For Art Downs, his decades of work in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District were much more than just a job.
The much-beloved founding principal of Community Middle School spoke at dedication plaque ceremony on Sept. 13 honoring his 23 years as principal of CMS and his 50 years in the school district.
The assembled crowd included former teachers, parents, students and staff, as well as Superintendent Dave Aderhold, school board vice president Michele Kaish and current CMS Principal Shaun Carter.
“I called it my second home because of all the hours I spent here before, during, and after the school day,” he said in his speech during the ceremony. “It is remarkable to have a rewarding 50 year career that you really love…one that was filled with new adventures every day. I think that the key to my longevity here was really loving what I was doing.”
Downs is a Jersey boy, who grew up in Lincoln Park, near Wayne and Paterson. His mother stayed at home with her children, then became a telephone operator for 20 years before she retired. His father worked for Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical as a pattern maker and then as a supervisor and trouble shooter on aeronautical engines.
After graduating from Boonton High School, Downs did not immediately go to college, but instead worked in construction for about four years, mostly as a carpenter. In 1955 he enrolled at Upsala College where he took a geology course that he particularly liked. But, after a year, he says, “the weather was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter,” so he transferred to the University of Mississippi, where he graduated in 1959 with a bachelor of science in geology.
In the summer of 1959, when he saw he couldn’t get a job in the field of geology and “the draft board was breathing down my neck,” he joined the Army National Guard for a six-year tour, which required six months of active duty, with the rest as part of the National Guard Reserve.
He then got a part-time job as a chemist at E.F. Drew & Company for six months, did some more carpentry, played in local softball and baseball leagues, and did some Little League coaching. During this period he also took education courses at Montclair State College, with a focus on science, and ultimately got certified as a teacher.
In 1960, Downs got his first job as a seventh-and eighth-grade science teacher at Dutch Neck School. He also taught several periods of sixth-grade science. “It was a sleepy, easy-going township—very rural,” Downs says, “The school was surrounded by a sod farm, potatoes, corn and peas.”
During his eighth year in the district, while still teaching science at Dutch Neck, he became an intern for superintendent Frank Walton’s office, doing administrative work during his planning periods and after school: scheduling, some budgeting, stepping into classes or covering for the superintendent when he was away from school. “I thought I might have more influence on students if I left the classroom and became an administrator. I would have a bigger role in shaping school policies,” Downs says.
Fate intervened through a series of events. The superintendent had a heart attack during the summer of 1968; he went on leave to recover. In the meantime the principal of Maurice Hawk School became acting superintendent, and Downs became acting principal at Maurice Hawk.
By the time the superintendent was ready to resume his job in January 1969, Plainsboro and West Windsor were joining together in a regional school district.
“Whenever two school systems merge, both superintendents have to leave their jobs, and a new superintendent came in,” Downs says. They hired John Hadden, who appointed Downs to be principal at Maurice Hawk permanently.
Downs came into this new role at a K-4 school from eight years teaching sixth to eighth graders. So he took some additional courses in elementary education, but also worked a lot with his teachers.
“I would go observe in classrooms to see how teachers were teaching reading and math to become more familiar with the program,” he says.
‘One reason I stayed so long was I liked to be involved with the kids—I went to all the activities.’
Although Downs enjoyed his eight years at Maurice Hawk, some changes in the district brought him back to Dutch Neck, a 4-6 school at the time, where he stayed until 1986. “The kids were a little bit more mature, and I was more familiar with that grade level than the other grade level. I had a lot of fun with the kids, and they understood my sense of humor,” he says.
Talking about why he was so effective as a principal, Downs mentions “my easygoing manner and not being confrontational and being more of a humanistic approach than an autocratic approach.”
“I developed a good relationship with the kids and had a lot of fun with the kids,” he says. “We had rules and regulations but it was not done in an autocratic way.”
And, he adds that he always approached the teachers “with consideration and fairness.”
“I tried to model behavior. With the kids, that meant talking with them in a matter-of-fact informal way, the way you’d talk to everybody,” he says.
And sometimes he was just hands on with the kids, for example, going outside to play basketball with them. “I ended up having a lot of fun. That’s why I never went to central office administration. I liked to stay where the kids were.”
Toward the end of his tenure at Dutch Neck, the district was experiencing a population boom and was getting ready to build a new middle school. Once it was voted on and approved, the board began looking for other administrators. Although he did have experience with that age group, Downs says, he didn’t even apply because “I was not involved in the middle school movement. I felt like other people would have more experience and qualifications.”
After interviewing several of out-of-district candidates, Downs says, “the superintendent and board members felt they were not finding the person they wanted.” Then he got a phone call from Superintendent Dick Willever, who offered him the job.
“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he says. “I was more inclined to work with a little older students, so I accepted the position.”
He had a year to work with the architect and builders as he oversaw the building of CMS, which at that time was called, “The Middle School.” The plan was for the rising sixth graders to move in 1987 to the new middle school, along with the seventh and eighth graders, who had been at the high school.
Downs also hired administrative staff: assistant principal, secretary, media specialist, language arts and math supervisors. Then the supervisors began interviewing for any new teachers they needed beyond the seventh and eighth grade teachers from the high school whom they brought over.
When they opened, Downs says, “a lot of things in the school were not complete, but we were able to move in and be flexible and adapt to unusual situations.” Because the cafeteria wasn’t finished, students had to bring bagged lunches the first couple of months. The life skills and industrial arts area was not done, but the library was, so that’s where those classes met. The auditorium was not finished.
