Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 45
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
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Profiles in Education

(Photo by Linda Arntzenius)
“To reach all students, get to know them well, and help them in their studies takes a lot of time, structured as well as unstructured, in the classroom and after school.”
— Gary R. Snyder, Princeton High School

Gary R. Snyder

Linda Arntzenius

As all roads lead to Rome, all conversations with Gary Snyder lead inevitably back to Princeton High School. Talk about his growing up in Pennsylvania and he reveals a deep sense of pride in his career path from social science teacher to high school principal. Ask about his personal interests and he quickly turns to the accomplishments of Princeton high school’s 1300 plus students.

Appointed in 2003, just in time to be thrown into a district-wide school renovation project, Mr. Snyder said that the construction process added an extra layer of challenges to those normally present. “There’s a lot of talk about reaching all students. That’s my goal: the something deep inside of me that, as a school principal, I make an effort to achieve. It’s an ideal that can never quite be reached. As soon as we come close, graduation comes along and a new group of students arrives. At Princeton High School, students and faculty are extremely busy. The pace is amazing. So much of what we do is controlled by time limitations and it’s important to slow down for conversation. Getting to know each and every student takes time.”

As a former social studies teacher, he also thinks a lot about the purposes of education in the United States. “Education contributes to our ideals of democratic society. While preparing students for college and for a future career is important, nurturing informed and active citizens is also important. One of the things that most impresses me about Princeton students — beyond their amazing academic achievement — is their involvement in the community. I see them learning to be good citizens.”

Students involvement in issues from the environment to third world poverty is manifested by the many flyers posted around the school, where there is invariably some sort of student-driven effort to raise money and awareness, distribute clothes and food.

Mr. Snyder is also quick to praise the school’s faculty as experts in their fields and knowledgeable beyond their specific subjects. He holds a monthly after-school faculty meeting at which many diverse points of view are expressed. “It’s a cliché but democracy is messy,” said Mr. Snyder, “Sometimes it’s a struggle but it’s a good struggle; the challenge is always to keep the process moving forward.” The Principal also meets with subject supervisors every week or two. His usual way of addressing specific issues, such as a new school-wide grading system, is to form a committee, which will often include a student and a parent representative.

Deep-Rooted Ideals

Although he spoke of having always set his sights on a career in education, Mr. Snyder admitted that he didn’t begin with the ambition of becoming a school principal. Even now he thinks of himself first and foremost as a teacher whose goals are to work hard and do the best job he can. This simple goal, he believes can be traced back to the overarching ambition to make his parents feel proud. “I loved school and felt very comfortable at junior high and high school where I spent a lot of time.” He grew up in Irwin, Pennsylvania, with five sisters, none of whom followed his lead into education. “My father was a draftsman and my mother a homemaker and they still live in the area.” From 1981 to 1985, he attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he received a bachelors degree in secondary education and social studies. Then he studied at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University in Blacksburg, VA, receiving a masters degree in public school administration. He is presently studying towards an Ed. D. at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Before coming to Princeton, he served as principal of the Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield, Mass. Before that he was assistant principal at the R. C. Mahar Regional School in Orange, Mass. Early on in his career, he taught social studies and also served as head varsity wrestling coach/athletic director in various locations, including Virginia, and California. Nowadays his local activities include board membership in the Princeton Youth Concerns Committee, HiTOPS, and the Garden State Principals Association.

While clearly a man who makes time for himself only after taking care of his numerous responsibilities, he is nonetheless wise enough to realize the importance of downtime. The discovery of cycling has been of real benefit in this, rekindling a competitive drive to find the biggest hill and climb it. The former high school wrestler got into the activity in a serious way just two years ago. Now, at 44, he leads 40 to 50 mile rides for the Central Bucks County Cycling Club. “I get out around Princeton, too. Sometimes I bring my bike to school in the car and go for a ride around 4:30 p.m. or so.” It’s no secret. There was a little blurb about his enthusiasm in the school newsletter this last spring. When he wants to energize himself during the school day, all he has to do, he said, is go walkabout in the hallways and classrooms. “The energy of 1300 plus high schoolers is contagious.” After a period of processing too many pieces of paper, he’ll walk the halls and visit classrooms. “Seeing students, their work and their energy immediately reminds me why I am here. It refocuses me.”

Mr. Snyder lives with his wife Stella Volpe, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in Solebury near New Hope. The couple enjoys walking their two German Shepherds along the Delaware & Raritan Canal. Ms. Volpe who crews for a club out of Lambertville and trains on the Delaware, recently took part in a race on the Charles River. “She’s so active that I can’t keep up with her,” said Mr. Snyder, who cycles on weekends and a couple of evenings a week during the summertime when light permits.

High Points

A quiet and a private man, Mr. Snyder becomes readily emotional when recalling some of the special moments of the school year. “One that comes to mind is that last day before the beginning of the winter break when the pace is frenetic. Everyone tries to get so much done before the break. Then suddenly the choir walks in and everything stops. We hear their voices and stand around wiping our eyes. The kids wonder why, but it is truly very moving.”

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