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SEPTEMBER 11, 2015


His life in school

Last week, we joined the rest of New York State in mourning the death of Tom Sobol, a former superintendent of our schools, past state commissioner and influential leader in the field of education.

Sobol retired, reluctantly, from Columbia Teachers College in 2010 and has been bedridden with Parkinson’s for five years, so many current residents did not know him. But they all benefit from his legacy.

Sobol made the excellent Scarsdale schools even better. His efforts to improve education for all children in New York were nothing short of heroic.

Growing up as an outsider — a bookish boy in a tough working class neighborhood, a poor day student at wealthy Harvard — helped Sobol understand different points of view. It’s a theme that crops up again and again in his wonderful memoir, “My Life in School.”

Although he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Sobol had a silver tongue. A former English teacher, he was an eloquent writer and speaker. Every word was quotable and to the point. He answered questions, explained his reasoning, listened to and incorporated the views of others, did not shy from controversy or tough decisions. He kept his sense of humor. He never lost sight of the big picture even while focusing on details. And by “big picture” I mean not just what was right for Scarsdale, but for the state and nation.

These qualities were all in evidence when Sobol arrived here in 1971. A year later, he had the Scarsdale Alternative School up and running, with the goal of providing stimulation and personal attention to kids who didn’t fit the prevailing profile. CHOICE, the alternative program for the junior high school, followed. Determined to enable all children to develop to their fullest capacity, Sobol expanded special education and appointed helping teachers in the elementary schools.

He didn’t impose change from the top down, nor did he take credit for all the improvements during his 16 years in Scarsdale. Rather, he picked up on trends and needs and empowered Scarsdale’s school board and other volunteers to address them. Kids’ BASE and the Task Force on Drugs and Alcohol were parent-led initiatives that came to fruition on his watch.

These enhancements were not controversial, but some issues, like school lunch and overcrowding in the elementary schools, tested the superintendent’s diplomatic skills. Sobol listened to all views, presented every conceivable solution and allowed concerned parents to see for themselves what a reasonable compromise would look like.

At his farewell dinner in 1987, former school board president Beverly Cunningham said, “Dr. Sobol has walked the narrow and sometimes treacherous path between board, staff and community with consummate skill, understanding and impeccable preparation.”

Sobol then spoke about what Scarsdale had taught him: “I learned never to win too big or lose too hard, for tomorrow the game changes and the players line up differently. I learned how to give good people their heads and how not to be afraid to make demands upon others … I learned what it meant to be in charge, to be both respected and hated without reason, to be the one counted on to provide new energy in good times and stability in crisis, to be ultimately responsible.”

These lessons stood him in good stead when he became commissioner, but bringing together disparate factions in the state was more challenging than guiding warring factions in Scarsdale to consensus.

His appointment was controversial. The Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus had lobbied for a commissioner of color and doubted that a Harvard-educated white man from affluent Scarsdale could understand the challenges and problems of the poor. But Sobol did understand. To some extent he had been one of them, rising in the world of academia by dint of his own talents and determination.

Sobol was deeply concerned about unequal opportunity between the suburban, white, affluent and successful school districts and those that were urban, of color, poor and failing. He proposed a curriculum of inclusion and a New Compact for Learning giving more power to parents and teachers. It established grade-specific curricula and held the state responsible for adequately funding all schools.

But establishing a blueprint for change was easier than effecting it. Feeling thwarted by a governor and legislators more interested in assigning blame than addressing problems, Sobol resigned as commissioner in 1995, and went back to teaching.

Learning was always for him a two-way street. “From all of you I learned community,” he told the 465 people who attended his farewell dinner. “I now know how the whole transcends the sum of its parts, what a place can be when private lives and public institutions work together within a common tradition and a shared sense of purpose.”

Thanks in part to Tom Sobol, that purpose continues to flourish here.

— Linda Leavitt, Editor Emerita

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.

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