By Ron Leir
Just spend a few minutes with Denis Williams and it becomes immediately apparent that the restless 46-year-old educator is itching to get on to the next task at hand.
Williams will need lots of energy now that the Nutley Board of Education has appointed him principal of Nutley High School, effective July 1, on the strong recommendation of Supt. Russell Lazovick.
“We were committed to fi nding the best possible candidate and we feel (Williams) is the most qualifi ed,” Lazovick said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work with him for a year and, with his passion, I know he’s the right person to lead the (high school) through the challenging process ahead.”
Williams was picked from among more than 80 applicants for the post which has been filled by interim principal Edward Barry since the retirement of longtime educator Gregory Catrambone in June 2011. Williams will earn $117,568 a year.
Other administrative appointments approved April 22 included: Keith Cortright, replacing the retiring John Calicchio as principal of Walker Middle School; Joe Materia as district foreign language coordinator; and Alain Mollinedo as district director of special education.
Williams is following in a proud legacy, beginning with his granddad, Louis J. Williams, who was inducted into the Kearny High School Hall of Fame as a member of the football state championship team in the ‘20s; and continuing with his dad, Louis F. Williams, who, as president of the Nutley Board of Education, ushered in the first wave of academic technology advances during the early ‘80s.
Acknowledging his family’s West Hudson roots, Williams said: “My mom’s side came from Harrison and my dad’s side, from Kearny.”
And that family was predisposed to the importance of book learning. “I came from a household that valued education early on,” he said. “I grew up in a neighborhood in the ‘70s where people would lean across their fence and exchanged ideas about ‘Why Johnnie Can’t Read.’ ’’
Williams’ sister, Maureen, became a special education teacher in the Nutley school system and Williams, after completing his undergraduate degree in political science and history at Rutgers University and getting his teaching certification at Montclair State University, started his career in education in 1992 as a history/ social studies teacher at Kearny High.
For several years he taught in North Carolina while his wife was doing her residency at Duke University Medical School. When they returned in 1999, Williams got a teaching job with Nutley where he served as district test coordinator from 2007 to 2010 when he was named high school vice principal.
Along the way, he spent three years coaching the Nutley High crew team, having previously rowed for crew during his student days at the high school.
He also handled a number of student advisor positions, including a stretch with the high school debate team which won the state championship in 2003.
And he mentored the “Deliberating in a Democracy” program, an “international initiative designed to improve student understanding of democratic principles and civic deliberation skills” as part of “school to school exchange” with a high school in Kiev, Ukraine.
Williams shared the lessons he and his students learned during that experience as a “selected presenter” at a “Deliberating in a Democracy” international conference held at Lake Ohrid in the Republic of Macedonia during the summer of 2009.
For two years Williams advised the Audubon/Outdoors Club, which was right up his alley since he’s always had an affinity for nature. “I’ve been hiking all over New York State with friends,” he said. Birding is another activity he enjoys in the wild.
Starting in September, Williams is anticipating implementing a series of new educational strategies at the high school.
“I’m looking forward to focusing on more student-centered instruction,” he said. That’s keyed to moving away from the traditional “teacher as lecturer” approach to “problem-based instruction” where students are oriented to more independent learning but still keyed to mastering all state-mandated proficiencies.
At the same time, he said, teachers will be introduced to an evaluation system known as the “Danielson method,” which takes into consideration factors such as planning, classroom environment, student performance and professional growth.
With the application of this system, Williams said, teachers will learn “what they need to improve on” so that they, in turn, can help students achieve individually.
“We’re also looking to develop the STEM (Science Technology English Math) program which integrates different curricula in, for example, such as robotics,” Williams said.
Other plans include developing a policy on the use of hand-held technology devices such as cellular phones and BlackBerrys and the introduction of a web-based student information system that will generate such things as student attendance, grades and a host of other variables to which parents and teachers will have access.
When he’s not concentrating on educational matters, Williams is focused on “raising two daughters” (Megan, 16; and Devon, 11) and “multiple animals,” including cats, fish and guinea pigs, at the Williams household in Hunterdon County where the family has spent the last 14 years.