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Randolph High School Principal Debbie Iosso Leaves Lasting Legacy After 43 Years of Service
Mrs. Iosso decided she wanted to be a teacher when she was a child. Her father was an educator, coach, and athletic director. He would let her grade his papers at night, and she knew she wanted to follow in his footsteps. Her very first job in high school was life guarding, and she taught swimming lessons to individuals with special needs. She developed a passion for helping people with disabilities, and knew that she wanted to pursue this as a career. This dream and calling to serve almost did not become a reality. However, the early 1970’s was a pivotal time in the civil rights movement and the fight for gender equality. On June 23, 1972, one year before Mrs. Iosso graduated from high school, Title IX was passed prohibiting sex discrimination in any educational program receiving financial assistance. Since the passage of Title IX, the number of women pursuing higher education has grown exponentially. Despite the progress made with the passage of this legislation, women going on to pursue a post-secondary education was still contradictory to the gender roles at the time. Women were still expected to become homemakers and raise children. When she graduated from high school, her mother did not want her to go to college and Mrs. Iosso recalls one of her high school guidance counselors advising her not to attend college stating that “she would just end up getting married and quitting anyway.” Despite those telling her not to, she begged her father to let her attend school so she could pursue a career in Special Education. She convinced her father with the understanding that she was only allowed to apply to one school and her mother stipulated that she pursue a career as a Home Economics teacher. She applied to her father’s alma mater Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania where she was accepted. Fortunately for Mrs. Iosso, the university did not have a Home Economics program, and she was able to earn her Bachelor’s in Special Education as she had initially dreamed and intended. After graduating from Bloomsburg, she began teaching at Randolph High School in 1977 at the age of 21 sparking what would become more than four decades at Randolph Schools and a legacy that has touched the lives of thousands of students.
Over the course of her long career with Randolph Schools, Mrs. Iosso was a champion for students serving in a number of different roles including teacher of Special Education, Assistant Director of Special Services, Assistant Principal of Center Grove Elementary, Principal of Center Grove Elementary, and Principal of Randolph High School. During her tenure at Randolph High School, RHS was recognized as one of the nation’s leading high schools ranking consistently in the top 10% of all public high schools by U.S. News and World Report. Since she began her role as RHS Principal in 2010, RHS also grew to have an impressive Advanced Placement® (AP) Program. This past year, Randolph celebrated another year of historic success with 94% of students passing their AP Exams, 184 AP Scholars of Distinction, 15 National AP Scholars, and 10 AP Capstone Diplomas. Mrs. Iosso also pioneered the high school’s highly successful instructional coaching program. “The instructional coaching program was something I started here years ago and that was one of the initiatives that started as a true grassroots effort,” Mrs. Iosso said. “It was facilitated initially administratively. However, we took some teaching positions and made them into instructional coaching positions. I wanted to make sure they had a lot of free reign because we had hired outstanding master teachers to take on these roles. There was nothing in the state of New Jersey to outline what instructional coaching should look like, and we wanted educational coaching for everybody where an expert teacher could give you some ideas and help you with resources. These four teachers created the first program, and at one point 99% of our staff were utilizing them. It was amazing and such a tremendous achievement, and it wasn’t something that I did. It was the teachers who did the work, but for me it showed me how leadership could be used to facilitate opportunities for others to lead.”
Under Mrs. Iosso’s leadership, thousands of students have gone on to be highly successful both personally and professionally. Very humbly, Mrs. Iosso credits the success that the high school has had to RHS students, families and staff. “We have incredible clientele. The students come to us ready to learn. You couple that with incredible staff, and you’ve got two key elements you need to create a successful school system. When you have students who are supported by amazing families and staff who truly care about them, you are destined for success. Coming from being a principal at Center Grove, one of the things that I loved was watching the students jump off the bus in the morning. They couldn’t wait to get into school and start their day. When it came time for a break, the kids never wanted to leave. They wanted to stay. When I came to the high school, it was almost like a 360 because students often can’t wait to leave for break so they don’t necessarily want to get off the bus in the morning. The question I always posed to my team was how do we make our students want to jump off the bus and come running into the building every day? How do we help them want to be here as much as elementary students want to be in school? Our mission was always to help students feel welcomed, valued, and celebrated. I believe that’s what makes RHS so unique, because every staff member truly cares about and wants the best for each student. Building those relationships and sense of community from one year to the next is what makes RHS such a great place to teach as well as to learn.”
For all of the successes that the high school has had, Mrs. Iosso is most proud of the community that has been built in Randolph. Her goal and vision for Randolph High School was to create a space where staff and students could support one another in a caring, nurturing environment. What students and staff achieved during her tenure is merely a bonus to what she truly values. “What I have truly come to believe, especially at this level of education, is that relationships are key,” Mrs. Iosso said. “We don’t teach content, we teach kids. They truly will remember the relationships they have built more so than the content. That has proven itself to me on so many occasions. Every single memory that has come back to me has been about a feeling that a student has had, things that have been said that inspired them, or moments that have been spent with students that they remember. They don’t come back to you and talk about an assignment they had in class, that’s not what they remember. They remember the feeling and they remember the relationships. That is really the most important piece to me and what is most important for students. My sincerest hope for every student was that they learn how to be good people.”
