“This is a personal business,” said retiring Mamaroneck High School Principal Mark Orfinger on his last day at work.
Dr. Orfinger retired effective today, July 1, after 18 years as a high school principal. He’ll be trading in staff meetings and student lunches for more vacations and lots of shows in the city with his wife, Marilyn, who also retired this year.
Reflecting on his 13 years as principal at MHS, Dr. Orfinger focused on “the human dimension” – his relationships with faculty, students and parents. He hired 75% of the current staff (who now number around 150) and stood by as many new teachers married and began their own families.
“I worked really hard for 13 years on personalization,” Dr. Orfinger said. He wanted to create something more than a high school that was “just academic.” Each week he invited a different group of students for lunch and conversation. He encouraged extra-curriculars of all sorts and student government and leadership.
At one of several celebrations honoring Dr. Orfinger, former PTSA co-president Margaret Corbett described a familiar sight at MHS: “He stood out in front of the building virtually every morning and knew (or learned) every student by name.” He even could identify the parents of the students.
The MHS That Was: Fragmented
When Dr. Orfinger arrived in 1997, there were only 1100 students, in contrast to the 1500 now housed there. Only a dozen or so student clubs were available (now there are seventy). Students did not have access to the computers and cell phones that now are part of everyday life, nor could they take electives like Forensics and Women in Literature.
In addition, there was “fragmentation,” Dr. Orfinger said. The school was essentially divided into two schools, a Post Building and a Palmer Building. There were two sets of mailboxes for teachers, a different assistant principal for each building – even separate custodial teams. Guidance counselors were housed in both buildings. Students found their way into a number of “dark corners,” and teachers complained that students were disruptive in the halls outside classrooms.
Parents reported the feeling that the school was “closed” to them. Many felt there was no point raising issues or concerns, Dr. Orfinger recalled, because “they got buried.”
The Transformation of MHS
Dr. Orfinger spent his first five years trying to open things up. He began holding several evening “Coffee and Conversation” meetings each year, focusing them around substantive topics, including communication, curriculum, and placement for honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
He worked with department chairs to encourage a broad view of the school. The chairs had been working well for their individual departments, he recalled, but not so much for “the school at large.” Now, he said, the department chairs do an exceptional job working both within their individual groups, and with each other. Existing “pockets of excellence” have been expanded. The result: “more collaboration, system wide.” Efforts to improve consistency are ongoing.
The construction that followed the district’s $49 million construction bond in 2001 had a dramatic impact on the school, Dr. Orfinger recalled. He credited former Mamaroneck Schools Superintendent Dr. Sherry King with the vision behind the project. It “made two different parts of the school into one school,” he said. The new science wing was opened in 2003 and the new addition, with overpass, opened in 2004.
The construction was difficult, and so was the ultimate relocation of mailboxes, classrooms and support staff. “Change is hard,” noted Dr. Orfinger. “It’s been a process,” he said, but “the bones have healed.”
The new construction went a long way in alleviating fragmentation. Guidance offices, the library, and the student café were centrally located on a concourse joining the two buildings. The architectural changes, Dr. Orfinger believes, made the school “more student friendly” and encouraged unified departments.
Impact of “At Risk” Programs and Additional Support for Latino Students
In recent years, Dr. Orfinger noted, the school has done a better job of “meeting the needs of all kids.” Now, students who are deemed at risk of falling through the cracks are each “attached” to someone at the school: a psychologist, counselor or administrator. Not all of these students will graduate in four years – but many will in the fifth year, Dr. Orfinger predicted, rather than dropping out.
The needs of Latino students and families are now being better met, said Dr. Orfinger. This group has grown from around 11-12% to about 17-18%, he noted. “We’ve always prided ourselves on diversity; that’s been translated into action.” Increased emphasis on Latino outreach and translation “feels right” to him.
These changes have created a different climate school-wide, said Dr. Orfinger. Very few teachers are “deeply unhappy” about the level of student respect. Moreover, as reported at the goals presentation to the school board, there are significantly fewer referrals for disciplinary issues.
The result: things are “as peaceful and happy as you can find in a high school,” he said.
Open Campus and Other Freedoms
“We give a lot of freedom,” acknowledged Dr. Orfinger, citing the open campus and free periods. Every few years, parents question these liberties. After 13 years, however, Dr. Orfinger “can say definitively that the open campus is a good thing.”
“There is a somberness” that permeates many high schools, said Dr. Orfinger. In contrast, at Mamaroneck, students do not feel they are “under siege.” Students are “energized” and “vibrant.” Many use their free periods to do work. And, he noted, “it’s a healthy thing for them to unwind and talk to a friend.”
During his 13 years, Dr. Orfinger regularly hosted round table discussions with recent graduates. Many students reported that features like the open campus, drop-block schedule and free periods helped prepare them for college.
Creation and Nurturing a Community
Asked to reflect on a few favorite moments, Dr. Orfinger focused on community. Not only were the trips to state championships for the baseball and hockey teams exciting from an athletic perspective, but there were “literally dozens and dozens of kids, alumni and parents wearing black and orange” several hours from home.
He also referenced the Taste of Mamaroneck, which brought together local restaurants to celebrate the opening of the new café, and the creation of the Tigers Learning Lounge, which provides free tutoring by parents and community members. Both of these were initiatives of the Planning Council, a group of staff, administrators, parents and students mandated by state law. Although many of these groups accomplish little, the MHS Planning Council has been “very productive,” concluded Dr. Orfinger.
When asked about challenges facing the school, Dr. Orfinger praised the “tremendous creativity” of the high school staff in all areas, not just electives. In an age with “an understandable emphasis on measureable goals,” he said, it will be important to maintain those things that are less easy to measure, like “the faces of the kids” as they are engaged in class and participate in animated discussions.
A number of teachers will retire next year with the expiration of the existing teachers’ contract, predicted Dr. Orfinger. “Bringing strong teachers on board” will be important, he said. Without them, the school won’t be able to maintain academic excellence.
Conversations about encouraging students to “go deeper and not just broader” should continue, he believes. The New York State calendar year for students, which starts fairly late and continues through Regents exams in June, makes it hard for students to cover all the material needed in AP classes, which culminate with national exams in mid-May. Nevertheless, he does not feel that students should be arbitrarily limited to a particular number of AP classes.
In addition to these challenges mentioned by Dr. Orfinger, the school will face the challenge of acclimating to a new principal. So far, the district has been unable to hire even an interim principal.
Dr. Orfinger conceded that he had underestimated how long change takes in a school. “But it’s worth waiting,” he said. And he’s learned patience as a result.