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Lunch with Mimi: Donnan Stoicovy Came Out of Retirement to Lead State College Friends School, Where She Nurtures Voice and Choice

by on August 17, 2020 5:00 AM

Donnan Stoicovy retired in 2016 after more than 27 years as the principal at Park Forest Elementary School in State College. But two years into retirement, Stoicovy realized that she missed working with students and teachers. In 2018, Stoicovy was hired as head of the State College Friends School, which covers pre-K through grade eight. She brings together her passion for stewardship of the environment and her commitment to building a strong, caring, loving community to help shape enrichment programs for students. 

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith joined Stoicovy in a Zoom interview to discuss how the Friends School transitioned to remote learning during the pandemic, how it is important for students to be engaged in conversations about what is happening in the community and nationally, and what the plans are for students returning in August.  

 

Mimi: I'd like to start by asking how did you change the methodology to meet this crisis we're living in? What was that like for the State College Friends School?

Donnan: The teachers were eager, but because we don't use a lot of technology at school, teachers had to really think about what they wanted to do. I made some suggestions; I had some background in the public schools, so I could share with them platforms to use and things to think about. I have used Zoom for several years because of an organization that I'm on the board. So, I gave them a quick lesson in Zoom. But I was never the one who hosted a Zoom.

Mimi: How did it work out at a place where things are pretty free and a little different to start with?

Donnan: We went into it confident that we were going to try to provide the best that we could during that time. We called it “Emergency School at Home.” Different teachers approached it in different ways. The middle school students all had used iPads, so they were quite comfortable with iPads. They just had never used Zoom, and they had never used Seesaw, which we use as our platform for communicating between home and sharing things. They learned very quickly how to use that, and they smoothly went into school at home.

[Teachers] were able to do meetings for worship with their students, which in our school is a traditional thing that we do every Friday morning. And so, they made it their tradition. They carried it forward and did that.

Mimi: Every Friday morning, the students in the Friends School have a religious program?

Donnan: Knowing what Quakers do, it's a silent gathering. We typically would give the students a query, or queries, to think about. Like for Earth Day, “What could you do for the planet?” “What could you do at home to make our world better?” They would share a query, and then students, as they felt moved, would stand up and say something and then sit back down.

Mimi: Tell me what you think the outcome of this will be.

Donnan: The pandemic is laying bare to a lot of injustices and inequities right now. And my hope is that we begin to address those, which obviously, you can see from Black Lives Matter, issues such as health care and prisons.

Mimi: It seems like everything is hanging out right now.

Donnan: It is right now. It's bared for everybody. We need to begin to address those things. Hopefully, people see all of that.

Mimi: But they’re so controversial, some of them. It’s hard to engage people in conversation who do not agree with your side of the story. More so now than ever.

Donnan: That's where we need people who can deliberate on things and look at multiple sides to an issue.

Mimi: And collaborate on the end purpose – justice for all.

Donnan: Exactly. That's really important for us to be able to do that. Don't hang on so hard for the things that you believe, but be willing to listen. That's what the Quakers do, together. They start with something, and then they all craft it, and eventually it turns out a better product. If more people did those things, I think we would have much better products come forward.

Mimi: I’m not trying to convert the world, but I think you're right. The Quaker mission's underlying philosophy could be very helpful at a time like this in our history.

Donnan: I've also done some work with the Kettering Foundation. I've been part of a group that talks about civic education and engaging students in conversations where you look at multiple sides to an issue and then try to craft what you think it should be.

Mimi: You've been at Friends School for about two years. What are some of the changes you brought?

Donnan: Change that I brought? I think they worked on me in some ways. I think I've opened some things up, like in my other school we were a Green Ribbon School – Park Forest Elementary. I looked at this school and said, “You've got almost all aspects of being a Green Ribbon School. Let's go for it.” And so, we received that from the U.S. Department of Education, which was pretty exciting.

They've taught me more about being a clerk for a meeting and have taught me about the Quaker process. I brought with me the deliberation from what I had been doing with the Kettering Foundation and my belief about student voice and choice, and teacher voices being important. So, I had all of those pieces. It's just seeing it in a place where everybody honors it.

Mimi: Well, that's a goal in most places, but it’s a way of life at the Friends School.

Donnan: It is. It's a wonderful place, and it's not hard to go to work when you believe in what you're doing.

Mimi: Were they better prepared or less prepared for this latest version of educating?

Donnan: Well, they stuck to social and emotional learning to start with, and really their most important questions when the teachers had Zoom meetings with children were, “How are you doing?” They gave kids time to connect with one another and to connect with the teachers. With the Quaker Testimonies, they use an acronym called SPICES, which represents Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship.

Community is a big thing that we were about. One of our big goals was to try to keep the community together, even in a pandemic. We had a bi-weekly sing-along. We had one of our teachers who led the singing, everybody was muted, but we sang songs. The Quakers are very committed to singing. They use the book, How Can I Keep from Singing? It's a great songbook, and our children love singing; families would join us. As many as 50-some people joined us some of the Thursday nights.

