Years after his retirement, former Community Middle School Principal Arthur C. Downs is still remembered for his impact on the WW-P school district.
For this reason, a group of Downs’ former coworkers, students, peers and other members of the WW-P community banded together to honor him for his 50-year career with the district.
In the wake of the dedication plaque ceremony held on Sept. 13 honoring Downs, the News spoke with a number of the people who were involved in the effort.
Teachers were a cornerstone of the institution Downs created, and he listened to them. Sue Kluxen, seventh-grade social studies teacher at Community Middle School, recalls her surprise at her first faculty meeting with regard to Downs’s sincere interest in teacher input.
She says, “I had worked in other districts, and Art was asking his staff their opinion, and truly wanted to know, and took that information and worked on it, and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do—you’re the experts.’”
“He felt like he hired the best, and he did whatever needed to be done to help them be successful,” Kluxen says.
He also encouraged them to move forward with good ideas. In 2004 Patrick Lepore, who teaches eighth-grade TV and film production and seventh-grade broadcast journalism, broached his idea for the Wake-Up Community, a four- to six-minute broadcast each morning that makes announcements, covers events that have occurred, and promotes events that are coming up.
Lepore said that if a teacher presented him with an idea and they were able to show that students would learn from it and acquire other skills to make them a more well-rounded person in the future, “he would back you 120 percent,”
Donna Gil, a retired teacher of English as a Second Language, talks of Downs’ support of special projects she wanted to do with her students. “He always supported every one of them verbally, and he supported them financially when we needed money.”
“He supported that ESL program, and those kids thrived,” she says. “By time they got to high school, many were out of the program and in mainstream classes.”
Former counselor Lynn Fisher, who worked with Downs from 1974 on and retired the same year he did, speaks of him as a motivator. “He’s generally been able to get people to do things. You may be hesitant; then he encourages you again to do it; and before you know it, you’re immersed.”
Faith Scibienski, a counselor who started at the middle school 15 years ago, also speaks to “how Dr. Downs would encourage teachers to advise after school activities.” Of her involvement in Project Pride, which “supports the growth of leadership skills for students who may be shy or need confidence,” she says that when she started, “I didn’t know what it was, then I grew to love it.”
Much of Downs’ success grew out of the personal relationships he created with everyone in his school community.
“He would just keep track of what was going on personally, even with kids,” Fisher says.
Colleen Pedersen, a counselor who started at the middle school in 1982, speaks of his commitment to and caring for the entire school community, noting the attendance at the ceremony of school secretaries, cafeteria aides, children, parents, family, and current and retired teachers. “It was such a diverse group that came back to honor him. It was indicative of how he felt that every job was important in the school to make the school function.”
Ellen Burgess, a counselor who started in the middle school in 1988, speaks to his relationship with children, as expressed in letters and emails about how special Art was to them: “He would pick up a kid at home when he was afraid to come to school. If a kid was in the hospital with a heart transplant, Art was there for them.” She continues, “He truly cared. He would remember your kids’ names. It was so personal with him that he wormed his way into your heart.”
Scibienski recalls, “He was thrilled to attend my wedding. He was there to meet my firstborn after a little bit of time… I don’t know if anybody could enumerate how many weddings, funerals, births, showers and hospital stays that he in his free time made it a point to attend.”
Downs also showed his appreciation in the smallest of ways. “It was personal to him; it was his people, his school,” Kluxen says. “If there was a delayed opening, coffee and bagels were sitting there—because you had made a treacherous ride in.”
Pedersen speaks of his commitment to and caring for the entire school community, noting the attendance at the ceremony of school secretaries, cafeteria aids, children, parents, family, and current and retired teachers. “It was such a diverse group that came back to honor him. It was indicative of how he felt that every job was important in the school to make the school function.”
Downs also made parents welcome. Michele Kaish, current school board vice president and a PTA activist whose older two sons were at the middle school during Downs’ tenure, says, “It was most memorable for me that as a parent he always encouraged and supported parental involvement and participation at the school and he always valued parental help, input, suggestions, and collaboration. He was very generous with his time, and he welcomed parents into the school to work together to make the school better for the kids.”
But at the center of Downs’ effectiveness as a principal was his understanding and love of children. “Art found a way, if there was a kid who needed a club or a place to fit in, he would find a way to create an activity where that kid would feel at home,” says Burgess.
“The kids adored him. He was in the hall, was always in the classroom,” Pederson adds. “He was there for every school event, and the school play. He was a very visible principal.”
Kaish talks about Downs’ approachability. “He had a very paternal, almost grandfatherly way about him, so the kids felt safe with him. He was a nice, kind, gentle man. He didn’t yell and he was very humble, so the kids loved him and the parents loved him.”
An important way Downs was able to create a unique learning and teaching environment was via the teaming concept he brought to the middle school. By creating teams of four teachers who instruct the same 100 students in their main academic classes, Burgess says, “It makes a big school much smaller and more personalized.” Sharing the same prep period, the four teachers are able to plan interdisciplinary programs, talk about their students, and know the parents. “It makes our school much homier,” she says.
This is very different from what happens at a junior high school, where “every teacher does their own thing,” Scibienski says.
“Art was a leader because people wanted to follow him—not just because he was in charge,” Kluxen says. “You didn’t always agree with his decision, but you knew he did what he thought was best for the kids.”
“The reason we chose to honor him,” Kaish says, “is that he always went above and beyond what any leader would do. In addition to providing this unbelievable educational atmosphere and encouraging teachrs to be the best they could be, he also dedicated himself in a personal manner—hospital visits for staff and students, wakes, funerals, and wedding ceremonies—above and beyond professional realm.”
“He brought his heart and soul into his job and was truly dedicated to the students, the staff, and the parents,” Pederson says. “He would be here from sunrise to sundown. He played an integral role in developing the district. It has a great reputation, and I feel he was one of the foundations of the district in terms of where we are today.”
“Dr. Downs’ impact can be felt in every hallway, every classroom, every corner of this building,” Kaish said during the plaque dedication ceremony. “He truly cared about everyone—students, staff and parents alike. This humble man’s legacy is leadership with integrity, passion, and an unwavering focus on the best interests of children. It is only fitting that we are dedicating this school to Dr. Downs, because he wholeheartedly dedicated himself of this school.”