From hockey hero to school principal

Andrea Kilbourne-Hill, an Olympic silver medalist, named principal at St. Bernard’s

Andrea Kilbourne-Hill, the new principal of St. Bernard’s School in Saranac Lake, sits in the school library on June 23. (News photo — Peter Crowley)

SARANAC LAKE — Ray Dora says he wanted to make sure the person who succeeded him as principal of St. Bernard’s School was well known by the community, as well as being qualified.

He got that with Andrea Kilbourne-Hill, on many levels.

Hired in mid June as the next head of this Catholic elementary school on River Street, she grew up in Saranac Lake, went to St. Bernard’s and has taught there for the last four years. But if that isn’t enough, she is more widely known as a hockey player with the U.S. national team, winning a silver medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. A plaque with her name adorns the front of the town hall downtown, part of Saranac Lake’s Walk of Fame.

“The community knows the dedication and hard work, all of those things she’s put into (hockey),” the Rev. Martin Cline, pastor of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church, said in an interview Tuesday morning in the school library. But people also know of her dedication as a teacher and mother, he added.

“Those things echo through all the steps of her life,” he said.

Ray Dora, the now-former principal of St. Bernard’s School in Saranac Lake, sits in the school library on June 23. (News photo — Peter Crowley)

Cline said Catholic schools often lose enrollment when they change principals because parents aren’t sure about the new one, but he doesn’t expect that to happen here.

That would be good, because this school more than doubled its enrollment under Dora’s nine-and-a-half years of leadership.

It was close to the brink when he took over in January 2010. He had retired the year before, after 38 years of teaching public elementary school in the Saranac Lake district, but he was drawn to the Catholic school he, too, had attended as a child. His wife Donna, also a retired teacher, came as well, working unpaid to do whatever was needed.

In the first decade of the 2000s, St. Bernard’s enrollment had dropped from over 100 to around 40 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg urged a merger with St. Agnes School in Lake Placid, but parents wouldn’t go for it, leaving each school to try its own way of bouncing back.

Enrollment steadily grew under Dora, peaking at 85 in 2018-19. The student count dropped a bit after a particularly large fifth-grade class graduated that year — including Kilbourne-Hill’s daughter.

For the coming fall the school has 61 enrolled so far. Dora noted a general decline in school-age children throughout the region, and he and Kilbourne-Hill said the coronavirus is also a factor, leading some families to hold out or consider home-schooling or wait a year to start younger kindergartners.

“On the positive side of that, I think we have our size in our favor,” Dora said. “You certainly have less exposure sending your child to St. Bernard’s School than to public school, number-wise.”

Kilbourne-Hill was one of an enthusiastic group of parents of a big, 24-child class that came along at a critical time for the school. In 2015, the diocese put Catholic schools on the spot and asked each to make a thorough five-year plan that included finances, academics, technology, student life and parish involvement. If a plan was not deemed viable by either the pastor or the bishop, that school would close. At St. Bernard’s parish, that led to tension between school supporters, who seemed to make up the vast majority, and a few who said the school might be too much of a burden. Kilbourne-Hill’s husband Dan chaired the finance committee, charting a course that was deemed sustainable — and has proven to be.

“We really had tremendous support in those meetings,” Dora said.

Kilbourne-Hill said that process made her and other new parents realize their school was vulnerable, and it was up to them to save it.

“It kind of indoctrined those parents to be advocates for the school and know that they needed to step up,” she said.

Going forward, Kilbourne-Hill said, “My biggest goal is to really firm up the parish and school connection. … The families that come to St. Bernard’s, they really feel like it’s their school, and they have a lot of pride and ownership in that, and I would love for everyone in the parish to have that same feeling.”

When she went there as a girl, “It felt like a home away from home, and the people here felt like aunts and uncles, not necessarily teachers. It really was a family, and I think that that is the same.”

When Dora went there, most of the teachers were Sisters of Mercy. Much has changed since then, but not, he thinks, the school’s mission of faith and education.

And his personal mission, as a teacher and principal?

“My mission is always to look at the students in front of me, and see who they are and where they are, and try to move forward from there. I always tried not to just do the same thing I did last year. It wasn’t always easy.

“I guess I would say I try to look at the individual student, and I do think that’s something the teachers here at St. Bernard’s School do well. They understand that all the kids aren’t the same or don’t have the same supports and background and so on, and see what’s going to work best for them”

Kilbourne-Hill said she has learned from Dora to “have trust and faith in who you work with. Ray’s been a great servant-leader in the sense that he’s said, ‘This is what you all need to do, and I trust that you’re going to be able to do it, and if you need help, let me know, and if you need resources, let me know.’ That’s really nice to have, and I don’t think that always happens in the teaching profession. There’s a lot of micromanaging.”

The other big thing she hopes she learned from Dora is his calm, and his ability to spread that to children.

“When you have a group of 60-some-odd kids at prayer service, and you just start talking in a nice quiet voice and everyone stops talking, that is a skill,” she said. “I’ve seen him get mad, but I don’t think many students have. He seems like he is so nice and even-keel, and for children and students, it’s so important to have that consistency.”

Dora looks forward to seeing his grandchildren more and doing work on his home and camp, but “I’ve told Andrea I don’t plan to disappear,” he said. Fundraising from alumni is one area in which he thinks he might be useful.

“I want to help, but I don’t want to be in the way,” he said. “I want Andrea to feel, ‘I don’t have to do it the way it was done. I have to find my way.'”

After Kilbourne-Hill’s hockey career ended and she returned home, she taught at St. Agnes School for three years and then for nine years at Northwood School in Lake Placid, where she had been a student. Her job there largely consisted of coaching hockey, and when the frequent travel wore her down, she switched to St. Bernard’s in 2016, teaching fourth grade. She also helped launch the Paul Smith’s College women’s hockey program in recent years.

She said she has a few “crazy ideas” she’d like to implement at St. Bernard’s, such as an outdoor classroom and enhanced technology, but “that strong foundation of faith and education is not going to change.”