We also did a meeting for worship for the school. And we had some folks come to that; it's a very calming, wonderful thing. And then we would sing songs at the end of it. Teacher Lisa, who’s our associate head, retiring this year, would start off with a query, or sometimes did not have a query, and people would speak as they wanted to. Our staff assistant at the school made sure that we did a lot of community outreach things, letting them know things that were going on in the community.

And then I tried – not every week, because some weeks it was just exhausting to write it – but I tried to write a weekly message to the community. Recently I had two go out – one about the situation with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. And then I also spoke about reminding parents that as a school, we're perfectly positioned, whether we're in school or out of school, because we can quickly move to that now as we have the right technologies for people.

Mimi: You spent a lifetime helping others and you've spread your love to that dog of yours. How does she fit in your life?

Donnan: Well, she's thrilled that I'm home right now. I had two for a while, and then Sade passed away two years ago, which was really sad. She even spent time at Park Forest Elementary before we moved into the new building. Kunde’s 14 now, so I got her when Sade was 6, and Sade tried to help me train her. But Kunde has been my partner for everything. She watches every step I move.

And what's been wonderful right now, too, is that my siblings and I, we usually see each other maybe over the holidays or sometime when there's a special graduation or family celebration. We've had family Zoom calls every Saturday night, just talking with each other for about an hour. So, the six of us will be there on Zoom, and occasionally our nieces and nephews, and it's just wonderful.

Mimi: That is a special part of this horrible isolation. I have FaceTime with my children, which makes it so much easier not having them nearby. They come to my kitchen table and eat with me. It’s something good that is coming out in this whole thing, in my opinion.

Donnan: Exactly. It's brought us closer together as a family.

Mimi: We’re cousins in a way. I never finished my master's degree, and you've never finished your PhD. Do you plan to?

Donnan: I would love to, but I am too busy right now. And I was too busy at the time, working at the school district. When I retired, I reached out to my adviser and said, “Let's get started back on it.” And then this job came open and then I just let it go.

My neighbor works at the Delta Program, and when I retired, she encouraged me to come in and work with her on teaching her students deliberation, as I had been using it at the Kettering Foundation. That was like giving me candy. Right then, it was like, OK, I miss being with children. And I miss being with teachers. That confirmed to me that if I was selected for the head of school for State College Friends, I would do it because I knew it was the right thing for me. And hopefully, the right thing for them.

Mimi: I always say that teachers deserve more credit than mothers, because they spend more time teaching our children than we do, and in a very measurable way.

Donnan: I love that quote. I think parents have a new appreciation of teachers after this teaching from home. I know teachers who would go to people's homes and stand on their porch to help a child with something, or have phone calls with parents to check in and figure out ways to help children struggling.

Mimi: You went to state colleges and universities. You've ended up in public education and now in a different version of public education. And what's fascinating in reading about you, is you also participate in organizations outside of your work area that are very important to the welfare of people: the environment, conservancies. You have led a life of helping others, doing things that impact others when you're not teaching.

Donnan: I want our world to be better. And that's what I hopefully have passed on to children, too. Recently, I had one of my former students make a Facebook post about how much I gave, and I said, “Now it's time for you to pay forward.” But I told him that a student reaching back out to a teacher and telling them the impact they had on them brought tears to my eyes, and it just warmed my heart.

Mimi: That’s the icing on the cake. I wanted to ask you about being a cauliflower farmer. How did you get into raising cauliflower?

Donnan: I had met a friend who was selling vegetables, and I was looking for a job. And she said, “Well, if you want to work at the farm, would you like to raise an acre of cauliflower?” It wasn't much pay, and then they rented a house for me. I had some college debt. I raised 10,000 heads of cauliflower, and it was laborious work. I used all the funds from the raising of the cauliflower and its sale to pay off my college debt.

Mimi: How many years ago was that?

Donnan: That was in 1980. It was big money for that time. But kids now, the debt they have out of college is unbelievable. And it shouldn't be that way. I feel so badly for kids who have loans because they were in school, and now they're not in school, and they're unemployed right now.

Mimi: It’s going to be hard to get jobs. The average person will have a huge struggle. But like all other things, we’ll overcome the adversity.

Donnan: We will figure it out and do the right things. We will have a new, better normal.

Mimi: I think so. It's going to be a very interesting election this fall. It is going to determine the direction of our country in the future. They say you're not supposed to discuss politics, but it's the most interesting thing we face today.

Donnan: You know, it's life. Life is political. That's what I appreciate about being in a Quaker school, is that you can lead students to activism. We want the world to be better. We don't just want it to be students knowing math, science, social studies. We want them to know those things, but how do we leverage it to improve our world?

Mimi: How did you develop your passion for the environment?

Donnan: Some of that was as a child; I was involved in scouting. Our family did a lot of camping, hiking, visiting various state parks, and being in the outdoors.

Mimi: It’s a bit scary that scouting, both Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, are struggling to stay alive.

Donnan: I think there are so many other options for students to do. Between the activities school has, as well as churches, synagogues, mosques. There's a lot of things that compete for family time.

