Brockway’s Hawkins Retires After Long Career in Education

BROCKWAY, Pa. (EYT) — For the past nine years, Superintendent Daniel J. Hawkins has been a fixture in the superintendent’s office at the Brockway Area School District.  A longtime educator, Hawkins has spent time at Riverview Intermediate Unit 6, DuBois School District, and finally at Brockway.

(Dan Hawkins (center) stands with Jenna Ceriani and Zachary Roush in the Brockway greenhouse)

That all comes to completion at the end of the 2017-2018 school year, as Hawkins announced his retirement Tuesday night in a letter to the school board.

Thirty-seven years ago, Hawkins started his education career as a special education and emotional support teacher; and he ends his career in an office filled with pictures of successful students, past fishing trips, winning Brockway athletes, and thank-you notes from elementary students.

Outside, muted by the windows, elementary children laugh and scream happily as they play on the school’s playground.  As he looks back on his career, he is very proud of his accomplishments.

“I keep most of my special needs students here in the district,” said Hawkins.  “I only have a few students placed outside of district because, I am happy to say, that we can meet the educational needs of most students right here in Brockway.”

Hawkins feels it is important for kids to stay in their neighborhood schools.  Over his long career, Hawkins has seen both the good and the bad of educational changes.  One area that he felt had a positive impact was “No Child Left Behind.”

“We do test our kids too much,” he said to preface his analysis, “but No Child Left Behind helped students succeed where people thought they couldn’t.  There are more educational opportunities for special education students now, where before, they wouldn’t have had much expected of them.  Now, they succeed.  Kids need to be told that they are as good as any other kid in the state or country.  Sometimes, they don’t believe in themselves.”

While Hawkins still loves his job, he also knows when it’s time to let someone else take the reins, but because of the time he has spent with his students, that was not an easy decision to make.

“This is bittersweet,” Hawkins said.  “Thirty-seven years is a long time in the game.  I still love my job.  But as I always say, when you go from being 12 years to 14 years old, those two years do not make much of a difference, but when go from 58 years to 60 years old, it’s a big difference.”

He explained that his wife, Ann, has been a big part of his success.  Spending more time with her is what he looks forward to the most.

“She has been my rock when things got rough,” he said. “She has always been with me.  She and I have a lot of things to do together that we have not had time to do in the past.”

Hawkins also gives credit to his faith in God for helping him through his career.

Hawkins started working at the Intermediate Unit as a special education teacher.  He then moved to Special Education Supervisor.  He managed 40 teachers in Brockway, DuBois, and Punxsutawney.

“That taught me to deal with different people and different communities,” he said. “Each community is different.  I thoroughly enjoyed that job.  It made me pretty decent at crisis management.  It also helped me learn how to keep kids in their neighborhood schools.  That’s still important to me.”

From there, Hawkins moved to DuBois Area Junior High School.  As an assistant principal, he got hands-on experience with discipline, scheduling, and other aspects of administrative work that has helped him years later.  He loved his staff there, but he then had the opportunity to move to Director of Special Education.  That involved a “transfer of entity” as he brought 44 teachers from the intermediate unit to DuBois.  It also turned out to be an enduring legacy.

“I told DuBois that I could save them money by working out the transfer of entity,” Hawkins said.  “The biggest challenge was bringing those 44 teachers over, and building the program.  I hired two supervisors and set up a special education consortium with Brockway, Punxsutawney, Brookville, and DuBois, to provide special education services.  It was very successful. I set it up in 1992, and it still runs the same way.”

Hawkins learned how to surround himself with the right people to get the job done.  He is not exaggerating when he says he had to build the program from nothing.

“My secretaries, Pearl Bertsel and Diane Hochrein, met me in the old home economics building on July 1st,” he said.  “All we had were buckets and sponges, and we had to clean the place up to get started.  I relied on Donna Hickey and Joe Michaux who were my Special Education Supervisors to help in the transition period.  We had a fantastic team and a common goal, to do what was best for kids.  It was very rewarding to see what that team built and see it still running today.”

Hawkins even developed a billing system that the school districts involved in the consortium still use.

Once that program got going, Hawkins had the chance to take over the new DuBois Area Middle School after the departure of A. Lon Seabring, the principal who opened the school.

“I was always proud of how the school looked over the fifteen years I was principal there,” Hawkins said.  “My good friend and the head custodian at the time, Frank Hoover, who recently passed away, took good care of that building.  When I left, it looked like it did when I took over.”

