A Conversation with Gregg Desiderio, Valley Middle School Administrator

By Terri Casaleggio
Valley Middle School Administrator Gregg Desiderio
Valley Middle School Administrator Gregg Desiderio

Gregg J. Desiderio’s title during his 28-year career at Valley Middle School has changed numerous times.

But one thing has remained the same—the joy the students bring as they strive and grow.

“It’s such a special time for kids where you can mentor them to become something,” says Desiderio, who has been the school administrator since 2012. “It’s a journey and I come to work every day to see what my day brings.”

Before becoming the school administrator, Desiderio was a science teacher, guidance counselor and assistant principal.

One day an epiphany hit.

“I realized this is my spot,” he said of the school and working with the children. “This is where my heart is.  I was in my lane.”

Desiderio’s leadership has enriched his students, but in his mind, it is he who has been enriched.  Watching his students strive and succeed in this particular part of their lives pleases him enormously.

To some, a day in an average middle school of 400 to 600 students may seem chaotic.

“Middle school is not chaotic,” Desiderio states.  “When you have 400 or 500 kids in one place, something is bound to happen.”

It can be said that it his destiny to be an educator.

His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father was a school principal in Wyckoff, where Desiderio was raised.

And his wife, Mindy, also is an educator. She is the reading specialist at the Dogwood Hill School and an adjunct professor at Ramapo College.

The Desiderios have three children, ages 22, 21 and 18.  They are all in college seeking careers in information technology, nursing and biomedical engineering.

Oakland’s middle school population has fluctuated over the years from a high of 660 six years ago to the current low of 450, a trend that most school districts have experienced recently.

“Over the years, Oakland has grown,” Desiderio says. “The Ramapo Reserve, built some 20 years ago, saw families steadily coming to Oakland with their children.  Now, the kids have grown and moved on and that is reflected in the school population here and everywhere.”

Oakland schools have enjoyed a reputation for excellence for many years.  It is the reason many families settle here.

 “The foundation of an excellent education is embedded in Oakland’s children,” Desiderio explains. “There is an expectation which is supported by the families and the community.  We, as educators, are always looking to support each individual child.  We are constantly looking for the next best thing for them, but while we are looking, the educational foundation doesn’t change.”

He is proud of his staff, the school secretaries and the folks who tend to the school’s physical plant.

“We have a balance of genders among our teachers,” says Desiderio.   “I’ve been here 28 years, and I know I am biased, but I can say we are an extremely close group.  We all share the same goals.  The teachers lean on each other.  They know the teacher next door is there for them.   During the pandemic, there has been genuine care for one another.”

In the past 20 months the staff has had to transform themselves and the curriculum to meet the challenges of an air-borne viral pandemic and a school full of young children. 

Desiderio says, “Only a strong team can effectively do it.  At the drop of a hat, we needed to completely change how the curriculum is brought to the kids.”

Traditional classroom education, where teacher and students make eye contact, had to be rethought, reinvented.

“Eye contact is the best way to teach.  Student and teacher connect in a special way,” he states, “but during the pandemic we had a different situation.”

Using technology, the team adapted the curriculum in innovative ways to keep the students involved and abreast of the material being taught in each grade.  To this day, education is taking place smoothly, within the parameters of what is required to keep the staff and the children safe.

Days at Valley Middle School always begin with morning announcements designed to be newsy and stimulating.

Desiderio says, “But during Covid, they had to be short because there is nothing much to say.  For a year-and-a-half we were being restrained.  Now the burden is lifting.  The door is opening.  We are frisky again.  The heartbeat of our school is returning.  We are really taking our overnight trip to Frost Valley and the costumes are coming back at our Ghostly Gala canteen.  So are our clubs and theme days.”

To keep the students interested and stimulated to attend school, Valley Middle school runs no fewer than 30 clubs and frequent “theme days.”  Bowling, remote-control car club, hiking, fishing, cooking, and “Step-Up” community service are just some of the clubs in which the students are exposed to new pursuits and ideas. 

“The clubs the kids select are significant because the activity or interest often is picked up in high school.  Clubs also have a positive impact on student attendance and grades,” Desiderio adds. “The kids are joined together by the common experience clubs provide which is so essential.”

‘Theme Days” occur at frequent intervals by grade.  “Challenge Day” is for sixth graders which encourages peer interaction and fun activities.  For seventh graders there is a “Day of Understanding” where children learn that differences are what is unique about us and are not things that divide us.  For eighth graders, topics like immigration, culture and ancestry are explored, and there is a day when students come to school dressed in clothing their immigrant ancestors might have worn.

Desiderio says, “By having these special days, our students and staff become more aware of their family origins and each other.”

Before the pandemic, Valley Middle School was recognized nationally as a “School of Character,” a title bestowed on only a few schools throughout the country.

Twenty interviewers were sent to Valley Middle School to grasp what makes the school special and how things are done.  They interviewed a committee of teachers and members of the community.  As the inspectors moved among the students, they randomly asked them, “What’s so special here at Valley Middle School?”

“It makes me tear up that so many of them said, ‘Valley Middle School is like a family.’ Their answers are a reflection of the administrators who came before me,” he says. “They were forward-thinking but grounded.  They sought the support of the parents of this community, and together they formed the base for the excellence of our programs.”

“I hope when it’s my time to retire, there will be someone who is there to reach for the next best thing for Oakland’s students.”