A BEACON OF HOPE
Executive Director and CEO
St. Christopher’s, Inc.
St. Christopher’s, Inc. helps children with learning and emotional disabilities build a better future for themselves. Even in the face of funding challenges, and an industry that seems to have lost its hope, the company perseveres and fights for children that are often left behind.
Q: How did your background working at an orphanage and in public education influence your work at St. Christopher’s?
A: The beginning of my professional career as a youth-care counselor, coach and social worker at St. Joseph’s Home in the mid-1970s prepared me for my eventual role as the executive director and CEO of St. Christopher’s. That, combined with my 30-year career as a teacher, dean of students, assistant principal, high school principal and superintendent of schools, prepared me to value education while leading others.
Q: How has St. Christopher’s worked to achieve its 80-percent high school graduation rate among kids with learning disabilities and emotional disabilities?
A: With the inspired help of the Greenburgh-North Castle Union school district, St. Christopher’s has been able to achieve and maintain an 80-percent high school graduation rate for all of our children. What makes this figure remarkable is that all of our children have the added challenges of being diagnosed as learning disabled and emotionally disturbed. In many cases, they have been asked to leave their original school district and have exhausted all community alternative schools. For most of our youngsters, we are their last chance at reversing the cycle of failure and actually graduating with a legitimate New York state diploma. We are able to accomplish this unprecedented goal due to the incredible creativity of the teachers of Greenburgh-North Castle, as well as the youth-care counselors and social workers at St. Christopher’s. Our motto for both the Greenburgh-North Castle school district and St. Christopher’s is, “Failure is no longer an option.”
Q: How is the approach to education at St. Christopher’s different from those of its competitors?
A: Our approach to education is radically different from other similar school districts in that we actually believe our students are capable of great things. Each of our students is immersed in a Regents curriculum program from the time they arrive. In addition to taking all Regents-level courses, we have developed a vocational education strand for our students who are not going directly to college. All of our teachers and staff believe that our students can achieve beyond even their own expectations. This mindset is coupled with a wide array of co-curricular and athletic activities for the students to participate in to make learning a wonderful and joyful experience.
Q: How do you make sure you are hiring the right people to work with kids who often view St. Christopher’s as their “last stop?”
A: At St. Christopher’s, we don’t just hire staff — we actively recruit and search for the right staff to work in our challenging, yet exciting environment. Finding outstanding candidates for all positions at St. Christopher’s, whether it is residential, clinical, operations, clerical or any of the other divisions that deal directly with our students, is the most important thing we can do to ensure our students’ success.
Q: How much weight does St. Christopher’s place on the importance of education in the lives of those it serves, and why?
A: While providing quality residential care, cutting-edge clinical services, and a comprehensive athletic and co-curricular program at all three campuses are important, they are all a distant second to our focus on education. Education is each student’s key to the future. That is why we put education at the top of our priority list. We firmly believe that education is the key determinant to helping our students break from the cycle of failure that has put them in the predicament they are in. With a legitimate New York state high school diploma and a track to either post-secondary education or a strong vocational education program, our students have proven that this is the formula for success.
Q: How do the clinical team and the residential team at St. Christopher’s help set the company apart?
A: We are very particular when recruiting and hiring residential and clinical staff to work with our children. Once on board, the clinical and residential staffs meet weekly to design a program to fit the particular and individual needs of each of our 175 residential students.
Q: How does St. Christopher’s overcome the funding challenges it faces as a result of the lack of state support?
A: Funding is the key essential to all that we do for the children that are entrusted to our care at St. Christopher’s. Fortunately for us, the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) is a beacon of hope for St. Christopher’s and all similar agencies in New York state. It provides the proper support and structure, as well as governance to make certain we meet the needs of all children in our care. The New York State Education Department (NYSED), though well intentioned, sadly provides more verbal support than the critically important financial support needed to care for children who are labeled “hard to place.” These funding inequities should be at the top of Governor Cuomo and the state legislature’s agenda.
Q: How can St. Christopher’s serve as a beacon of hope to others in this industry?
A: I believe we are considered a beacon of hope to other like agencies because of the incredible programs we run, the extraordinary high school graduation rate we achieve, and the many awards that St. Christopher’s has won over the past decade. It is our hope that through training opportunities; hosting local, regional, and state conferences and events; and partnering with several colleges and universities, we will continue to be on the cutting edge of quality residential care, extraordinary clinical services and education that is second to none.