Summermatter brings harmony Music-teacher-turned-principal to lead Farnsworth


GUILDERLAND — Mary Summermatter says she loves being around middle school students.
"Many people are so afraid of them because they change so rapidly," she told The Enterprise this week. "But they’re so darn much fun to be around...You can laugh with them and be firm with them. There’s hope in their eyes."

Summermatter is the new principal of Farnsworth Middle School. She begins work on July 1 with an annual salary of $100,000, replacing the interim principal, Theodore Avgerinos.
Currently a middle-school principal near Buffalo, she speaks with obvious joy when she talks of her relationships with students. "They’ll bring me little gifts, like things they’ve made in Home and Careers," she said. The long-time music teacher went on, "I have been known to sing to kids in the lunch room; they’ll applaud," she said with a laugh.

Summermatter comes to Farnsworth after a string of short-term principals. Stuart Pratt resigned in March after two-and-a-half years for personal reasons; Pratt had replaced Donald Germain, a popular principal who did not receive tenure after nearly three years on the job.

Summermatter will oversee a school of about 1,400 students, divided into three houses, or schools within a school, each headed by its own house principal. The 30-year-old Farnsworth Middle School is in the midst of a $20 million expansion and renovation project, which added 18 classrooms configured as a fourth house; the budget for next year does not include funds for an administrative team for those classrooms, which will be used for overflow from the other houses.
Summermatter is now the principal of Depew Middle School, near Buffalo, which is a bit more than half the size of Farnsworth with 760 students. She described that district as "blue collar" in "a landlocked suburb" of Buffalo, with an aging population and no room for growth.
"We’re very proud that Business First named us number 16 out of 144 middle schools," she said in a phone interview from her school office in Depew. "We’re proud that, in 2001, New York State named us a most-improved middle school in math...We’re a few percentage points behind Farnsworth."
She went on, "We’ve worked very hard at raising the bar for our students and we’re getting excellent results."

Summermatter has been principal at Depew Middle School for three years and, before that, was assistant principal for four years.

She was motivated to apply for the Guilderland job after seeing it posted on-line, she said. She then turned to the district’s website, created by Amy Zurlo, communications specialist.
"I looked at the website; it’s very impressive," she said. "I learned so much from the website."
Summermatter wanted to move to the area to be closer to family. "All my family has moved east," she said. "I’m the last person in western New York."
Summermatter heard from colleagues that Guilderland was "wonderful," she said. "It was everything I had heard it would be."

Before interviewing for the job, she used her spring break to visit Guilderland and liked what she saw; it reminds her of Clarence, where she lives now — suburban bounded by rural land.
She’s been to Farnsworth Middle School twice and said she sensed the excitement from the renovations. "Everyone’s been so welcoming and warm," she said.

About 60 people applied for the job of Farnsworth principal, said Susan Tangorre, the district’s personnel director. The process had begun with Farnsworth staff and parents sharing their vision of what is needed in a principal. "We created a job description from that," said Tangorre.

A large committee, made up of administrators, teachers, and teaching assistants, interviewed six candidates, narrowing the field to two finalists, said Tangorre.
"We asked those two to come back and tour the building...We wanted them to have a sense of us," she said.
"We had two very good candidates," she went on, stating that the committee formed "a positive consensus" for Summermatter.

Her school in Depew is doing curriculum mapping, as is Farnsworth, and her district uses shared decision-making, as does Guilderland, said Tangorre.

A smaller group then met with Summermatter in Syracuse for an-hour-and-a-half of discussion.
"Each time I met Mary, I was more sure," said Tangorre. "Her people skills are very strong. She has a pleasantness about problems. They’re not problems to her. Her approach is, ‘Let’s see how we can solve them.’
"Her strengths are her knowledge and her passion" for middle-level education. Tangorre concluded, "She’s a generous person who really works hard and it’s all about kids...Her e-mails may not get answered until 5 a.m. or five at night because she’s been busy with kids and staff and parents."

Lifelong passion
Looking back at her career development, Summermatter frequently uses the words "fun" and "learning" and "love" in the same breath.

Summermatter and her brother grew up in Binghamton, which she described as an industrial city. Her parents worked for Ansco, a film-producing company and a rival of Kodak; her mother worked in the company’s credit union and her father as a supervisor.
"I loved school and I knew I wanted to be a teacher since the fifth grade," said Summermatter. Her fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Reynolds, provided a model for her. "I idolized her and she inspired me."
At West Junior High School, her dream was solidified as she continued to have "some wonderful teachers," said Summermatter.
"I was in love with math and music," she said, explaining there was no disparity in excelling at such seemingly diverse subjects. "They go hand in hand, using the same capacity in the brain."
She ultimately decided on music since she found it was "so much fun."
She went to the Crane School of Music at the State University of New York College at Potsdam. "I was very proud to be accepted," she said. "It’s a phenomenal music program; I learned a lot."
She was particularly pleased with her piano teacher, Miss King. "She made me the very best I could be; she wouldn’t settle for less," said Summermatter.
With a degree in music education, Summermatter landed her first job, teaching in Caledonia, outside of Rochester. She spend two years there, instructing students in kindergarten through sixth grade. "It changed every day," said Summermatter. "It was a great deal of fun and I learned a lot."
Next she taught for three years at a private American school in Guadalajara, Mexico. "I learned to speak survival Spanish," said Summermatter as she taught students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Her next stop was Alabama where, in two years, she earned a master’s degree in music education from Samford University before returning to the Buffalo area and teaching again.

Hooked on middle school
Summermatter taught music this time to secondary students and, under the influence of an administrator she admired, became involved in middle-level education.
"She had me go to middle-school conferences," recalled Summermatter. "I became very intrigued by middle school students."
What intrigued her most, she said, was "the way they learned."
"The research all pointed to the fact that, if you hooked them in middle school and got them going in the right direction, you probably set their course for life," she said. "If you lost them in middle school, they could be lost for life....They could drop out and never finish school."
She said of the middle-school grades — sixth, seventh, and eighth: "There’s so much growth going on, not just academically but socially and emotionally...Those years are your best chance of helping them become happy, productive people."

Summermatter decided to get her administrative certification and did so at the SUNY College at Buffalo, completing the program with an internship at the Alexander Central School District, where she taught.
"When I got done," she said, "the seventh- and eighth-grade teachers sent a letter to the board of education, requesting they keep me on." They did.

Summermatter became a teacher on special assignment, spending half of her day teaching and half fulfilling administrative duties. She was in that role for five years as she made up her mind about whether to become a full-time administrator.
"I decided that was what I really wanted," she said and she came to Depew Middle School as assistant principal in 1998.
Summermatter made the decision, she said, for her students. "I wanted to help them in a bigger way," she said. "Some were dealing with burning issues."
She has been pleased with her choice to become an administrator. "I love it; I love helping students," she said.
Asked about her goals for Farnsworth, Summermatter said, "I need to spend time speaking with staff before I develop concrete goals. Right now, my goal is to make a seamless transition and have everyone feel comfortable with me.
"I want to get to know people — the staff, the students, the parents," she said, "and continue to build on the strong educational program and provide a safe environment for students."

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