High school principal, formerly a teacher, recounts changes
By Alison Rooney
Julia Sniffen pulls out a framed photo from a shelf in her office and points to a child. “I called him in recently and showed it to him and told him he was in diapers then, now he’s 18 and graduating,” she says.
Soon the Connecticut native will be able to say that frequently, as this marks her 20th school year with the Haldane Central School District in Cold Spring. She began as an elementary school teacher in 1997-98 (when she was Julia Marchinkowski) and is now the high school principal.
In a recent conversation, Sniffen reflected on her time at Haldane. Her remarks have been condensed.
What has brought you the greatest satisfaction?
Watching the students grow, seeing them making good decisions, to hopefully be a positive influence — that’s the greatest reward. My role is, first, to be sure that the school is safe, and then to allow each student to find his or her own voice, not to tell them what their voice should be. Mental health is the most important thing, making kids feel good about who they are.
You get so proud of your students through the years; you become so involved at stages of the lives; whether they’re getting a job, or have found an incredible BOCES [vocational] program that’s just right for them, it’s exciting. You always want to know how they’re doing. I’ve even seen a few become teachers here themselves. When I started, Tom and Joe Virgadamo, Ryan McConville, Kristin Peparo and Michelle Grasso were all still students.
Did you always want to be a teacher?
There was never a question. When I was hired at Haldane as a student teacher for the third and fourth grade, my mom said, “I’m so glad I’m not a student anymore” because of all the times I had made her play school as a kid.
I also coached varsity girls’ soccer. I took over Mrs. Battersby’s third-grade class when she was on maternity leave. Then I taught fourth grade and also moved into other areas, mainly in technology.
In 2005, when the new high school was built, my title was middle school coordinator. When Brian Alm arrived as high school principal, my title changed to assistant principal, elementary/middle school. After eight years of being a teacher, I felt a need to learn more. The administrative piece fit right in with that.
The approach to instruction has changed tremendously. When I arrived there was no internet. Now, teaching kids how to be problem-solvers is huge. We’re asking them to think more deeply, not just skim the surface. There used to be so much more memorizing. Now it’s about analysis, synthesizing, making connections. Things which used to start in college are woven through all grade levels.
Social media has complicated things. I believe in human interaction, face to face, so you can see emotions. I try hard not to go near it, although I also think, as a principal, that you need a presence.
What are the benefits of staying at one school?
I’ve worked for three elementary principals, five high school principals, four superintendents, and many directors of special education. When you don’t need to learn the culture of the school you can observe and learn more easily. Brian and I were the longest and closest in terms of being able to debate, discuss, process and argue, but when the door opened, we were a team.
How did you get the high school job?
Dr. Bowers [Superintendent Diana Bowers] split the middle school from elementary, so we had three principals instead of two. I was assistant middle school principal, so I shifted to principal. When [high school principal] Peter Carucci left in 2017, Dr. Bowers asked if I could pitch in.
I couldn’t have been a high school principal five years earlier; I wasn’t ready. But my own kids are older [William is 13 and Caroline, 11] and I don’t have to spend as much time with them as I did earlier, and I also have had life experiences that can help me help an 18-year-old.
How have your concerns about security changed?
I was here when Columbine happened [in 1999]. The world was so different; I didn’t even hear about it until our board meeting that night. Sandy Hook changed my philosophy and theory of safe schools. It used to be all hugs and friendliness. Now we need to be sure our kids are safe. Mental health is a big part of it. The relationship I’ve had with each of our SROs [school resource officers] has given me the perspective of someone trained in a different way that I am, and that’s valuable; otherwise we could miss something.
Does Haldane help prepare its high school students to leave?
It’s a gradual release, almost equivalent to what happens between kindergarten and third grade. There are touchpoints along the way, like getting released for 10th period with no supervision, or not needing an adult to get them off the bus.
It begins in high school with freshmen having to spend lunch in the cafeteria. By the time they’re seniors they have all kinds of off-campus privileges which don’t require them to be here every period. For the seniors, we have a panel of our college freshmen come in at the end of their first year to talk to them.
This will be my second graduation speech. Last year, I had only been in the job for three months, so I called on Brian and Stephanie [Impellittiere, the former Garrison School principal] for help, because, for instance, the Garrison kids barely knew me. This year’s speech will be the first one that comes directly from me.
Where did you meet your husband, Jeff?
I was teaching third grade. He came to the door and said, “I’m your sub.” And I said, “No, you’re not — I’m here, so I don’t need you.” Those were our first words! A year later, we went out to dinner. A couple of years after we met, we were engaged. We kept it under wraps. He was a sub, then a leave replacement, then he taught kindergarten, second grade, eventually sixth. We were constantly juggling the same classes of kids in different years.
Our relationship has never not known Haldane. It used to be harder, both of us here; now it’s easier, because I’m not running the middle school faculty room. Jeff is an awesome teacher — I think I’m allowed to say that! — though I’ve never observed him formally, of course! And our kids are so active now that there’s not a lot of conversation about Haldane at home. We looked at buying a house in Cold Spring when the kids were younger but realized they would be “The Sniffen Children” and needed to weigh that.
What are three positives about Haldane?
Our students are spectacular role models. I’m constantly impressed. That’s coupled by the care and concern of this high school staff for these kids. Finally, the community; if I need something I can pick up the phone. The love is deep. So many people have been deeply involved for so many years. We have people who graduated 50 years ago always coming back here, with pride.
How about three challenges?
Ensuring in a small school that all students have what they need to grow and learn to be all they can be. The inability for people to have differences of opinion and to be able to work together to come up with a consensus. And the fiscal constraints are different that they used to be. You want to do everything, but you get stuck.