Today is Barry Fenstermacher Day in Bedford, did you know?
If his is not a household name familiar to you, it is to the 350 students from towns across Westchester, the Lower Hudson Valley, Connecticut and New York City that attend in Katonah.
Today, the town of Bedford and the Harvey community are honoring Fenstermacher’s 25th anniversary as headmaster with an official proclamation and a gala celebration.
After a quarter-century of leading the 96-year-old private school, the 64-year-old educator shows no signs of slowing down.
“I don’t look back very much,” said Fenstermacher, who lives in Katonah with his wife, a classics teacher at the Hackley School. “I’m always thinking about the future. And the one constant in education is change—a lot of change should be happening.”
The differences between the Harvey of today and when he started at the school in 1986 are striking. And his staff, school trustees and parents largely credit Fenstermacher with bringing about great changes.
“I credit Barry for helping the board put this school back on firm financial footing, boosting enrollment and making Harvey more vital school,” said Tim Stark, Latin teacher and chairman of the language department. “He has the faculty thinking ahead, beyond daily crises, thinking about the whole purpose of the school.”
Under Fenstermacher’s leadership, the number of girls enrolled has gone from 16 to 190 and the student population has grown from 150 to 340 students overall. He also initiated capital campaigns that led to an addition to the middle school, the and an athletic facility expected to open in 2012.
It’s not enough to make change happen, but to thoughtfully respond to change—and he said he’s proud of how the school has kept apace with educational developments and begun to offer distance learning. A handful of students from as far away as Texas are schooled online in real time through the use of Smartboards and internet discussion. Fenstermacher sees that initiative growing to include keeping current students engaged online when they're not able to be in a classroom.
“We can ruin a child’s snow day with it,” he grinned.
He deflects praise from colleagues and school community members and said he’s had success because he’s hired good people and let them do their job.
Or encouraged them to try for a new one. Phil Lazaro started teaching history and coaching sports at Harvey as a 21-year-old. Now 39, he’s a Dean at the school overseeing college placement.
“Early on he told me to pursue new opportunities,” said Lazaro. “Not only did he let me start a rugby program, he traveled to Ireland with the team and opened it up to non-Harvey students. He supports new ideas and gives the faculty independence while setting high expectations. And if it benefits students, Barry is in favor of it.”
Students and parents appreciate Fenstermacher’s open door policy and accessibility and say his belief in the school has been a guiding force for its development.
Jane Petty called him a “true partner” in education. A past parent association president and mother to a current student, she said campus improvements have taken place because of his belief in the school. “He eats lunch every day with the children, he knows them, he has them call him by his first name. He attends the parent meetings himself. He has a can-do attitude.”
His positive outlook has been put to the test in a tighter economy. He’s hearing more stories of families experiencing job and home losses, seen an increase in financial aid and an impact on fundraising. Still, he feels the school is in control of its finances and has opportunities for growth.
“We control our own destiny,” he said. “We have to keep getting better for about the same price and we’re asking everyone to more with less. We’re like a small family business, and we have a brilliant and nimble board of trustees.”
How does he keep it fresh after 25 years?
"You listen to people younger than you are," he said of his job, that, in the field, has an average tenure of four and a half years. He also reads any non-fiction that may give him insight into how to do his job better—from books on technology in education to biographies.
Being quick to laugh doesn't hurt, either—he's been known to have toys around for children of faculty and endured with grace and humor the tradition of throwing the headmaster in a pond when a school sports team goes undefeated.
But mostly, Fenstermacher said, it's the students themselves that keep him energized, day in, day out.
"They're not my kids. But I get to enjoy them in ways parents don’t—and I get to watch them grow up into remarkable people."