BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Cosimo Tangorra Jr. began his work as superintendent of the Niskayuna Central School District on Tuesday, June 2. Two days later, he sat down with Your Niskayuna to introduce himself to the community.
Tangorra has worked previously as a teacher, principal and superintendent and most recently was deputy commissioner of education for New York state. He currently lives in Herkimer with his wife, Mary Lourdes Tangorra, and his children, 17-year-old Cosimo and 16-year-old Gabrielle. He plans to move to Niskayuna in the near future.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Q: So let’s start at the beginning. What drew you to the field of education in the first place?
A: I think there are two major influences. My mother was a member of the Board of Education when I was in my formative years, and there were a lot of conversations about education, education policy in the house growing up. And, oddly enough, what drew me to it also was my dissatisfaction as a high school student. I wasn’t invested in what was happening in my high school. There was certainly, in my opinion, no attempt to connect what was happening to my life or my world, and it wasn’t until I went to college — where everything was connected to my life — where I thought, “Ah, I really need to go back and fix all the stuff that should’ve happened when I was in school.”
Q: As a teacher, what grades and subjects did you teach? Which were your favorites?
A: My first teaching position was with the Herkimer BOCES, and I taught in what they called, at the time, severe/profound. So there were multiple handicapped students between the ages of 11 and 21. So I did that, and it was very gratifying, very satisfying. And then I taught fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade special education in the Little Falls City School District. I can’t say that I preferred one over the other. They were very different experiences but equally fulfilling in seeing students make advances and flourish.
Q: What eventually drew you to administration as a principal, then superintendent, then deputy commissioner?
A: Well, again I think that reflecting on my experience as a child and listening to the conversations that took place in my house, I probably was always interested in school administration of some sort. Overly opinionated. And when I was teaching at the Little Falls City School District, I had a difference in opinion with my [Committee on Special Education] chair. I was sharing that with my principal at the time, who said, “You know what? Why don’t you take some administrative courses if you think you have this figured out.” And I said, “You know, I think I’m going to do that.” And that was it. And my superintendent at the time asked if I would be interested in this intern position, which was basically elementary school assistant principal. And that was it.
I loved it. And it evolved into greater district responsibility. And that was all at the Little Falls City School District. And then I was a principal and a superintendent. … It just was a natural evolution, so I had been very fortunate.
I’m very sincere when I say this: I have never had a bad day at work. And I’ve enjoyed every job that I’ve had, but, fortunately, I’ve enjoyed every subsequent job even more. I’m just very lucky to have found something that I really love doing.
Q: What is it like to be the deputy commissioner of education? What does a day look like in that job?
A: There was no typical day. I had various responsibilities, six assistant commissioners that had various offices that they ran. And in addition to that, I worked closely with the district superintendents, BOCES superintendents. There was no typical day. I could be in Manhattan on one day and Plattsburgh on the next.
As a superintendent of schools, prior to going to the department, I often had difficulties making connections between what it was that the state was asking educators to do and the needs of students in my community. So part of the attraction to go to the state in the first place was to help me make those connections. I thought I could help, but I also saw the opportunity for me to learn and to grow as a professional educator, as well, so it was very helpful for me. I believe that although I was there a very short period of time, my experience there did help me make those connections and also helped me identify areas where those connections never existed.
Q: What made you choose to leave the state for this job?
A: There are many things that attracted me to Niskayuna. First of all, its wonderful academic prowess and the reputation that not only the community, but the faculty and the staff and the students, have for just constantly challenging themselves to advance to the next level. I am always looking for the next challenge, always looking for the next opportunity to help the community make it to the next level. I had spent the majority of my career, prior to going to the state Education Department, in school districts that certainly needed to advance, but in a very different way than I envision Niskayuna advancing. When I look back at … the evolution of my career, this just seemed like the next logical step. I wouldn’t have left the state just for any other district. Niskayuna lured me away. That and the fact that I missed being around students and missed being in the district.
Q: During stakeholder interviews, what insight did you gain into the priorities of different groups within the district? Did anything you learned surprise you?
