Three classmates now principals in Johnstown; Graduated Johnstown High together in 1996

ERICA MILLER/THE LEADER-HERALD Johnstown Jr/Sr High School Principal Scott Hale, Pleasant Ave Elem Principal Cory Cotter and Warren Street Elementary Bob Kraemer, all Johnstown graduates, stand in front of the Jr./Sr. entrance in Johnstown on Friday, October 1, 2021.

In recent decades, the career path of many public school administrators in New York state has come to resemble that of a nomad, traveling from district to district, climbing ladders of leadership, recognition and achievement, but often failing to lay down lasting roots in any one place.

Once common, but now rare, are the 30-year careers spent as the leader of one school building or school district, and rarer still are the careers that start as teachers but end as administrators in the same place.

Rarest of all, and likely unique in New York state, is the case of the Greater Johnstown School District where all three of the district’s building principals started their teaching careers at Johnstown, after being raised in Johnstown, and all three graduated together from Johnstown High School in 1996.

Career paths

Johnstown Jr.-Senior High School Principal Scott Hale, Pleasant Avenue Elementary School Principal Corinne “Corey” Cotter and Warren Street Elementary School Principal Robert Kraemer acknowledge the unusualness of their career paths. Hale said he doubts there’s anything else quite like it in New York state.

“Not that I’m aware of, absolutely not,” he said. “I think it’s a surprise that we all work here, but there’s a lot of people from the class of 1996 who actually work in the district. There’s more teachers as well.”

Cotter was the first of the three principals to be hired at Johnstown in 2000 as a high school social studies teacher after graduating from St. Lawrence University. She was back at Johnstown High School so quickly, some of her students may have been freshman when she was a senior.

“I don’t think there were many,” she said. “Yeah, I did have a senior home room my first year, so that was fun.”

Cotter said she discovered her desire to be involved in education while she was in college. Hale said he knew what he wanted to do when he was in 4th grade.

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“I was that kid who enjoyed being in the classroom, but I loved school because of P.E. class,” Hale said. “Mr. Satterlee was my [physical education] teacher, and Mr. Satterlee was really one of my mentors that I looked up to when I was a young kid, and I knew that’s what I wanted to be. I loved athletics and I knew I wanted to be a P.E. teacher, and I wanted to be a coach.”

Hiring competition

Hale and Kraemer were next-door neighbors as children and then went on to become college roommates at SUNY Cortland, both studying to become physical education teachers, and both were hired to teach gym class for Johnstown in 2001. The order of which was hired first remains in dispute.

“What happened was, I was called first, doesn’t mean I was hired first, but we are competitive, so I’ll say I was hired first,” Hale said.

“I don’t believe it,” Kraemer said.

Hale said the GJSD athletic director at the time, Greg Christodulu, told him he was being hired as a P.E. teacher, but not to tell Kraemer because he was going to call him next to offer him another P.E. teacher job at Johnstown.

“He said, the district is going to offer you the position, but here’s what I want you to do, when Bobby calls, you tell him you didn’t get the job,” Hale said. “I’m like, ‘wait, what?’”

Hale said there were other candidates competing for the same two P.E. slots and neither could be completely certain whether they’d be hired or not.

“Bobby called me up and says, ‘hey, did you hear?’ and I said, ‘yeah, I did’ and we just sat there with a pause,” Hale said. “And then he said ‘well, what happened?’, and I said ‘you tell me.’ And Bobby said ‘well, I got hired. They offered me the position, and I accepted. What about you?’ And I said, ‘well, they told me I didn’t get the job.’

“Then there’s this long awkward silence, because we didn’t know whether to be happy or sad for each other, and then I was like, ‘no, Mr. Christodulu told me to do that!’ And then we just laughed, both very excited that we both got hired.”

Kraemer said he always envisioned himself working for the Greater Johnstown School District.

“I just remember leaving and graduating in 1996, and I remember thinking, ‘man, whatever I gotta do to get back here is what I want to do,’” he said. “I never envisioned being a principal, but I definitely envisioned coming back in some sense of education. At the time it was all about coaching and getting back for football and baseball and things like that. And as time went on, it just evolved. And I think all three of us are people that just love to grow and get better, and we’re never satisfied. We’re always just pushing each other and ourselves just to advance in whatever way we can.”

