By: Jaclyn Kotora, Editorial Staff (‘23)

Starting in November 2021, Dr. Dionisio joined the RIH community as superintendent of the district. As stated by the Ramapo Indian Hills Board of Education, “Dr. Dionisio is a proven leader and respected member of the educational community, demonstrating thoughtful, compassionate, and innovative leadership.” Dr. Dionisio encourages community involvement and feedback to ensure that all students reach their individual potential by fostering an academically, socially, and emotionally nurturing school environment. 

How has your transition into the district been so far?

“It’s been really good, very busy, but very positive. Everybody from the students, parents, teachers, to the administration, has been incredibly supportive of my transition. Obviously, I started in November, which is not necessarily the ideal time to start, but it has been really good to be able to meet with groups of students, parents, and teachers, and be able to be in the buildings. I had several opportunities where I met with staff. I had an open house where we had light refreshments, and based on their schedule, they were able to come to meet with me. I met with student groups, and I meet with the student council once a month. So the transition has been really good, and we obviously have a lot to work on as we go through another pandemic year, but people have been very supportive, made me feel right at home, and it’s been really good to work with everyone.”

Now that you have settled into the district more, are there any goals you have to improve our school district?

“Part of the work I think that a new superintendent needs to do when they come into a school district is taking the opportunity to meet with everyone and get a lay of the land and try to understand what the strengths of the schools are—what areas people are proud of, and there is a lot of that at both Ramapo and Indian Hills. So part of my transition has been implementing what’s called an entry plan, and that entry plan allows me to very deliberately and methodically be able to meet with students, parents, and staff to gain as much insight as possible before making any decisions. Obviously, there are daily decisions that have to be made, but any major decisions that are more forward-thinking or strategic really need to be thoroughly planned out, and it needs to come from a place where there is a felt need and a reason for a change to be brought about. I’m hearing a lot of great insight from folks, getting the feedback from face-to-face meetings and also through a platform called ThoughtExchange. It’s an online crowdsourcing platform with artificial intelligence that helps collect feedback. It’s like a survey that’s very open-ended, and I utilized that with the staff already and got some really good feedback. In the next few weeks, we will be doing the same thing with all of the students at both high schools. Once I collect feedback from our students, then in April we will be collecting from parents as well. So we will be able to take all this information and make some decisions around that. One of the major decisions I have really pushed forward is working with our board and community to develop a strategic plan that’s multi-year. So over the next 6-8 months to be able to get community stakeholders around a table—teachers and students and parents—to talk about the major feedback that comes from ThoughtExchange and then prioritize them: so what are the areas in education that we should focus on? What are the areas in culture? What are the areas in arts, athletics, and facilities that we should be focused on? So not making decisions without getting input from the community.”

As seen in your welcome announcement, you stress the importance of mental health education in schools. Especially with the ongoing effects of Covid and isolation, how should we as a school approach mental health?

“We want to get the best out of our students, and we want the best opportunities for our students to be successful and achieve their individual potential. Obviously, academics are a huge part of that, but I’m a big believer that if students don’t feel safe, meaning they don’t feel good socially or emotionally, they can’t achieve their best self. So the more inclusive and supportive of a school environment that we can create, that starts with our teachers in the classroom, I think that is really important. That begins with the relationships between students… and looking at how we are treating each other with respect and making sure our students feel safe and enjoy coming to the building, that’s really important before we can focus on anything academically. All of these things are intertwined, and I think making sure we are providing those different leveled tiers of support, as well, from a counseling perspective, should students need emotional support, is important. We have our counseling department in the guidance office, we have our child study teams…we have partnerships with organizations like Sage and CarePlus where we have additional social workers and clinical specialists who help out and provide that support when students need it, but I think it’s more than just reacting to students when they are in crisis and need help…one of the things we already are doing that are going really well is nurturing a really positive school environment, and then what are the other things we could do to make it even more robust, to make it stronger and more inclusive for every student.”

How do you define success?

“A lot of those courses are predicated—you know you have to take your math, social studies, English, etc., but wherever we can provide the opportunities for electives for students to try different things…sometimes it’s to try things they are really excited about, and sometimes when they take those classes they get even more excited about them and engaged, and sometimes they change their mind and that’s ok. Or sometimes they expose them to a class that they aren’t sure they will be interested in, but then they end up really enjoying it and it ignites a passion. I think it’s all about trying to engage students where they are, meeting them where they are at, and helping them cultivate what their interests are. I’m a big believer that if students are interested in what they are doing and they are engaged, then you are going to get the best out of them and they are going to get the best out of themselves. I believe that that’s what school should be about—helping to support and promote well rounded global citizens, where it is [not only] about the academics, but also learning how to be respectful to one another, learning how to effectively communicate with one another, and trying to help guide students to what their path is going to be after high school. It’s about supporting our students and giving them a lot of different options and exposure. I also think schools are a great breeding ground to let students grow and learn through athletics, the arts, clubs, and other extracurricular options… there is a lot of value in those things. What I am really proud of is that from my short time here, it seems that both high schools really value those experiential learning experiences outside the classroom, and that has been very refreshing.”

What have you learned as an educator and administrator that has helped you both at work and at home?

“I would say, one, is that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. What I learned as a teacher, and certainly transfers as an administrator, is I see the most successful teachers in the classroom, and kids and adults respond to the people who they feel care. So if you think about that teacher you really enjoy, that you think is the best, the ones that stick out in your mind are ones like, ‘You know Mrs. Smith really cared about me and cared about her students, and that connection is really important, and I think that resonates the most with me—that empathy piece. It’s being connected to folks and being there for the right reasons to try to help them, and I believe that all teachers run into education because they want to make a difference, and my hope is that’s why they are there—to make those connections.

Another thing that I learned, that transfers professionally, is probably patience. All people need patience, students and adults. Sometimes we want things to change overnight and to just move really fast and make that change, but we have to be patient and thoughtful on how we proceed forward.”

What is one of your favorite books?“I read a lot so it’s hard to pick one. If I were to pick two, one of my favorite books is probably A Return To Love by Marianne Williamson, and two, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I just love how he talks statistics and puts it into a context relevant to society and life. I have read a lot of Gladwell, and there is so much that is applicable to school that makes sense. [I like] authors that engage the reader in a way to think differently; I think that’s what reading is all about. It’s to be able to hear different perspectives and think in different ways. I could probably go on and on, I read a lot of John Maxwell and Jon Gordon as well.”