In the spring of 2017, Edward W. Placke, Ed.D became Executive Director of Green Chimneys, only the third such individual in the renowned nonprofit’s 70-year history. The appointment of Dr. Placke represented a key step in the agency’s strategy to continue its growth and expertise in providing special education and mental health services to youth amid a changing environment for organizations that serve children with special needs.
Dr. Placke’s expertise spans 36 years and includes special education and vocational programming from the intimate classroom environment to the highest levels of administration. Starting in 2009, Placke served as Superintendent of Schools for Greenburgh North Castle Union Free School District, comprised of four alternative junior/high schools for students in grades 7-12 who have struggled in their home school districts, BOCES or private schools. Under his leadership, the district maintained the highest graduation rate for this type of school system with over 40% of district graduates attending college, and the remainder of the student body attending vocational training programs or obtaining supportive or competitive employment.
Prior to Greenburgh North Castle, Dr. Placke spent five years as Assistant Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities. As Director of Pupil Services for Colonie School District for 13 years, Placke had oversight of approximately 250 staff in special education, guidance, reading and math (AIS), speech and language, health services, occupational therapy/physical therapy, psychology, and ESL. Dr. Placke was responsible for program development and evaluation, curricula development, labor relations, and budget development and monitoring.
Placke began his career as a BOCES special education teacher in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He later went on to teach college students with disabilities, as well as graduate students studying special education ,during his own doctoral studies at SUNY Albany. He has served as school principal at the Center for the Disabled, and was a supervisor of special education for Capital Region BOCES. He holds a B.A. in Elementary/Special Education from Marist College, an M.A. in Educational Psychology & Statistics and an Ed.D. in Curriculum & Instruction, both from State University of New York at Albany.
How has your background and experience prepared you to be the new executive director of Green Chimneys?
I became familiar with Green Chimneys when I served as Assistant Commissioner of Education for New York State. Green Chimneys was one of our many programs that educated kids with disabilities K-12 and was considered the gold standard. Whenever we had any type of committee or needed feedback from the field, Joe Whalen – my predecessor – was the first one we’d refer to. In my 36 years in education, my primary focus has been on students with disabilities and providing evidence-based education. I’ve had the opportunity to lead a variety of diverse educational institutions, including private schools, public schools, BOCES, the NY State Education Department and a special act school district, which has all been tremendously rewarding.
What inspired you to a career in education?
I was inspired to pursue a career in education by the Marist Brothers while attending Marist College as an undergraduate. The Marist Brothers reinforced my growing passion for social justice for those who had difficulty advocating for themselves, including students with disabilities.
When you were a student, who was the most influential person in your life?
Walter Greenstein, my 8th grade social studies teacher, was not only a master teacher but cared about the lives of each student. He gave much of his time to students after school, i.e., tutoring, coaching, counseling, etc. He inspired me to teach.
What is the first thing you think about when you wake up each morning?
Each morning at 5:00 am, I begin with a novena and then start my early morning cross-training workout. Then I review a work schedule that is chock-full of mission-related meetings and activities.
What is your definition of leadership?
Leadership is a concept that has evolved over my career as an educator; I now define it as establishing a clear vision, sharing the vision with others and developing a plan to conceptualize the vision.
What qualities should a successful executive director possess?
A successful executive director should advocate for students, set high expectations for oneself and others, as well as possess a meticulous understating in the following fields: education, childcare, recreational, related services, and fiscal.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
Commitment has always been one of my most closely held values and retiring from Greenburgh North Castle UFSD was an extremely difficult decision. However, I made the decision based on the premise that it was time for new leadership to further elevate the District; I had done all I could to improve a once struggling District.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I attribute my success to a variety of positions that include Principal, Director of Pupil Services, Assistant Commissioner of Education and Superintendent of Schools, each of which strengthened my ability to organize teams to develop a shared vision and bring a mission to life in educational settings. Ongoing evaluation is the key to ensure proper implementation and it continues to develop a shared commitment. I only hire and promote individuals that are brighter and more talented than I am so I will have to sprint to keep up with them!
What has been your most satisfying moment in education?
Enhancing the overall quality of Greenburgh North Castle UFSD was my most satisfying moment in education. After significantly improving the District that included, but was not limited to, increasing the graduation rate, implementation of Common Core Curriculum, ensuring all teachers and staff were properly certified, developing a central office, reducing the District debt and developing relationships with staff, students, families and the community.
As executive director, you must be responsive to more constituencies, such as students, faculty, staff, trustees, donors, than most other professions. How do approach this kind of responsibility?
As the newly appointed Executive Director of Green Chimneys, my responsibilities are far greater than any other position I’ve held. I will address the multiple shareholders and use the mission as the driver for all my activities. Thus the need to improve the overall education students receive will be my priority along with supporting the staff, animals and facilities, which are the foundation for Green Chimneys.
What was the last book you read?
In my spare time, I am a voracious reader. I’m currently reading titles to further my knowledge of human animal interactions and educational strategies: Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling, The Way I See It, and Children Who Fail At School But Succeed in Life.
What does the future hold for Green Chimneys? What are you most excited about?
I see the future for Green Chimneys as having no ceiling. There is great potential for enhancing the career and vocational programs and ensuring all students successfully cross the “Bridge to Adulthood”. People with disabilities in our country have about a 30% employment rate, and if you happen to be on the spectrum or have a behavioral disorder it’s less than 10%. Green Chimneys provides an exceptionally strong career development and occupational studies program (CDOS), which offers diverse opportunities. These opportunities include enrolling in a career and technical education class, participating in volunteer work, job shadowing, or paid employment.