I did a presentation in February for a Girl Scout troop about fair districts. I did a session teaching the Girl Scouts about gerrymandering. We would love our lawmakers to realize that districts need to be fair. But also, letting the scouts know that it's really important for their parents to complete the census, which helps make those decisions.

Mimi: Too many people bow out by believing that one person doesn't make a difference.

Donnan: And one person does make a difference.

Mimi: When you look at the education of young people overall now, in a nation that's torn apart at a time when we're politically asunder, how do you help kids stay on track, understand, or free themselves of the frustration that this might cause to their thought process?

Donnan: I think some families make a decision maybe not to have their child know everything, which I don't think is necessarily the right thing. I think students need to know. I remember when I was a child, my parents really didn't talk much about the civil rights movement. And now, I feel like I was cheated. I should have known those things were going on in this country.

My niece reached out to me the other day; she just had a baby in January. She said, “Can you send me titles of books and keep in mind sending books about anti-racism? I need to do that with my child starting now, even though Jody's only 6 months old.” She said, “I need to help her see how we can have a better world.” Just her awareness of that touches my heart.

Mimi: When I see what's happening, I flash back to the Holocaust. My parents escaped Europe; my mother from Austria, my father from Hungary. My paternal grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. And when I went to school, there were bad names people who are Jewish were called. And that's something you'll never forget.

So, I almost weep when I feel that racism has been brought to the equation now. I can't think of enough to do to contribute to the next step in our country to make it right. And the most important part is voting.

Donnan: Yes, it is. Democracy is a verb. We need to make ourselves not only do through our actions, but also through one thing that we're able to do, and that's to vote.

I know some of my friends frustrate me when they say, “Oh, my vote wouldn't matter anyway.” Well, yes it does. I mean, look how many different elections were decided because of a few votes. Just those few people going and voting would have made a huge difference and put us maybe on a different path.

Mimi: Let's emerge from the present smarter than we were in the past.

Donnan: Yes. When I run in the morning, I listen to podcasts, and I listened to one with Ta-Nehisi Coates. He was talking about how hopeful he is right now, believing that it's going to be different. And so, I carry that in my heart that it will be different, and whatever I can do to help that and whatever I can inspire in students to help that be different is really important.

Mimi: Was there a point in your life that your love of children and the environment blew up and told you that's what you wanted to do?

Donnan: Yes. When I was teaching in a middle school in Saegertown early on in my career. I signed up for a course at Clarion and took that course, which changed my direction by offering students environmental learning experiences. And even when I became a school leader, I looked for ways to keep environmental education experiences going and connect with other people in organizations and nearby communities.

Mimi: What are the plans at the Friends School for students coming back this fall?

Donnan: We are planning to be open to all students in the green and yellow phases. Our school day will be as “normal” as possible from 8:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. We are going to increase the support for lead teachers in the classroom with more assistant teachers’ time and to reduce some class sizes in some areas. Our Board of Trustees understands that it will be an incredible amount of work to both teach/learn and keep everyone safe and healthy, so they are financially supporting that stance. 

In the red phase, when we anticipate that all public and private schools will be closed, we will be nimble and move quickly into “School At Home” where we will use Zoom, Seesaw as our home and school communication tool and platform to share some educational programming, student books, materials to support learning and other peripherals to support learning (iPads, Chromebooks, math manipulatives, etc.). Some of our instruction will be synchronous and other instruction will be asynchronous. We will provide a much more robust educational programming than we were able to do in the “Emergency School at Home” from last spring. It will even include lessons for all students using mindfulness practices, lessons, materials and resources from our recently certified Mindful Schools, Mindful Teacher, Bailey Kellermann.

Given the various CDC and PA Department of Health guidelines, we will expect our children/young adults to have face coverings (masks and/or face shields), to try to maintain 6-feet physical distancing, to employ frequent hand-washing, and to provide cohort isolation (where students are only with a certain group of children all day long). With a mix of creativity and careful communication, teachers will do all they can to make hand-washing, physical distancing, face coverings, and any other new procedures as stress-free as possible to create a classroom culture of care for one another and for the school community. Lead teachers and assistant teachers will rotate instruction when there are specialized areas for various groups of children, rather than having children move around. 

We anticipate doing as much of our instruction outside, rather than within the four walls of the classroom, thus calling it our Plan A. We are leveraging our schoolyard to make that a reality – several of us are participating in a project as a pilot school for Green Schoolyards America and exploring ways to make this the safest way for schools to be for everyone … there is “almost no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!” We will be reaching out to find financial supporters of us having enough large “wedding”-sized tents or other structures to support our school.

We are excited to offer educational programming that is true to our Quaker testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship. The Quaker belief in continuously revealing truths is very fitting right now and important to remember. We are never done learning. We make a decision, work with it, and modify and change things as needed.

Mimi: It's been special to be able to catch up with you and recognize you as another wonderful example of the teaching field. It's been a pleasure sharing a lot of philosophy with you.

Donnan: It's been my pleasure; this was delightful. Thank you.

 



Town & Gown is a monthly publication in State College, PA. If it's happening in Happy Valley, it's in Town & Gown.
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