TOWNSHEND—New Leland & Gray Union High School Principal Dorinne — pronounced “door in” — Dorfman chooses her words both easily and carefully, even when they are among the ubiquitous terms (like “multiple pathways”) favored by school departments.
At 40, and looking something like a self-assured high school student herself, Dorfman’s credentials are exceptional: a bachelor of arts from Goddard College in Plainfield, a master’s and a doctorate in leadership and education from the University of Vermont, and post-doctoral work in Berlin, Germany, as a Fulbright scholar.
She has extensive teaching and administrative experience at four schools in Vermont: Orange, Williamstown, People’s Academy in Morrisville, and Harwood Union in Moretown. During her years at these schools, including eight years at People’s, Dorfman was successful at landing grants for new programs.
Dorfman’s orderly, but multiple, pathways to Leland & Gray came about initially because her stint at Harwood lasted for just two years. When its programs were cut back, the last hired were the first to go.
“I was pretty sure [Leland & Gray] was one of the appropriate places for me,” Dorfman explained, emphasizing several aspects of the school’s concepts and curriculum.
The program that Dorfman calls the multiple pathways to graduation — a concept that has been around for some time in several districts — permits students to graduate with credits for activities and study outside the standard academic curriculum. The goal is to reduce the dropout rate.
“Students can get credit for internships, for service learning, correspondence courses or virtual high school on line,” Dorfman explained. “In other words, the curriculum here is out of the conventional box.”
While several districts around the state have embraced the concept, the state Department of Education last year formalized it, calling it “flexible pathways,” according to Tom Alderman, assistant director of the department’s Integrated Support for Learning division.
“The plan is identify students who would benefit from flexible pathways,” he said. “Each student helps to design his or her own program.”
The goal is a 100-percent graduation rate by 2020.
There are no current studies from schools now using the flexible pathways concept but, Alderman said, the department is now obligated after a certain period to ask schools to report results.
No distinction is made among the students sticking to the more standard curriculum and those taking the more specialized path, Dorfman said.
“I see stronger transcripts among the multiple pathway kids,” she said, pointing out that colleges seem to favor applicants with complex experiences added to their academic records.
Dorfman grew up in Hempstead, N.Y., an affluent town on Long Island, the youngest of four children. Her father was a lawyer. Her mother, who received her degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology as a pattern designer, abandoned a career to raise her family.
“She’s still a seamstress and she made beautiful clothes for us,” Dorfman said, adding that, while her parents were very involved in local civil rights causes, they were “quite conservative with us,” she said. “We dressed very modestly — no cleavage, no short skirts.”
Dorfman constantly references her family. They are Jewish in much the same manner as many assimilated Jews, valuing the ethnicity and heritage more than the daily practice, although she says firmly that she knew she was Jewish and the common rituals were observed.
Her ability to express herself precisely, especially when describing complicated issues, may also be part of her intense family experiences.
“We were all raised to emulate my father,” she said, calling him a self-made man from a working class family who graduated from high school at 16, went to Brooklyn College and got his law degree from Columbia Law School.
Two of her siblings, a brother in Queens, and sister in Israel, are Orthodox Jews. They each have eight children. The fourth is a carpenter in Middlesex.
After high school, Dorfman, went to the School of Visual Arts in New York.
“I was an artist — painting and drawing and graphic design and I got a big scholarship,” Dorfman said. “But I stayed for just a year.”
She met and married her husband, Oliver, 47 (he took her family name), a general contractor and a native of Germany (but whom she met in New Hampshire). To solve immigration and work problems, the couple went to Germany to get married a year after they met.
“Oliver was the stable one then, he had a job in Germany and I painted,” she explained.
They stayed more than three years, and Dorfman gave birth to their daughter, Rosalee, now 20, who attends the University of Leeds in England. Their son, Amadeus, 18, begins college in the fall at the State University of New York at Cortland.
Because their children were born in Germany and hold dual citizenship, Rosalee attends Leeds with the benefits a European enjoys.
The Berlin Wall came down soon after they got there, and Dorfman said the quality of life changed as East and West Germany reunified and old tensions and grudges resurfaced.
Dorfman’s brother in Vermont encouraged them to return and he found a house for them and himself in Plainfield, which is how she found out about Goddard College.
The family is in the process of moving from their house in Morrisville, where they’ve lived for nine years, to Waterbury Center, where her husband rebuilt a house that she says has a great view of Camel’s Hump.
Her husband buys land and builds houses, she reported, but none quite like the 500-year-old ruin he restored in Neustadt, Germany, a property they rent out.
Dorfman said they were waiting for both children to be settled in college before they moved. She will spend weekdays in Townshend at a bed and breakfast and return home on weekends, about a two-hour drive. She said she doesn’t want to rent an apartment.
“I’ve never lived alone and I don’t want to now. I like being around the family where I’m staying.”
Microcosm of society
From her doctoral dissertation, which compared disciplinary systems in traditional and democratic high schools, to her Fulbright research, “Every Minute Counts: A Study of Community, Democracy, and Conflict in Berlin Secondary Schools,” Dorfman has focused on democracy in schools.
“School is the microcosm of society — in a democratic high school, discipline is collaboration among the students, teachers, administration and parents,” she has written.
She said she has been asked repeatedly about her plans or ideas for LGUHS and her reply generally boils down to noting that the school is not short of ideas and that process and implementation are the issue. Not unexpectedly, she has strong praise for the faculty and students she has met. A look at her schedule on her computer reveals almost nothing but meetings for the past month.
She emphasizes her interest in post-secondary planning, from going to college to students planning to work in a family business.
“In some charter schools, post-secondary plans – whatever they are, have to be actualized,” she said.
But her interests are broad, she said.
Dorfman is focused on complex curriculum requirements, specifically having to do with science and math, that she thinks would better prepare students for post-secondary success.
She is aware of certain administrative tensions in the district.
“Leland & Gray in nine or 10 years has not had a principal who has stayed more than three years, which is actually the average tenure in the state,” Dorfman said. “This is a problem. It’s a high-stress job. Overcoming obstacles is a slow and deliberate process. Change takes between five and seven years to take place and it needs consistent leadership.”
Dorfman says she up for the challenge, and if a UVM professor who was on her dissertation committee is correct, she may meet success.
He described her as, “probably the most versatile genius I’ve ever worked with.”