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At Phillips Avenue Elementary School, Debra Rodgers created ‘family atmosphere’

Debra Rodgers is ringing the final school bell of her 33-year career in education. After 18 years as an elementary school principal in the Riverhead Central School District, she is retiring from Phillips Avenue Elementary, where she’s been since 2010.

Although she is leaving, Ms. Rodgers, 56, said her position as principal at Phillips Avenue has been the most meaningful of her career. 

“We’ve had an opportunity to really create a family atmosphere here, bring the community together, help to make Philips Avenue the center of the community,” she said. “The staff really worked well to connect with kids, connect with families, and then provide different kinds of opportunities with all of our networking and partnerships.” 

Among those opportunities were the school district’s first food pantry with Island Harvest food bank, free backpacks and school supplies provided to students at the beginning of the year and the only elementary dual language program in the district. 

When Ms. Rodgers started at Phillips Avenue in 2010, the student body was about evenly split among white, Hispanic and Black students. Now, she says, the demographics have significantly shifted to a larger population of Hispanic students, and with that Phillips Avenue has shifted as well.

“We really looked at our curriculum and had conversations about how can we best meet the students’ needs in not only learning English, but also honoring their heritage, their culture and continuing to grow and develop their home language as well,” she said. 

The dual language program began last year with the kindergarten class, teaching Spanish to English-speaking students and vice versa. The school also implemented American Reading Company’s thematic units last year, which incorporate all areas of study into combined lessons rather than segmenting them into strictly science, social studies or reading blocks. 

“That’s just a testament, like I said, to the staff here and all of these different organizations that support the school,” she said. 

Ms. Rodgers knew she wanted to work in education since she was a middle schooler growing up in Wading River. Playing the trombone in sixth grade, she knew she wanted to be a music teacher as she was “very drawn to music and the collaborative piece of when everyone performs together.”

She began her career in Smithtown as a general education choral teacher, then moved to Eastport South Manor, where she was promoted from music teacher to assistant principal. Ms. Rodgers moved to Aquebogue in 1998 and became principal of Roanoke Avenue Elementary in 2004.

“If my sixth-grade self said, ‘You’re going to end your career as a principal,’ I would’ve said there’s no way,” Ms. Rodgers said. “I had an opportunity to make an impact on a greater number of students and I took advantage of that.” 

Living in Aquebogue, Ms. Rodgers has learned that her job is a “24 hours a day, 7 days a week position” as both a Riverhead employee and resident. 

“While I’m shopping in Riverhead, they don’t see me as Deb Rodgers the person,” she said. “They see me as the principal … I’ve chosen to honor that and really set out to be a good role model not only here at the school, but when they see me elsewhere as well.”

Now that her time as principal is coming to a close, Ms. Rodgers plans to spend her retirement simply “honoring time.”

“I’m going to do whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want,” she said. “My next chapter I’m kind of leaving open.”

Debra Rodgers pictured with students at the school pantry. (Courtesy photo)

Ms. Rodgers is involved with Canine Companions and is currently raising her second puppy, Valerie, who will remain with her for 16 months before training for schools, hospitals or other facilities. Ms. Rodgers was introduced to the Canine Companions program through a teacher who brings her dog, Yucca, to Phillips Avenue every day. 

“I just saw the impact that [Yucca] had greeting kids and really helping to calm the staff, students and community members,” she said. “I really wanted to give back to that organization, so that’s why I got involved in puppy raising.”

While raising Valerie and finishing some projects around the house, Ms. Rodgers said it’ll take some time to adjust to not going back to school in the fall and having “every waking moment be, ‘OK, how can we make things better at the school?’ ”

As being principal of Phillips Avenue became such a significant big part of Ms. Rodgers’ life, the most rewarding part of her career has been “helping kids to truly have their voice heard, know that they matter and help them to see their individual greatness,” she said. “Each kid is a unique individual and to really tap into who they are as individuals and help support them in that really helps them to grow.”

When the announcement of Ms. Rodgers’ retirement became public in April, Jeremy Rand of Flanders, who has two children in the district, addressed the Board of Education and called her “our No. 1 fan and [the] hardest working principal in the district.”

“We can’t thank her enough,” he said.

Board president Laurie Downs thanked Ms. Rodgers during that meeting.

Riverhead Central School District, Phillips Avenue Elementary School
In 2012, Phillips Avenue Elementary School principal Debra Rodgers welcomes back fourth-grader Mahki Adams with a warm hug. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch/File)

“You’ve done a lot for this district, you’ve done a lot for Phillips Avenue and for the students there over the years,” she said. “I appreciate everything you’ve done. … From my heart, Deb, thank you.”

Ms. Rodgers and other retirees were also honored at the June 14 board meeting.

With all her achievements at Phillips Avenue the past 12 years, Ms. Rodgers says that she couldn’t have done any of it alone. 

“There is nothing individually I could have done without the support of the Phillips Avenue family,” she said, extending many thanks to her staff and district for their hard work and support over the years. 

“I have been just so blessed to be able to do something that I’m passionate about. I’ve had the opportunity to lead with love,” Ms. Rodgers said. “It’s really been my profound honor to work with the Phillips Avenue family and the Riverhead Central School District.”