At Phillips Avenue Elementary School, Debra Rodgers created a ‘family atmosphere’

Debra Rodgers is ringing the last bell of her 33-year career in education. After 18 years as an elementary school principal in the Riverhead Central School District, she is retiring from Phillips Avenue Elementary, where she has been since 2010.

Although she is leaving, Ms Rodgers, 56, said her post as manager at Phillips Avenue has been the most meaningful of her career.

“We had the opportunity to really create a family atmosphere here, to bring the community together, to help make Philips Avenue the center of the community,” she said. “The staff have done a really good job of connecting with kids, connecting with families, and then providing different kinds of opportunities with all of our networks and partnerships.”

Among those opportunities were the school district’s first pantry with the Island Harvest Food Bank, free backpacks and school supplies provided to students at the start of the year, and the district’s only bilingual elementary program.

When Ms. Rodgers started at Phillips Avenue in 2010, the student body was roughly evenly split between white, Hispanic and black students. Now, she says, the demographics have shifted significantly toward a larger population of Hispanic students, and with that, Phillips Avenue has changed as well.

“We really looked at our program and had conversations about how best to meet the needs of students not only learning English, but also honoring their heritage, culture and continuing to grow and develop their native language. “, she said.

The bilingual program began last year with the kindergarten class, teaching Spanish to English-speaking students and vice versa. The school also introduced the American Reading Company’s Thematic Units last year, which integrate all areas of study into combined courses rather than segmenting them into strictly science, social or reading blocks.

“It’s just a testament, like I said, of the staff here and all of these different organizations that support the school,” she said.

Ms Rodgers knew she wanted to work in education since she was a college student and grew up in Wading River. Playing trombone in sixth grade, she knew she wanted to be a music teacher as she was “very drawn to music and the collaborative piece where everyone plays together”.

She began her career in Smithtown as a general education choir teacher, then moved to Eastport South Manor, where she was promoted from music teacher to assistant principal. Ms. Rodgers moved to Aquebogue in 1998 and became principal of Roanoke Avenue Elementary in 2004.

“If my sixth-grade self had said, ‘You’re going to end your career as principal,’ I would have said there was no way,” Ms Rodgers said. “I had the opportunity to impact more students and took advantage of it.”

Living in Aquebogue, Ms Rodgers learned that her job is a “24/7 position” as a Riverhead employee and resident.

“While I’m shopping in Riverhead, they don’t see me as Deb Rodgers the person,” she said. “They see me as the principal…I chose to honor that and really tried to be a good role model not just here at school, but also when they see me elsewhere.”

Now that her tenure as headmistress is coming to an end, Ms Rodgers plans to spend her retirement simply ‘honouring the time’.

“I’m going to do what I want, when I want, where I want,” she said. “My next chapter, I’m kind of left open.”

Debra Rodgers pictured with students in the school pantry. (Courtesy picture)

Ms Rodgers is involved with Canine Companions and is currently raising her second puppy, Valerie, who will stay with her for 16 months before training for schools, hospitals or other facilities. Ms Rodgers was introduced to the Canine Companions program by a teacher who brings her dog, Yucca, to Phillips Avenue every day.

“I just saw the impact that [Yucca] welcomed the kids and really helped calm staff, students and community members,” she said. “I really wanted to give back to this organization, which is why I got involved in raising puppies.”

While raising Valerie and finishing some projects around the house, Ms Rodgers said it would take her some time to adjust to not going back to school in the fall and having “every moment being, ‘OK, how can we improve things at school?’ ”

Since running Phillips Avenue has become such an important part of Ms Rodgers’ life, the most rewarding part of her career has been ‘helping kids really have their voices heard, to know that they matter and helping them see their individual greatness,” she says. “Each child is a unique individual and really leveraging who they are as an individual and helping to support them in what really helps them grow. “

When the announcement of Ms Rodgers’ retirement was made public in April, Jeremy Rand from Flanders, who has two children in the district, approached the school board and called her ‘our No. 1 fan and [the] the hardest working principal in the district.

“We can’t thank her enough,” he said.

Board Chair Laurie Downs thanked Ms Rodgers at the meeting.

Riverhead Central School District, Phillips Avenue Elementary School
In 2012, Phillips Avenue Elementary School principal Debra Rodgers welcomes fourth-grader Mahki Adams back with a warm hug. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch/File)

“You’ve done a lot for this neighborhood, you’ve done a lot for Phillips Avenue and for the students over the years,” she said. “I appreciate everything you have done. … From the bottom of my heart, Deb, thank you.

Ms Rodgers and other retirees were also honored at the June 14 board meeting.

With all of her accomplishments at Phillips Avenue over the past 12 years, Ms Rodgers says she couldn’t have done it on her own.

“There is nothing I could have done individually without the support of the Phillips Avenue family,” she said, warmly thanking her staff and district for their hard work and support over the years.

“I’ve been so lucky to be able to do something I’m passionate about. I had the opportunity to lead with love,” Ms. Rodgers said. “It was truly an honor for me to work with the Phillips Avenue family and the Riverhead Central School District.”