For years, he’s been the first one at school and the last one to leave. From writing a daily early-morning newsletter distributed to staff members, to taking a serious late afternoon run around the entire campus, Principal Tom DiGanci is a highly visible presence at .
Highly visible, deeply involved, sincerely concerned, the ultimate educator, the object of sincere respect and affection, Principal Thomas DiGanci will be retiring at the end of the present academic year. Except for seven years spent as principal of Watchung Borough’s Valley View School, Dr. DiGanci has spent his entire 40-year career as an educator at Watchung Hills Regional.
Dr. DiGanci has not been a behind-the-desk supervisor. Administrator of the more-than-2,200 student secondary school, he’s keenly aware of what is going on; he walks the halls, visits classrooms and athletic fields, welcomes parents, supports his staff, listens to complaints as well as ideas, and is savvy about what’s happening on-campus, behind the scenes and beyond. Students feel his presence, support and concern at every school function, athletic competition, on-site and off-campus.
“If I could be of help anywhere, I just never said ‘no’,” he said, as he ticked off the many roles he has played during his 33-years at Watchung Hills. Dr. DiGanci in his time, in addition to his teaching duties, has been advisor to the All School Council and the Grade Level Council. He served as assistant wrestling coach for three years and as head coach for seven. He was assistant to Coach Cecala in girls track, and later, head coach for eight years; coached boys track and girls cross-country.
He has in the past also supervised the summer recreation program of Warren Township, taught Driver Education, has been a night supervisor for the Watchung Hills Adult School.
He came to Watchung Hills in September 1972, as a newly-minted teacher, right out of Rutgers University, to teach American History, Modern and European History and World Cultures. He would later continue his education, receiving a master’s degree in Education from Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education in1976, and, later, in 1999, his doctorate in Educational Administration from Seton Hall University.
Needless to say, there have been enormous changes in education over these four decades—in students, in the teaching process, in educators’ accountability, in state and federal mandates relating to educational outcomes.
For one thing, the learning process is no longer teacher-centered, but student-centered, said Dr. DiGanci. Until the late-‘80s, the educational process was almost the same as it had been in our grandparents’ time; the teacher was the dispenser of knowledge. No longer is education teacher-centered; it is largely student-centered. Today’s students “have ownership over their own educational process,” while teachers motivate them, bring them into the narrative, get them to become more engaged. Technology is the key to delivering content; the use of computers, of course, and in the classroom “smart boards” allow instant access to data, facts, figures.
Other factors have contributed to the changes in teaching and education over the past four decades in which Dr. DiGanci has been in the teaching profession. State- mandated testing, such as the High School Proficiency and Minimum Basic Skills Tests, have put schools under the microscope, served as a measure of student proficiency and held schools’ education process to universal standards.
Also, the emphasis on teacher training has grown more pronounced over the years. Now, too, schools are enabling persons proficient in their various professions to become teachers by the “alternate route,” allowing students to benefit from the expertise and talent of mature persons who have succeeded in professions outside the teaching field.
As instructional methodology has become more effective in engaging students, there is also quicker and more flexible response to students who are not keeping up—low scores in tests would be one indication—and remediation procedures and teaching methods can be changed to improve the situation rather than resorting to the once-used, embarrassing “left back” routine.
Beyond the strictly educational aspects, schools have, over the years, moved to a “business model,” budget-wise. The State of New Jersey has imposed on all districts its mandates on spending and strictly enforced its standards of accountability. These restrictions have had an impact on delivering education.
Students, over these forty years, have certainly changed. The curriculum has kept pace, and thus, also changed. The whole focus on educating youth has changed. Yet, over all four decades, some things at Watchung Hills have remained the same: this principal’s enthusiasm for what he does, his genuine affection and regard for young people (he will know the name of every student on the roster by, or before, graduation time) his pride in the teaching staff, his regard for the teaching profession and his confidence in the community which supports the school’s efforts.
It would not have been possible to serve so long and so whole-heartedly without the steadfast encouragement, patience and support of his wife, Nancy, he says… and with his son, daughter-in-law and delightful granddaughter rooting for him, he adds. Since the Green Brook resident has not had a "real vacation” since 1955, he’ll slow down to take some time out before making the transition to something less time-consuming, most likely in the field of education. He will keep on running as enthusiastically as ever, however, he says.
“I hope I will be remembered as a person who really cared,” the departing principal says.
Without a doubt, that wish will surely be fulfilled by the generations of “Warriors” who have passed through the portals of Watchung Hills Regional High School while Tom DiGanci was principal.