Mrs. Iosso’s retirement announcement was not just a surprise to the district, it was a surprise to herself. “Retiring was not something I had planned,” Mrs. Iosso said. “When people used to ask me why I wasn’t retiring, I would jokingly say that I fully intended on dying in my chair. Some people have that feeling of getting up and hating going to work. I never had that feeling because I loved my job. This was a place I enjoyed coming to so I never thought about retiring. Some people have said to me that it’s a good thing that I am getting out because of COVID. However, COVID really had nothing to do with my decision to retire. I don’t know really what it was, it was just a sense. I woke up one day and realized that it was the right time to move on. I don’t know what I will be moving on to and when people ask I really don’t have any plans other than to do nothing. I want to do nothing for a little bit because I want to know what it’s like to have literally nothing on my mind. I want to use this time to figure out what my next chapter will be.”
As Mrs. Iosso was cleaning out her office, she discovered many important mementos from the past 43 years. Most of these treasures were from students. One of those items was from a young man who was being deployed and decided to stop by her office before he left. “I honestly didn’t even recognize him because I had taught him when he was around 5 years old. But he had a piece of paper in his hand and he said that he could not go overseas unless if he stopped to see me,” Mrs. Iosso said. “He said that while he was packing, he found this piece of paper that he drew when he was in my class. It was a drawing of a stick figure of his favorite teacher. He found it and wanted to give it to me before he went overseas to let me know how much I meant to him because at the time, his parents were having a hard time and he enjoyed so much coming to school and being in my class. It’s so many memories like this that remind me that I made a difference in student’s lives. However, I never realized how much of an impact I really had on them. In this career, I don’t think we often realize how much of an opportunity we have to have a positive impact on kids’ lives. Whether you see them every day or in passing, it can be as simple as one comment that can truly change a student’s life. As I dug through box after box, it’s been very emotional to find all of these items from students who had expressed how much I had made an impact on their life.”
Although Mrs. Iosso is retiring, she hopes that students will still be able to learn from her based on the culture she has built at RHS. Her dream for every student is that they will become the people they were meant to be. “There is no one right way to do high school. It really should be a time of exploration. Everyone is unique, and everyone should spend some time figuring out what their path should be. If it’s different from somebody else’s, that’s okay. I think one of the silver linings of this COVID mess is that students may start to reexamine their mindset to really determine what it is that they really want to do after high school. Maybe that could be taking a gap year or starting at a community college until they figure out what they really want to do before investing in a four-year school. Whatever a student decides to do, I think that this is a unique time for students to weigh many different options. What I would say, however, most of all to students is that they be kind. I know it may sound trite, but I don’t think we can say it enough to our kids. The whole character education piece is so important, and students should be encouraged to find and embrace their passions.”
For 43 years of service, Mrs. Iosso has been devoted to both students and staff. She has worked incredibly hard, constantly putting others first and retirement will be a time for her to focus on what the next steps are in her life. “As I reflect on my decision to retire, one day I wasn’t going to and the next day I was, I can’t help but to think about how much I loved this career. I could not have imagined it being any better. Even though I remained in the same district for 43 years, I don’t regret it. I coached track, JV Basketball, and Cheerleading. I was an Elementary Principal. I was a High School Principal. I was a Special Education Supervisor. There’s not much left. I had lots of different incredibly fulfilling experiences, but there is something else left. I don’t know what it is. And that’s okay. While this chapter is closing, eventually, I know something is next. Whatever that is, I want to do it with a clear head. There’s always this voice that is pushing us forward and telling us what has not been fulfilled, and right now I don’t know what my voice is telling me, but it is telling me something. I am excited to find out what that something is and I am forever grateful for the beautiful career I had in Randolph.”
Mrs. Iosso often wears a necklace that says “she remembered who she was and the game changed.” She’s wearing it in the photo we have featured with this article celebrating her time with us. These words speak volumes to the person she is and the legacy she is leaving behind. From the very beginning of her life, she fought to become the person she always dreamed of being. Even when she was told not to, she persisted. Mrs. Iosso did it her way, and through it all she did so with the best intentions for students and the staff she led. She always cared.
People don’t often think of the tremendous ripple effect that educators have in society. Each life that is impacted ultimately goes on to influence the lives of hundreds if not thousands of other people. The phrase “It’s a small world” is a direct result of the power of education. As we reflect on a career as long as Mrs. Iosso’s, she directly influenced thousands of lives. However, as all of those lives influenced so many others, it is impossible to calculate the reach of her influence. Processing the enormous impact that Mrs. Iosso had is a reminder that educators literally shape and change the world. The impact of a teacher is consequently immeasurable. As we honor Mrs. Iosso’s legacy on her last official day with Randolph Schools, it’s also important to acknowledge the sacrifice, love, and commitment that educators make every single day. In 1977 when she followed in her father’s footsteps, she paved a path. Now, people will be following in hers. Thank you Mrs. Iosso for 43 years of service. You will always be a part of our Ramily!