SENECA FALLS — Michelle Reed, this school district’s new superintendent, considers herself living proof of public education’s power.
The daughter of teenage parents whose education ended at eighth and 10th grades, she has a doctorate in English (on top of numerous other degrees and certificates), attributing those achievements to the sanctuary of school.
“I really learned through that experience that education was a safe place for me,” Reed said in a phone interview earlier this week from the Cairo-Durham school district, where she is finishing the school year as assistant superintendent before assuming the top job at Seneca Falls July 1. “The power of public education is how I got here. Yes, it’s messy sometimes but what it can do for kids is life changing because it happened for me and my siblings.”
Reed was hired by the school board, unanimously, May 16 after a search that yielded 11 finalists. That list was narrowed to three candidates, who visited the district and underwent several interviews.
Reed’s contract is for three years; her starting salary is $162,500.
Since her official hiring, Reed has been to Seneca Falls twice and plans to return three more times before her first day on the job — not only to meet more school staff, but to continue doing some “cold calling” by walking into local businesses to meet local residents.
“To me, my strategy for any leadership position is you have to forge relationships,” she said. “You have to meet people face to face. “
As a self-proclaimed “Southern girl” raised in Virginia and North Carolina, Reed is not afraid to introduce herself to new people. Already she plans to attend the June 16 Kiwanis Club meeting and join community organizations. She and her husband, David, are looking to buy a house in the school district. She describes herself as “down to earth” and committed to integrity.
“You get what you see and I try to do right by people,” she said.
To New York
After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at Radford University in Virginia, Reed moved to New York to pursue a doctoral degree at Binghamton University (her specialty is Victorian literature, and she is partial to authors Thomas Hardy and George Eliot). While doing so she taught secondary English at the Union-Endicott school district. Her first administrative job was as the K-12 director of curriculum/technology supervisor for the Walton school district in Delaware County, serving 955 students. Reed said she wore other hats as well while there, including serving as the homeless and home school liaison and grant writer.
From there she returned to the Union-Endicott school district, where she was director of curriculum and instruction before starting at Cairo-Durham in September 2019 as executive director of learning before being named assistant superintendent there last August. She has also taught College Writing 101 at Broome Community College and a graduate course, Culturally Responsive Teaching, at Binghamton.
Reed said for her it was a natural progression from teacher to administrator, as she often found herself helping colleagues. She also found she had a knack for grant-writing, a strength she says comes from knowing how to advocate tenaciously and collaboratively.
“I’m just doing everything I can to get resources in kids’ hands,” she said, whether it be funding for technology or teaching positions.
Her current district is similar in size to Seneca Falls with 1,170 student compared to 1,168 here, but a higher percentage of students at Cairo-Durham are identified as economically disadvantaged.
A graduate of a small school district herself, Reed said she is a fan of small communities, although she recognizes the challenges that accompany them. Chief among them is dwindling population numbers and increasing economic need.
“With fewer students, how can we keep students invested in our community to get the future they want?” she asked.
Reed also notes the increasing mental health needs of students, which the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated.
As she tries to get to know Seneca Falls a little better here through her visits, Reed said she is also communicating regularly with outgoing Superintendent Jeramy Clingerman, who is leaving the district after three years — and education altogether — for a position with a construction management company in Rochester. Her goal is a smooth transition, so she has also been reading up on district policies and initiatives.
“I’m not waiting until July 1 to get up to date on the current initiatives and plans,” she said.
Outside of work, Reed enjoys playing the cello and has performed with community orchestras; she’s often found herself in the orchestra pit of school musicals. She’s also an avid tennis player (“that’s where I get real competitive”) and, for the past two seasons, has coached the Cairo-Durham girls tennis team when covid made it challenging to find a coach.
In an email, school board President Cara Lajewski said Reed was the district’s top choice and stood out for several reasons, including her varied experiences and strong background in instruction, curriculum and community involvement.
Lajewski noted Reed has been a teacher and curriculum/instruction director, but also a 504 caseworker, technology supervisor, English as a New Language supervisor and grant-writer/manager. She also completed the School District Business Leader Program, grounding her in school finance. Lajewski added Reed is a collaborator and hard worker who has experience with some of the challenges facing a small district like Seneca Falls.
According to Lajewski, the stakeholder group that met with Reed gave “overwhelmingly positive” reviews, mentioning her strength as a collaborator, positive attitude, desire to build relationships, community involvement and desire to do the same here in Seneca Falls.
“She is energetic and enthusiastic about Seneca Falls, and that came through in our interviews with her,” Lajewski said.
Reed’s current colleague, Cairo-Durham Superintendent Michael Wetherbee (a Geneva native and Victor High School graduate), said Seneca Falls is lucky to be getting her. He called Reed his “good friend and wonderful co-worker” and described her as an outgoing and supportive person who is well liked and goes “above and beyond” to bolster both staff and students.
“I believe her greatest strength is her ability to form and foster interpersonal relationships,” Wetherbee said, adding during his educational career he’s never seen someone do that as well as Reed.
A seed planted
As a young fifth-grader, Reed said she looked up to a teacher, Mrs. Shore, because of her professionalism and skill at motivating students, coupled with a kind and nurturing nature. Shore also would put school supplies under Reed’s desk discreetly to ensure she always had what she needed to succeed, a gesture that did not go unnoticed by the then-10-year-old.
“I said, ‘That’s the kind of teacher I want to be,’ “ Reed said, who remains friends with Shore to this day.
Reed believes the school community and education play pivotal roles in all students’ lives, but especially for those like her young self who face some daunting home life challenges. And she tells that to students in similar situations all the time.
“I survived the things that happened to me because of education. It can help you find a path … I had a school community of people there to support me.”