Hawkins’ reminiscing about his career usually circles back to the people around him.  He calls the teams “Great people who made me look good.”

“We were a tight-knit community,” Hawkins said about the middle school. “Everyone — and I mean my whole staff of principals, guidance counselors, secretaries, custodians, teachers, aides, all the workers — worked like a family and did incredible things there.  We became one of the first ‘Schools to Watch’ in Pennsylvania.  It was a good place for students to come to school.”

Hawkins remembers his superintendent at the time, Sharon Kirk, talking about data “before it was cool.”  He learned about looking to the future from Kirk and the community there at the middle school.

All things eventually come to an end, however, and Hawkins got the chance to come to the Brockway Area School District as the superintendent.  Hawkins recognized that he could only take a superintendent’s position once his three children were in high school or college because of the huge time commitment.

“We had a family meeting to talk about the job and the time it would take to be successful,” he remembered. “They said, ‘Go for it!’ My family has supported me throughout my tenure.”

There was a slight culture shock when taking over Brockway, however.

“I had the same number of students in my district as I did in just the one school that I left,” Hawkins said.  “The difference in time commitment from principal to superintendent was huge.  I spent an average of three nights here a week, and you can’t even begin to put a number on the increase in responsibility.  If something goes wrong, it is on me.  As a principal, there’s always a step higher, but not here.”

Like all his other positions, Hawkins credits his staff for the success he has found at Brockway.  He appreciates the work his teachers, administrators, aids, custodians, school counselors, and others have done over the years.  His business office, though, rose to the top of his praise list.  “They really run the district,” he said. “They make me look good.”

Moving from principal to superintendent did not change Hawkins’ philosophy of education.

“I still have daily contact with my students,” Hawkins said.   “Many superintendents don’t have time for that.  I make that part of my job and make the time for it.  I want to know what is going on in my classrooms.  Working with kids has always been part of my life, and that will be difficult to let go of.”

Hawkins’ door is always open, and he said that it surprised people who came to see him when students come in to chat and tell him what’s going on in the district.

“A fourth-grader named Stephanie came in to give me a donut,” he said.  “It was her birthday and she wanted to make sure I got one.  I always want to make sure I am in touch with my students and staff.”

Hawkins also listed the Brockway Schools and Community Foundation as a success from his time at the district. This includes the artist-in-residence program that Brockway runs, which brings in artists like Perry Winkler. The Foundation’s academic programs, however, are a huge benefit to the community.

“Our students can get a full semester of college for free,” he said.   “That’s a lot of money, and the Foundation pays for it so that the students don’t have to.  For a high school with 480 students, we have eight AP courses.  That is unusual for a small school, and it is a credit to our students taking those courses.”

Hawkins feels that the students have become more competitive over his thirty-seven years, which may account for Brockway students taking harder classes. In the past few years, we have had several students who have been accepted into law schools, medical schools, dental schools, and graduates with engineering degrees, not to mention how many graduated with business and education degrees. Hawkins is proud to hear former students tell him that they are as well prepared for college as any other student from perhaps more prestigious high schools.

“I think it is harder to be a student now,” he said.  “Academics are more competitive and kids now have to compete in a global market, but there are also more opportunities for them that did not exist before.”

Something else that makes Hawkins proud is the growth of the agricultural program.  The district now has a functioning greenhouse and high tunnel, as well as a school orchard and barn, complete with chickens.  He helped the students to construct the ten foot high deer fence that surrounds the orchard.

“Trust me: it was a learning experience for everyone,” Hawkins said.  “I loved working with the kids; we all learned about each other.”

Hawkins stated that he has the best school board in Pennsylvania, which allowed him to do his job and work closely with his community.  He said the school board trusted him, giving advice but letting him do his job.  That board is made up of community members who are actively involved in the school, which Hawkins said is part of Brockway’s DNA.

“Whoever comes after me needs to know that the school and the community are one,” he said.  “Nothing happens in the school without it impacting the community, and the other way around.  Overall, my relationship with parents and the community is very good.  I’m hard to miss, and the community has seen me at a countless number of events.  It’s been a great ride.”

Hawkins does not know who will succeed him, but he hopes that the new leader will focus on what is best for students.

“Whoever comes in,” Hawkins said, “I hope they subscribe to my prescription for the district: make every student feel like they belong and have a reason to come to school.  If they ask themselves, ‘What’s best for the students?’ even though that can be a delicate question to answer, they’ll do the right thing.

Reported by Andrew Bundy

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