A: I don’t know what surprised me. First of all, the students were amazing. They were an amazing group of students who presented themselves with extreme confidence and had a solid understanding of the issues at hand. But the district in the aggregate is committed, too, and seemed to buy into my vision for creating a world-class education system and having Niskayuna lead not only the state, but the nation in creating this world-class educational system. They agreed with my assessment that there is tremendous untapped potential in the community and that we really need to do a better job reaching out to business and institutions of higher education and partnering with the strengths and the skillset that many folks and residents of the district have. I think it was more affirming than anything else.
Q: What is your opinion on teacher Annual Professional Performance Review and the Common Core, given your unique perspective as deputy commissioner turned superintendent?
A: The Common Core Learning Standards are nothing more than that. So not just … let me speak globally for a moment, at least from a statewide perspective. Unfortunately, the Common Core Learning Standards in New York state were rolled out at the same time a brand-new evaluation system was introduced that had an overreliance on student performance. And folks confused the Common Core with the evaluation system, that’s far from perfect, and an assessment program that people have too many questions about. As a state, the state really needs to do a better job of explaining and separating out the standards from the evaluation system and the assessment system.
I will certainly do my part as the superintendent of Niskayuna to help inform and engage the community in this conversation so we can work together to figure out how we fit into this. But at the same time we are also going to do the rest of the state a favor in using all the talent in this district to address these issues so they will not only be able to serve the Niskayuna community to the extent that they have to, but that we can be an example for the rest of the state. Because there’s no reason for this community to wait for the state to provide direction. This is a community that can provide the state direction.
Q: What do you think about the concept of “opting out” of a test? When I was in school I never had any idea that was a possibility.
A: Well, I want to manage it by again, involving the entire community in this conversation.
I’m not sure what we’re teaching our children when we decide to opt out. I’m not sure what we’re saying. I get that people are frustrated. I get that the folks that are engaged in the opt-out movement are some of the folks that don’t see the separate and distinct entities of the standards and the assessment system and the teacher evaluation system. I understand people’s apprehension, but I also feel as if the children are being thrown into this adult argument, And I honestly feel that we are teaching children, sending the wrong message: “Ah, if we don’t like it, we’re just not going to do it.” And I’m not sure that’s the right message we want to send our students.
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Q: Here’s the fun part. I’m going to ask you some questions that students of every age can relate to, so they can see what they have in common with you. What’s your favorite book?
A: The best book I’ve ever read in my entire life is “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry. It’s fiction. It’s set in the post-Civil War era. It’s about two former Texas rangers that decide to open a cattle ranch and move a herd from southwest Texas to Montana. It was a great book.
Q: What’s your favorite movie?
A: I’m really hard on movies, I’ll say that. I don’t know if … I’ve seen “The Godfather” more than any other movie, a zillion times. But I’m a big fan of the classics, and I’m a harsh critic of movies, but I love really good ones, and there are a handful.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: I am an avid hunter. And I spend an incredible amount of time in the woods. I like to golf, but I’m not any good. I like to garden. Outdoor activities are my main [thing].
Q: Do you have any pets?
A: Yes. I have two dogs. One is an Irish Wolfhound, and one’s a Pomeranian. Very different dogs.
Q: Where’s your favorite place to vacation?
A: Surfside Beach, South Carolina. I’ve gone there for the past several years or so, every April break, and sometimes in the fall, as well. It’s about an hour and a half north of Charleston.
Q: What’s at the top of your bucket list?
A: There are two trips that I would like to take, one with my son and one with my daughter. My son and I have talked about going to Scotland after he graduates, and my daughter, somewhere overseas with her. I’d like to take two independent trips just with one of my children.
Meet and greet
Get to know Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. at one of these upcoming Listening and Learning Tours hosted by the Niskayuna Central School District:
- 6:30 p.m. Monday, June 15, Niskayuna Town Hall
- 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, June 16, Van Antwerp Middle School
- 11 a.m., Friday, June 19, Niskayuna Town Library