Dan Kalbfliesh has been Principal of Special Education at Catskill Academy since last July. The Academy, which is located at Catskill High School, serves students of all grade levels in the full range of special education programs offered by Questar III. Kalbfliesh brings an extensive background and strong experience in special education to the position. Before joining Questar III, he was employed by Berkshire Union Free School District for nearly a decade – first as a teacher, then coordinator of day treatment program, and finally as principal of Warren Street Academy, a school he helped create.
Yet, his experience in working with students with special needs perhaps stems back even further, to the example set by his grandfather. Henry Kalbfliesh Jr. – or “grandpa,” as Kalbfliesh affectionately calls him – was a dairy farmer and bus driver for the Hoosic Valley School District, where he drove the BOCES bus route for 21 years. He said he remembers, as a child, seeing the school bus being parked in his grandfather’s driveway (at that time, it was common practice for drivers to bring their buses home). “Being a bus driver worked well with the rhythm of being a dairy farmer,” Kalbfliesh pointed out. “In the morning, you could milk the cows, then go pick up the kids, come back and do more chores on the farm, then do your afternoon run.”
Noting that may of the dairy farmers in the community had large families to support – his grandfather had seven children – Kalbfliesh commented, “Certainly, my grandfather was not alone, a lot of the dairy farmers drove bus routes for the school district. It gave them supplemental salary and benefits, and majority of the students were farm kids – so you were basically going around the community and picking up all the kids and bringing them to school.”
Alluding to the inherent challenges of working with students with special needs, Kalbfliesh noted, “Not a lot of people wanted to drive the BOCES route, but grandpa didn’t have a problem with it. As a father of seven, he had a lot of experience dealing with young people. He often talked to the BOCES students that rode his bus, and he was well-liked by them. There was a mutual respect.” Kalbfliesh highlighted the intensity that goes into working with students with special needs. “For the attention, care and effort you put into educating a single mainstreamed student, you probably put in seven times that amount for each child with special needs.”
But Kalbfliesh maintains that the work is as rewarding as it is challenging and pointed out that there is a straightforwardness to his approach that he owes to his grandfather. “He was a dairy farmer all his life, he loved working with animals and working on the farm, I don’t think he could ever imagine doing anything else.” He added, “I remember him being prideful and enjoying the fact that he drove the BOCES bus. He never complained and I don’t remember him ever saying he had a ‘bad day’ with ‘his’ BOCES kids.”
For Kalbfliesh, the central lesson is that creating a positive school culture stems from fostering a family-like atmosphere. “Many of our activities come with the purpose of creating these strong family-like relationships – whether it be morning community-building circles, repairing the harm after an incident, or school-wide activities. Everything derives from building relationships.” He concluded that approaching education this way, especially as a key to unlocking academic potential, is difficult work. “Understanding trauma, building social-emotional learning and skill-building are essential to the work with all students. One of the highest indicators of success, based on studies, is a positive relationship with a caring adult. Relationships matter. All things I learned as a farm kid growing up.”