NEW PALTZ — The day after Labor Day 1992, with less than 24 hours before the open date for New Paltz’s all-new Lenape Elementary School, Principal Barbara Clinton had serious reservations that the school would be ready for the Grade 3, 4, and 5 students when busses arrived the next morning for the first day of school.
“When I first stepped foot in Lenape over that summer to see how construction was coming along it hit me that we weren’t going to be ready for opening day,” Clinton recalled. “It was Labor Day weekend and we didn’t have a certificate of occupancy (c/o) yet. I said to Superintendent Ira Glick, ‘What are we going to do?’ Dave Rhoers, who did the construction, worked through Labor Day weekend and met the building inspector at 7 AM on Tuesday and got the certificate, just hours before teachers arrived for class lists and orientation.”
With the c/o secured, other problems popped up during Lenape’s early days. With teachers and staff busy and without an assistant principal by her side, Clinton turned to a group of fifth graders to help the fledgling school get on its feet.
“I was working with the superintendent, deputy superintendent, business manager, and of course parents, but nobody knows what is going on in the school more than the students,” she said. “I decided that my Grade 5 students would be the leaders of the school, so the first day a representative from every class was chosen—a Lenape Leader—and I met with them every Monday. I asked them what works and what doesn’t work. They were in charge of the building—my ambassadors.”
Clinton’s three-year stop at Lenape was one of many on her road to the helm of NPHS, where she has been since the 1994-95 school year. Growing up in a family of four brothers outside of Albany, she graduated from SUNY New Paltz in 1970 with a degree in social studies, secondary education.
“I started out thinking I was going to be a math teacher and then I said forget that,” she said with a laugh. “My passion is social studies, current events, and government. I did that for fun—I still read three papers a day.”
Her first job came in 1970 as a leave replacement History teacher at Highland High School (HHS), before subbing at HHS and NPHS while in grad school. It wasn’t long before New Paltz hired her to be a fulltime Social Studies teacher for Grades 11 and 12, and by 1977 she was married with a newborn baby girl named Jackie. It was during this time that she acquired the necessary certifications to become chair of the Social Studies Department and a certified district administrator.
In August of 1985 she became assistant principal at New Paltz High School before a budget cut eliminated her position a few years later. At the same time, the principal position at Duzine Elementary School opened up, a job she took for a year before moving to Lenape.
When she took over at NPHS in 1994-95, the school, she said, was in a state of flux.
“A principal had left and was replaced by a series of interims and then finally they found a great guy, but he was from Maine and his wife had just received a big promotion. His first year here he commuted to and from Maine on the weekends. This job is hard enough when you are here all the time, never mind when you are going back and forth from Maine. It became untenable for him, and so my daughter Jackie, who was going into her senior year at the time, asked me why I didn’t become the principal. Once she said that, I called the superintendent and ended up being offered the job.”
In 2019, NPHS is thriving. It has been recognized as one of the nation’s top public high schools 11 times by The Washington Post, along with accolades from other national publications such as US News & World Report and The Daily Beast. New York State has twice named NPHS a Reward School—an honor given to schools that demonstrate either high academic achievement or significant progress with minimal gaps in achievement among different student populations—and in 2018-19 it was named a New York State Recognition School under Every Student Succeeds Act for high academic achievement, student growth, graduation rate, and progress made during the 2017-18 school year.
“New Paltz provides excellent services for students, whether you are a special education student or the valedictorian,” she said. “I’ve been very lucky over the years to have had the support of the administration. More students are going to four-year colleges and we offer students more college credit at the high school than ever before. Our guidance department also assists in the paperwork in order to make the transition to college as seamless as possible.”
Clinton has seen a lot over her 48 years in education—her career began during America’s involvement in Vietnam and the height of the Civil Rights movement—but says that the fundamentals of education haven’t changed.
“In many ways, it’s night and day, but in many ways it’s still just about kids,” she said. “Teach kids content, don’t teach content to kids—no matter what your content is. You do that and you will do right by them, regardless of technology and whatever else comes along. For me, one of the biggest things is staying current in terms of pop culture. To relate to a kid, you have to know what she or he is into and exposed to.”
As one who begrudgingly uses email, Clinton says she has little time for social media. “People ask me why I don’t go on Facebook and see what is being said. Well, if there’s something on Facebook that I don’t already know about then I’m not doing my job. And when I hear what so-and-so supposedly said on social media I’ll often say, ‘Well, I don’t get that from them.’”
Clinton’s aura of steely determination—periodically interrupted by a dry sense of humor—has been useful in her 48 years in the field of education. And, let’s face it, to be a fan of her favorite football team, a sense of humor is a prerequisite.
“When it comes to my job I have always done what needed to be done and I think people know that about me, but I have plenty of fun too,” she said. “I work hard and I play hard. I don’t have a lot of time to play, so when I play, I play hard. I mean, I’m a Jets fan!”
Her affinity of the Jets is obvious, from the Jets lanyard she wears around her neck to the posters adorning her office door and the countless Jets items once you open that door—including a helmet, a photo with former head coach Herm Edwards taken prior to a playoff game in San Diego, and, of course, a photo of Broadway Joe.
“We have had season tickets for years and we tailgate and everything else,” she said. “In fact, my sister-in-law’s family are all Bills fans so we go to those games together and battle it out. I was at the playoff game in New England that we won a few years back. We’ve travelled to playoff games. I actually have to confirm the location of this year’s Super Bowl in case I have a reason to go.”
As the 2018-19 school year ended, events were held in Clinton’s honor as a way to recognize all she has meant to the New Paltz community.
“With her retirement, a chapter of New Paltz High School history is closing,” said New Paltz Central School District Superintendent Maria C. Rice. “Her contributions to our District, students, and community will last for generations. We wish her well-deserved happiness in retirement. She has earned it.”
As she enters this next phase of her life, Clinton said she doesn’t expect any radical changes. She’ll continue to be involved in the New Paltz community and spend time visiting her daughter and her grandkids where they live in South Florida. She may even take a chance or two on the horses.
“My husband passed away 19 years ago, so I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it,” she said. “I like to travel, in fact when I got out of college I went to Europe for seven weeks. And I really like the horses. I’ve been to the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and always spend a lot of time up in Saratoga where I have relatives. And now, with the betting right there at the Meadowlands, I informed my sister-in-law that when they come down for the Bills game instead of tailgating, we’ll get on the shuttle and check out the gambling center there.”
When Clinton had incoming NPHS principal Dr. Mario Fernandez in her office to have a chat about all things-NPHS, the conversation strayed to football as he took a look around and informed her that he grew up in South Florida rooting for the Dolphins.
“I said to him, ‘Well, here’s the good news,” Clinton recalled. “That’s a team that we, generally speaking, can beat. And this year we’re going to beat you all the time. I am familiar with South Florida and I’ve been down to Dolphin games and if everything goes well, I’ll be down there in February.’”