He's up for adventure

World traveler, newsman, teacher … what's next for Jim DelViscio?

Author: Deborah J. Botti
Posted: Thursday, April 17, 2008
If life is a journey and its lessons the map, then education isn't something that ceases when the afternoon bell rings or the calendar page flips to June.

Rather, the goal of education is to arm each traveler with the provisions necessary for a purposeful passage. Seeds of compassion, character and caring need to be planted alongside a thirst for knowledge and justice, and the ability to be economically independent while a contributing member of society.

Clearly, school is not just about passing a test.

And it is by these principles that Principal James J. DelViscio has charted the course for Bishop Dunn Memorial School, as well as his own life.

As a young man growing up in the Philadelphia area, DelViscio believed he had a calling to the priesthood. During high school, he attended St. Albert's Junior Seminary in Middletown – now the site of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel – and after graduation, he spent two years at SUNY Orange with his group of seminarians. He became involved in the college newspaper, as well as its Newman Club, a group for Catholics on campus, which is where he met Lorry Martin, a Newburgh native and nursing student.

"She was the one," says DelViscio of this unanticipated emotion that sent his plans into a time of transition.

He left the seminary, graduated from Rutger's University in '72 and began a career in journalism, which included a job as an NYU public relations department specialist and business magazine editor in Manhattan. From there, he logged 15 years as a reporter, photographer and editor for the former Evening News in Newburgh and then joined the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, where he held several special section editor positions. He married Martin in '76, and they eventually settled in Plattekill to raise their family.
When his first-born, Erica, was only 3, the young family explored Europe with little more than a sense of adventure, a Eurail pass and a dog-eared guidebook.

"We didn't know back then we had the travel bug. My wife hardly traveled before," DelViscio says. "And what an ice-breaker having a cute little daughter was."

And they continued to travel, even after twins Thomas and Jeffery came along. And while he admits there's a lot to be said for having a specific destination each summer, the DelViscio family quickly learned it preferred the excitement of previously unexplored territories.

"We'd take the train to a city, look in the book for an inexpensive place to stay that was close to what we wanted to visit," he says. They had no qualms about knocking on the door of a host family in a foreign land to completely immerse themselves in an unfamiliar culture.

It's no surprise, then, that DelViscio often found his role as an editor somewhat distanced and impersonal; he longed for more direct contact with people. Changes at that time in the newsroom meant he'd be looking at a middle-management position with even longer hours – meaning less time for his children, who were just beginning grammar school.
"When they were younger, I had arranged it (while with the Evening News) so I was a house dad for nine months," he recalls. "At that point, I wanted to be with my family; I didn't want to miss out on anything."

So at the age of 39, he saw another period of transition before him.

Again, education was the key to his next move. A new program at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh allowed him to acquire a master's degree in education without taking additional undergraduate education courses. A sixth-grade teaching position at Bishop Dunn Memorial School, a private Catholic school that's an independent operation of Mount St. Mary College, awaited him.
"I got here by accident," he says.

But there has been nothing accidental about his accomplishments over the years, both as a father to his three children, and as the head of his family of 300 plus 40 staff.

"My wife and I have a good relationship – and neither one of us has taken our careers as far as we could have," DelViscio says. "If she took time off, then I worked harder. And when I took time off to be with my kids and later to go back to school, she worked two jobs."

While DelViscio was still teaching – he spent three years teaching sixth grade and three years teaching third – he was approached by the vice president of academic affairs at the college and asked to develop a summer program. This meshed with his belief that education needs to evolve into more of a full-year program.

The result, Summer Fundamentals, a multi-faceted summer enrichment program, blends activities such as swimming in the college's pool with course selections that offer mental stimulation.

"It was a success when it started – and it didn't feel like going to school," says DelViscio. "It's still one of the few programs of its kind in the area."

The six-week program continues to this day – with ever-expanding course options.

Prior to becoming principal, DelViscio was named special projects director. As such, he developed a weekend program for gifted and talented children, predicated upon his belief that education shouldn't come to a grinding halt on Friday afternoon.

"Unfortunately, this program stopped last year," he says, "partly because it was loved too much." It could no longer be effectively run on a part-time basis.

And so it goes at Bishop Dunn Memorial School. Because it is not a public school, DelViscio and his staff enjoy more freedom to ride the wave of their enthusiasm and to tap into their religious values.

"We follow New York standards and our students take all the New York exams," he says. "But we're like a family here, very close – and connected with the students spiritually, too. We're allowed to talk about something bigger than us."

DelViscio's strong faith is particularly evident when he's helping students and staff cope with loss. An employee of 19 years recently died, and a beloved student passed away at the end of '06.

"I don't know how you would get through that in school without praying," he says.

The students, about 75 percent of whom are Catholic, wear uniforms and surrender their cell phones at the beginning of the day, which starts with a religious song and prayer. The day ends with more music, perhaps a jazz or classical piece, and another prayer. There is a heavy emphasis on respect and character development. The school, for which there's a waiting list to attend, scores well on standardized testing, echoing DelViscio's belief that if children yearn to learn, the "measuring" takes care of itself.

There is one class for each grade, from kindergarten through eighth, which offers stability and continuity.

The teachers are also encouraged to be innovative.

For example, five years ago, a modified middle-school or loop approach was instituted in third through fifth grades so teachers would not lose contact with the students after a year. The third-grade teacher teaches third- and fourth-grade math; the fourth-grade teacher is the science specialist in all three grades, and the fifth-grade teacher teaches fourth- and fifth-grade social studies.
DelViscio also holds himself up to the standards he sets for others. He returned to SUNY New Paltz a couple of years ago for advanced study in educational and administrative supervision. Not only did he acquire state certification, but in 2005, was selected as the top student from 90 post-graduate students in the program at the time.

Later, he collaborated with one of his instructors at New Paltz on an article detailing the third-through-fifth-grade looping program, which was published in the National School Administrators magazine.

"I do want to get back to writing," he says. "I'm torn between doing what I'm doing and extending it to a wider audience."

Perhaps that's because his children are grown and charting their own courses now. After time in the Peace Corps, Erica is now an assistant director with the St. Vincent de Paul Society Baltimore.

"That was a real eye-opener when we visited her in Tanzania," he says. "We also visited her in Thailand when she was in college."

Thomas is a physical therapist working in the New York City public school system and Jeffery works for the New York Times as a producer in its online division.

"I'm proud that they're all doing things that are people-related," he says, noting an irony. He and his wife moved from New York City to the security of a rural area to raise their family – and their offspring have all returned to the city. Interestingly, and probably as a result of regarding the world as their back yard from an early age, their significant others hail from India and the Philippines.

"Even now, we still try to travel together," DelViscio says, "and that's probably how my sons picked up my love of photography."

The days between recreational jaunts are still filled with work and a commitment to others.

"I'm the kind of person who spends more time at school then I probably need to," he says. "My wife, a physician's assistant, is also busy. We pretty much collapse when we get home, sometime between 7 and 8 p.m."

And he loves attending classical or jazz concerts and is doing more community service, especially through his parish, St. Mary's Church in Newburgh.

But DelViscio knows he has arrived at another transitional juncture in his journey.

"I'm planning to go back to school for my doctorate in administration and leadership," DelViscio says. "I've been very lucky in my career, but I still think there's another one in me."

Deborah Botti is a freelance writer living in Orange County.

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