By Thom Randall
WARRENSBURG - Warrensburg High School English Teacher Karen VanDusen listened to 11th grade students in her Language Arts Class talk about a provocative Arthur Miller play they'd just read.
One student after another debated whether the play's ending was too melodramatic, or whether the heated, agony-stricken conversation between characters reflected real life.
"This was interesting - it was different, not like you'd expect," Sam Mosher of Thurman said.
"Chris and Kate got what they wanted, they got closure," student Xavier Bell of Warrensburg replied about the play's ending, full of epiphanies and anguish.
"Life doesn't necessarily work that way, though," answered Mosher. VanDusen pressed the students to explore the aspects of the characters that the dialogue revealed, and a 10-minute discussion ensued, with students offering observations about the play's emotional underpinnings.
Minutes later the students exited the room, and offered comments about VanDusen, who's been teaching for 32 years, most all of the time at Warrensburg High.
"Ms. Van Dusen asks a lot of questions -she makes you think a lot," Xavier Bell said. "She encourages everybody to offer their thoughts."
"She's a lot of fun, but at the same time, she has standards for us to go by," Mosher chimed in.
VanDusen has been praised by Warrensburg High School administrators as a teacher who can inspire students of all socio-economic backgrounds to delve into their studies and enjoy the experience.
Recently, U.S. News & World Report recognized Warrensburg High School as one of the nation's best - in the top 1,750 of 22,000 public schools. Throughout the entire capital region to the Canadian border, only three others - Corinth, Schroon Lake and Westport - were so awarded.
Those honored were the best in preparing students for college and exceeding state benchmarks on exams. The four schools earned a Bronze medal in the study, the results of which were published in U.S. News' Dec. 29 issue.
The study and award weighed assessments of the performance of those from low-income households. In the Warrensburg School District, 37 percent of students are from low-income households.
VanDusen said she and other WCS teachers are committed to teaching with the assumption that all students want to learn and achieve as much as they can despite their background.
"You have to tap into what is relevant to them in their lives and their background, and when you make that connection, they really learn with enthusiasm," she said.
Down the hall a ways, Math Teacher Art Hull was explaining the mathematic relationship between angles and sectors of a circle.
"The angles formed by a tangent and a chord is half the intersected arc, so angle AEH is what?" he asked his geometry students. "Everything depends on these arcs being correct, so don't screw up."
The arms of a half dozen students shot up in the air to offer the answer.
Minutes later, out in the hallway, his 10th grade students talked about why they enjoy Hull's class, and how he made complex problems so understandable.
"He explains the concepts really well, and he knows his stuff," Austin DeMarsh said.
"Mr. Hull really explains it well and if you don't 'get it,' he'll take an hour or more to help you figure it out," Jennifer Ehle said, noting Hull had a reputation of being patient but grading tough.
2008 Warrensburg graduate Emma Prendeville, a freshman at Skidmore college, said Friday in a phone interview that Hull's teaching techniques were very effective.
"When I got to college, I discovered that Mr. Hull got me exponentially more prepared than any other students at Skidmore," she said.
WCS graduate Ben Infantino, a doctor in his final year of residency at Albany Medical Center, also had Hull while in high school, but during the early 1990s.
"Mr. Hull walks you through math equations and logical problems, breaking things down into simple terms," he said, noting that sound logical deductions were now "very important" in his life as a doctor.
Prendeville also talked about VanDusen's ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.
"She really challenges people on their personal level to do their best," she said. " She helps you assess your own goals, and then challenges you to break down your own boundaries in pursuing your goals - while recognizing each person's particular circumstances."
Prendeville said VanDusen inspired students to accomplish more than they ever though was possible.
"She gets you to realize what you are capable of and gets you to become your own person," she said.
Principal Doug Duell said VanDusen and Hull were representative of the skills and dedication of the entire WCS faculty.
"Our teachers make the effort to go above and beyond what's taught in the classroom," Duell said. "So many of them spend prep periods and lunches helping students who are struggling - their commitment speaks volumes."
Duell said he was "thrilled" with the U.S. News national honor, and said it served as a validation of what the WCS staff accomplishes in both elementary and high schools.
"I'm ecstatic and on Cloud Nine about the award - it's a great honor," he said. "The rigor of our curriculum is top notch, and so are our teachers."