School Principal Follows Through On Harry's Challenge
by Bill Hornung
Gather a group of fans and they'll trade stories about how particular Harry Chapin songs or concert chatter was seemingly directed at each one of them individually.
But Dr. Thomas Dolan is so convinced Harry was speaking to him that he's followed through with Harry's famous challenge to educators and principals specifically to start dedicating class time to discuss tough questions about the hunger situation.
Chapin fans have repeatedly heard Harry's lament about the failings of the school system right before performing Flowers Are Red. He wondered out loud why school principals don't have the courage to briefly stop regular classes so deep issues of hunger can be discussed - particularly right after the food drives that often happen around Thanksgiving. "What are the families going eat next week?" Harry would ponder as he acted out the role of the principal.
During his nine years since becoming a principal, Dolan has met Harry's challenge.
"The kids always respond with incredible energy," Dolan said, even during the past year when he started as the new principal of Cold Spring Harbor High School, in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. "I didn't know them, they didn't know me but we got the job done. By November, we were in every class."
Dolan organized similar activities at H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square, New York where he was principal at the award-winning school for about eight years.
Dolan introduces the special program by repeating Harry's challenge verbatim that can be heard on the Gold Medal Collection. And then the students take over. The Interact Club, a student social services group, researches hunger issues, organizes activities and leads the discussions during social studies classes. Dolan said the goal is to raise awareness about hunger, promote compassion for the issue and provide resources for classmates on how to get involved.
But Dolan isn't satisfied with just an annual discussion. Beginning next year, the Interact Club will conduct a "sequel" in May to re-connect students with the issue. "May is six months after and six months before Thanksgiving. We want to know if students still have a connection and awareness about the issue. It'll be kind of an un-Thanksgiving."
Dolan said his "foot soldiers" display incredible optimism and are convinced they'll be part of creating a better world. "I recently had a guy ask me if the schools have lost control of the kids. I told him not at my school."
"The majority of kids want to be part of the solution," he said. This fact is all the more reason that Dolan believes principals are in the best position to ensure school teaches more than the three R's.
"Forty-nine out of 50 states have established standards for math, science, English and social studies. I think it's up to us the principals to establish standards for humanity, kindness and compassion. Those standards are going to make a bigger difference in the world than any of the academic standards we impose on kids."
Dolan is living proof that a little encouragement and role modeling can make a major impact. He vividly remembers a Chapin concert he attended while a student at Hamilton College in upper New York. A huge snowstorm had hit and only about 30 people arrived at the concert.
Undeterred, Harry performed and talked to the students about the issues of the day. He then suggested that everyone help out the custodial staff by storing all chairs that had been neatly arranged in the gym in expectation of a bigger crowd. "If we get it done fast, maybe there will be time for a quick game of basketball!" Harry proclaimed.
"I think I put away more chairs than anybody else," Dolan said.
During a moment when Harry and Dolan were alone stacking chairs, the college kid told his hero how he admired all that Chapin did to help others.
"Harry said 'that's great, kid, now go get some more chairs'."
"If that didn't embody his philosophy, I don't know what does," Dolan said.
Watch for the Next Issue of Circle! on September 7