Hale and Kraemer started their teaching careers at Glebe Street Elementary School and Jansen Avenue Elementary School, two schools that have since closed as the GJSD has declined in student enrollment well below the level when the three principals were students in the district.

“I think we’ve definitely gone through rough times, but there are similarities,” Kraemer said of how things were when he was younger compared to now. “We’ve always had a lot of support from our communities. And I mean, people have changed in terms of leadership roles, but we’ve always had really strong leaders in this district, which kind of, I feel, sets us apart. And we’ve always had really strong teachers that have been really dedicated to our students.”

Hale was the first of the three to become an administrator in 2013, when he became assistant principal at the high school under then-Principal Michael Beatty. After Beatty retired, Hale replaced him as principal of the high school and Cotter replaced Hale as assistant principal before moving on to take over as principal at Pleasant Avenue in 2018.

Kraemer was the only one of the three to leave Johnstown, becoming the assistant principal and athletic director of Schoharie High School in 2016 before becoming principal of the former Knox Junior High School in 2018, which has since been converted to an administration building, prompting Kraemer’s move to become principal at Warren Street Elementary School.

30 years of change

Hale said all three of the principals have the unique perspective of having watched Johnstown’s school district change for more than 30 years of their lives. He said he thinks the changes will ultimately result in more positive outcomes than most people now realize.

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“I think growing up in Johnstown, you kind of get stuck in your ways, and the three of us know the history of changing from neighborhood schools — with Bobby and I walking to Jansen Avenue every day, and Corey going to Glebe Street — to shifting to the Princeton Plan [grade level grouping] to now moving to two elementary schools,” Hale said.

“All three of us were at Knox together, and now Knox is no longer a school that brings in Johnstown students,” Hale said. “We’re using it for other needs that we have in the area. The high school that we knew, the four-year high school, is now a six-year school. So, it’s been a transition to the new look, and a huge difference from what we saw as kids growing up and then as teachers at the district. We’re just still trying — the three of us, in the middle of a pandemic — are still trying to feel out what it’s really going to ultimately look like in the end and the benefits that we’ll see from some of the movements that have been made.”

Cotter said it’s also important to remember the things that haven’t changed.

“Something that hasn’t changed is tradition,” Cotter said. “Tradition is really important in the Johnstown school district, but what really has happened is collaboration. So, the three of us collaborate daily and make things happen because we have to, and because we want to.”

Kraemer said being a school administrator dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has been a very challenging time, but one that he suspects will make education at Johnstown ultimately stronger.

“I always say there’s no manual, like you can’t go to St. Rose or SUNY Plattsburgh to get a manual on how to run a building during a pandemic,” he said. “We’re always trying to push and get better and learn. And boy, we’ve learned a lot over the last year and a half. And you know what? And at the end of the day, I think we’ve made a lot of improvements to instruction in our schools because of this.”

“Technology-wise, it’s amazing how much we’ve learned,” Kraemer said. “It’s amazing how much our kids have learned over the last year and a half. I remember when this started and everyone had to go to Google Classroom, and everyone was panicking, ‘how are we going to do this?’ but now, we can all use Zoom, and the kids are so good with Google Classroom and all of the online collaborations it enables.”

Higher goals

Whether the three principals will continue the rest of their careers collaborating at Johnstown is unknown, although Cotter and Hale said they both have goals to rise to higher levels of administration.

“I’ve always set goals for myself, and obviously my goal one day is to be a district administrator,” Hale said. “When? I don’t know, but of course my first love is for this community and this school district, so if it happens 10 years down the road then I’ll be a happy person.”

Cotter said she definitely wants to advance in GJSD.

“I see myself here,” she said. “Like Scott said, I do have goals to go to the next level, in the district, not necessarily as superintendent, but in the district. You know, whether it be for curriculum and instruction or assistant superintendent.”

Kraemer said he never wants to leave Johnstown, but he thinks it will be interesting when higher-level jobs do open up.

“It’ll be great when we all compete for the same job,” he quipped.

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By Paul Wager