Randall Elementary School Principal Cliff Kostuk has seen many changes in his 27-year tenure: enhanced security, stricter state regulations governing education and most recently the district’s conversion to grade centers.
But, sitting in his office Wednesday, wearing a tie adorned with the smiling faces of children, Kostuk said what he’s always liked about the job hasn’t changed at all: the staff and the kids.
“They’re a cast of characters, they make me laugh,” he said. “It’s like a family.”
The school, like others in the district, has seen enrollment drop. With 268 students now, Kostuk says it’s down about 100 pupils from when he started.
Transiency among the students has also increased in his time there, he said, as families often relocate from one school’s boundaries to another. The Cortland City School District is trying to address both of these factors through restructuring.
Kostuk retires at the end of the school year, just as the district will close Parker and Virgil elementary schools and convert the remaining three to grade centers: Barry to kindergarten to second grade; Smith to third and fourth grades; Randall to fifth and sixth grades.
Kostuk said he wanted to retire last year, but agreed to stay an extra year so the district wouldn’t have to hire an interim principal.
Kostuk supports the move to grade centers, though he says it’s made his final year bittersweet because the family of staff and faculty are going to be dispersed to different buildings.
District Superintendent Michael Hoose said this week that elementary staff members have gotten their assignments for next year and the district has kept its promise not to lay anyone off.
Kostuk says faculty who have considered the building home for years are preparing for their moves. It’s an adjustment to see the neighborhood school change.
Kathleen Elliott-Birdsall, a special education teacher at Randall for the third and fourth grades, said it’s been a tough year knowing she is leaving behind her family at Randall, but having a leader like Kostuk has made it easier.
“Cliff’s one of the finest men I know,” Elliott-Birdsall said. “He truly is a good man who really cares about his staff and his students.”
Kostuk insists on the school remaining the “Randall family,” she said. Students are doing service projects to leave a legacy of Randall school giving back to the community.
Kostuk won’t miss the technology advancements. He says he knows how to check e-mail, but that’s about it. And he considers himself old-fashioned in other ways, too — like what he values about the delivery of education. He likes the creativity that teachers bring to their field, and allows them as much leeway as he can within the confines of the state standards.
Elliott-Birdsall appreciates this. She said Kostuk understands the importance of giving teachers latitude to teach in the ways that work for them.
“He knows what are effective ways for students to learn and he’s been at the forefront of a lot of professional learning we’ve done,” she said.
The state’s Common Core curriculum made the delivery of education more rigid, Kostuk said, taking away some of the freedom for teachers to be creative with their teaching.
Kostuk is most proud of having implemented a leadership program at the school, which he says encourages accountability and responsibility in students by having them track their learning progress.
“They realize they can do it; they are not just passive,” he said.
Kostuk sums up his career in two sentences.
“It’s been a great ride,” he said. “People have been super.”