“A lot of people were working in unusual conditions, and I think that is what helped establish the culture of Community Middle School. Everybody was working closely together and had to be flexible and adaptable. They knew they were creating something from scratch,” Downs says.
“The approach carried over to the kids. The environment in the school, almost anybody who came into the school could tell, it was an exciting and fun place to be,” Downs says.
Initially the new middle school brought over the program the seventh and eight grades had used at the high school, which the first principal of the high school had brought with him from North Jersey. “We used their schedule, which was considered very innovative at the time,” Downs says. The schedule had several segments: the then-five core subjects—language arts, reading, mathematics, social studies, and science—met every day; “cycle” classes in health, art, music, technology, computers, and life skills met in six-week segments; 20 minutes of lunch was followed by 20 minutes of recess; physical education; and a period for electives, most of which change yearly.
Downs was determined to include recess in the schedule. “I wanted to make sure all the kids got outside,” he says, describing a large play area, with asphalt marked for different games, tables where kids could sit and socialize, and huge baseball and softball fields, where kids could walk around.
Downs says, “The schedule was creative and innovative and worked for what we wanted to do.”
Even today the schedule, which still has alternating A and B days, has been flexible enough to accommodate changes including team teaching and world language classes. Varying the order of classes—core classes are longer than the others—for the different grades has also enabled them to relieve crowding in the halls and enables one teacher to teach multiple electives across grade levels, which means more electives for the students to chose from.
The existing schedule worked well to accommodate Dr. T. Roger Taylor’s middle school model. “What we were striving to get to was breaking the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders into teams,” Downs says. By the early 1990s that concept was well entrenched as part of the school culture, with the five teachers of the core subjects each teaching the same hundred students over the course of each day. The Middle School became a showcase for other middle level schools, hosting educators from surrounding states interested in the model.
“The beauty of that was the five teachers had a planning period all at the same time,” Downs says. Not only did the teachers get to know all the children on the team and their parents, but the team model also created important opportunities for the teachers to integrate subject matter.
“We wanted to be sure what we were teaching was relevant and interesting, and we wanted to integrate it so people could see the relationship between science, social studies, language arts, and reading,” Downs says, adding that at each grade level they had four teams.
At first, only reading and language arts were integrated. “It took a couple of years, as we began to grow and had enough teachers at each level that could go into teams, Downs says.
Each year students are reassigned to different teams, Downs says, “so the kids had a chance to meet other students along the way.”
Under Downs’ tenure at the middle school, he facilitated the development of many after-school programs to encourage students to develop academically, physically, and socially.
The athletics program includes both an interscholastic program, where teams compete against other schools, and a club program, where teams from the middle school played each other.
Clubs were often suggested and always run by teachers, who were paid for this extra work. “If teachers had a skill or an interest and wanted to have an afterschool program, they talked to me or one of the other administrators about it, and we would offer it,” he says
They also arranged the bus schedule to encourage participation in club activities, with a 4 p.m. bus following club meetings and a 5 p.m. bus for students involved in interscholastic practices or games.
The origin of the prize-winning Science Olympiad team at Community Middle School shows a bit of Downs’s competitive spirit. Proud of the science program at his school, he had read a lot about the Science Olympiad, “a national program open to any school that can put a team together.”
Downs recalls, “The school district in Montgomery Township where my kids went and where we lived was always winning the Science Olympiad, and I thought our kids are just as talented.” He talked to a couple of teacher s, who agreed to be in charge and eventually hired a teacher from Montgomery, Virginia Baner, who, he says, “was instrumental in developing the Science Olympiad program into what it is today.”
Many other things that Downs had his fingers in made his school unique:
One was that the guidance counselors stayed with the students they were assigned in sixth grade throughout middle school. As a result, Downs says, “the counselors knew the kids and their parents and the kids knew the counselors.”
Downs notes the quality of their special education program, which provides lots of services, and where “the very talented members of the child study team were together for a long time,” she says.
The school also offers evening activities that included four student council dances for seventh and eighth graders and one for sixth graders at the end of the year. Teachers also offer proposals for different activities, and the idea of an “activity night,” with different games, did so well that it was incorporated into the club program every year.
The middle school continued an end-of-year, two-and-a-half day outdoor education program for sixth graders that Downs started when he was principal of Dutch Neck as the culmination of the year’s science program. A teacher applied for the job of supervising the program, which was run by all the sixth-grade teachers.
In the late 1980s, Downs worked with math supervisor Rob Staats to introduce computers in the curriculum. They used computers installed by Apple representatives, who then used the Middle School as an Apple training site to model to other schools.
In the mid-1990s, Downs encouraged language arts supervisor Kay Goerss to start an association of middle-level educators, which spawned the New Jersey Middle School Association (now known as the NJ Association for Middle Level Education). The Middle School hosted the first three years of the association’s conferences.
After his retirement seven years ago, Downs has sought out the leisure activities he didn’t have much time for while he was a school principal and has spent a lot of time at a condo he and his wife have in Hilton Head. “I like to travel, play golf, and fish, but I don’t do enough of either,” he says.
With the opening of Thomas Grover Middle School in 1999, Art selected the new name for what had just been called “The Middle School” to be “Community Middle School,” because of his vision for the middle school to be a “community of learners.”
Looking back on his tenure, Downs says, “I felt it was an exciting place for me to go to every day, because there was always something new. One reason I stayed so long was I liked to be involved with the kids—I went to all the activities.”