, after 12 years at the helm of the Riverside elementary school, will bid her “Phillips family” a final farewell.
Rodgers, 56, is retiring after 33 years as an educator — 18 of them in Riverhead, beginning in July 2004. She came to Riverhead from Eastport-South Manor and started as principal at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School and moved to Phillips in 2010 at the request of then-Superintendent Nancy Carney.
In her office last week, surrounded by memorabilia, photos and books — with a puppy she’s raising for Canine Companions at her side — Rodgers reflected on her time at a school that’s been her second home for the past dozen years. A lot has changed since in that time, starting with the demographics of community served by the school.
“When I first came here, it was pretty much a split, 33% across the board, white, Hispanic and Black,” Rodgers said. “And that has significantly changed. We’re over 80% Hispanic at this point.”
Rodgers said the school staff is always asking, “How do we make it better? How do we serve our students? What are we doing to best meet their needs?”
That has led to the development of innovative new approaches, such as the dual language program at Phillips, where more than 60% of the students are English language learners.
The program works because it strengthens the students’ skills in their native language, which helps them master a new language, she said.
The dual language program has led to students graduating from the high school with dual-language and bi-literacy skills.
“You put that on your resume, you’re looking at some really nice skill sets when you graduate college- and career-ready,” Rodgers said.
Phillips established the district’s first school-based food pantry, which came about as a result of conversations with staff members about the needs of Phillips students. They discussed how school vacation meant many students in the school would not have consistent access to food, she said.
According to State Education Department data, 70% of the school’s 565 students are economically disadvantaged.
“It actually started with a pancake breakfast,” Rodgers recalled. “And again, it’s a testament to the staff here.” Staff members volunteered to come to the school the day before Thanksgiving, when school was closed. They donated all the food and everything else and served breakfast to students and their families, serving about 700 people throughout the morning, Rodgers said.
“And then from there, it was like, OK, so now what other outreach can we do?”
Rodgers said they started talking with Island Harvest about opening a food pantry.
“Our head custodian at that time agreed to clean out the closet,” she said. And the Phillips Avenue food pantry was born. It had a lot of support right from the start. The Riverhead Central Faculty Association does annual food drives for us and local organizations donated food and other goods.
“Thanks to amazing donations,” Rodgers said, the school has been able to supply every student with a backpack and all of their school supplies. “A family shouldn’t have to choose between a meal or their kid’s school supplies,” she said.
“There really is not a single thing that I have done alone,” Rodgers said. “It really, truly is a group effort and a team effort. And not just the staff here. But this community rallies like no community I’ve ever been in,” she said. “And you know, I’m thrilled to actually be a resident of this community as well, living in Aquebogue.”
From the moment a student attends kindergarten orientation, Rodgers said, the school “welcomes the student and their family to out Phillips Avenue family.” Rodgers stressed the importance of having families partner in their children’s education.
The school strives to break down barriers, so “school isn’t this place that you only get a call from if your kid’s in trouble,” Rodgers said.
“The teachers are doing an amazing job reaching out to families and connecting with them. And we’ve increased that with COVID in different and unique ways,” she said. The goal is to make Phillips “truly just a welcoming place and having the school become the center of this community.”
Rodgers said when she first started at Phillips, a lot of teachers in the district didn’t even know where the school was. As the district’s only school “across the river,” in Southampton Town, it often felt separated from the rest of the district.
The new principal set about to change that, hosting every possible district-wide meeting at the school, to make sure people who worked at other schools and parents whose children went to other schools in the district got to see Phillips and get to know “this amazing school and this amazing community,” Rodgers said.
“We we’ve done a lot to show people the value of of Phillips Avenue and and this community,” she said.
Not all of the changes over the years have been positive though. The current threat climate arising after multiple school shootings and measures schools have had to implement to protect students and staff has had emotional impacts on everyone.
“You know, prior to Sandy Hook, I never questioned whether I was going to be home that night or not,” Rodgers said. After the Sandy Hook massacre, that possibility became a reality for teachers and principals across the country. “Never, ever did that enter my mind.”
The new reality made school administrators take a hard look at things and prepare students for the worst-case scenario, and do it in a gentle, incremental way, Rodgers said. There is a district-wide school management plan and “we are safe,” Rodgers said. “And so we teach kids we are safe at every assembly.” The staff goes over emergency procedures to help children remain calm in the event of an emergency of any kind, she said: find your teacher, know which door is the emergency exit to use, know what to do and where to go.
“Situational awareness,” Rodgers said.
Bringing parents into the process is critical, she said. “We let them know we are doing everything possible to keep their children safe. We take safety and security extremely serious,” she said.
“I have been so blessed to do something that I was meant to do from a higher power — something that I’m extremely passionate about,” Rodgers said. “And I think leading with love is really kind of at its core, what I’ve tried to do,” she said.
“And in leading with love, it means that you are accepting, welcoming and embracing everybody. And while my history may be very different than others, we have a lot of similarities, right? And this community has been extremely accepting of who I am, and of my family and my wife,” she said.
“And those that aren’t accepting of who I choose to love, accept me for the contributions that I give here at school. And so while we might not agree on everything, ultimately, we want what’s best for kids. I think it’s at its core,” Rodgers said.
“It’s a testament to this community and the staff here at Philips Avenue, is we’ve always kept that at the forefront. It’s about the kids. And the staff has gone above and beyond for kids. It’s always ‘kids first’ here at Phillips.”
Chrissie Turner of Flanders said that’s been her family’s experience at Phillips. “The kids come first,” she said.
“All the teachers were fabulous because they work with her,” she said.
“Phillips really is a family,” she said.
“Not only did my kids have an amazing school experience but I made a lifelong friend,” Turner said. “I love her, I really do.”
Melissa Copobianco, also a Flanders resident and a mother of four — three of whom have graduated from Phillips — echoed that sentiment.
She said Rodgers is “a wonderful, gentle person, who is very kind and considerate — patient, understanding of the different dynamics children come to school with… She had such an impact on my children. They have taken away so much on how to advocate for themselves and how they feel, and knowing it’s OK to be unique.”
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