Johanne Gaddy was named principal at William L. Buck Elementary School earlier this month, becoming the first female African-American to hold the position in the school’s 66-year history. Gaddy will succeed Susan Leggett, who recently retired.
As a seasoned educator, Gaddy will bring two decades of educational experience to her administrative role. She previously served as a classroom teacher at West End Elementary School in Lynbrook for five years, and has held various other positions, including learning specialist, coach and principal’s assistant in suburban and urban settings. Gaddy has an undergraduate degree in psychology from SUNY Stony Brook and a master’s in education and educational leadership from LIU C.W. Post.
“Regardless of my role in education, I have always been a person who focuses on building relationships with the students and working with their families,” Gaddy said. “I truly believe in partnership and community. Because no individual is an island unto himself, I describe myself as having an inclusive style of leadership.”
To that end, Gaddy has gone on a listening tour over the summer, gathering feedback from stakeholders in the school community. This has entailed discussions of school operations with teachers and parents, arranging a student get-together, meeting with PTA members, staying in close contact with the two other elementary school principals in the district and consulting with Superintendent Dr. Don Sturz in developing a clear vision for the upcoming year.
“Students really had a year of loss — loss of loved ones, playtime and normalcy,” Gaddy said. “My top priority is to have a safe opening and to foster a nurturing environment. And we, as a district, have come to a decision to focus the first four days of school on social-emotional learning, which means building community, learning about the students and giving students an opportunity to voice how they’re feeling.”
Gaddy also discussed forward-thinking plans coming down the line to make certain all students will be on track to meet grade-level standards.
“This year we’re going to do vertical alignment meetings where the teacher of one student will be able to sit with that student’s teacher from the year prior. Our goal is get information about each student, including their background, interests and strengths, to leverage their academic abilities every day.”
Gaddy’s hiring is an important move by the district, signaling a big first step in trying to push for a more diverse and inclusive body of qualified school officials. Last year, William L. Buck saw the creation of the Diversity, Inclusion, Equity Committee, which ultimately helped to seat the school’s first professional woman of color at the head of the administrative table.
“It’s fantastic for the kids and staff to have a female woman of color serving a very diverse district, acting as a role model and a leader,” said Brandy Scott, president of the Long Island Black Educators Association. Scott and her organization have worked with a number of school districts in Valley Stream to help diversify hiring, bring issues of diversity and equity to the fore, and move schools forward on a diverse curriculum.
Dafny Irizarry, president of the Long Island Latino Teachers Association, believes Gaddy’s qualifications and background make her uniquely poised to understand the needs of the students “from multiple perspectives,” not only because she is “well-educated and informed on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” but also because she “identifies with and reflects” the changing demographic realities of her district.
According to 2019 demographic data from U.S. News & World Report, roughly 40 percent of students at William L. Buck Elementary School are Hispanic and 23 percent are Black. The predominantly minority student population reflects the growth in Black and Hispanic populations and the marked decline of white residents in the district.
But while public schools across Long Island have seen a surge in the diversity of their students, the same cannot be said for the presence of school professionals of color. Valley Stream District 24 is no exception.
Data from the Elementary-Secondary Staff Information Report shows that of the roughly 190 professional school staff members among the district three elementary schools, only a minor handful of them are from a minority background. This is not a surprising figure, nor is it rare. For years now, the alarming lack of minority school professionals in public schools nationwide has remained an ongoing concern among educators and scholars alike.
A study published by Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies details how Latino and Black students who have teachers who match their race or ethnicity show improvement in a host of educational outcomes—from higher test scores and graduation rates to fewer suspensions and decreased dropout rates.
Even as the landscape of public schools remains chiefly deprived of diverse role models, Gaddy’s appointment sends a note of hope to school districts, officials say.
“I’ve been the first Black teacher for students in other districts and communities, and I know there are few African-American teachers in educational settings in communities on Long Island,” Gaddy said. “Representation matters, and it’s important for all students to see people from different races and backgrounds. When our students leave the elementary school and move on to the greater community, they will be working and living in a vastly diverse world. I hope my role here can be a positive one.”
Gaddy also expressed confidence in the equity that, according to her, can already be found in the school district. There is an outpouring of concern and attention for every student, parent and staff member, which, for Gaddy, guarantees that “everyone has a voice, and everyone has a role because at the end of the day. It’s all about belonging.”