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2 Star Principals Move On

by Melissa Bailey | Jan 10, 2012 4:41 pm

(15) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Melissa Bailey Photos Two women who transformed their schools announced their retirement this week, giving the district six months to figure out how to keep momentum going.

Bonnie Pachesa, who’s in her 10th year as principal of Edgewood Magnet School, and Gina Wells, in her 16th year as principal of John C. Daniels School, announced this week that they will be leaving at the end of the academic year.

Their departures became public at Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

They are among nine administrators who accepted an incentive to give the district early notice of their upcoming retirement. The others are Robert Canelli, magnet schools supervisor; Michael Ceraso, principal of Hill Regional Career High; Patricia D’Amore, reading department supervisor; Leida Pacini, the superintendent’s chief of staff; Dee Speese-Linehan, supervisor of social development; and Principal Michael Conte and Assistant Principal James Wolf, both of the East Rock Global Magnet School. They all gave notice by Dec. 31 of their June 30 retirements, thus earning a $10,000 bonus according to their contracts.

In addition, 39 unionized custodians with a total of 498 years in the district took an early buyout before Dec. 31, according to schools Chief Operating Officer Will Clark. The departures comes as the city shrinks its unionized workforce as part of a new labor contract. There were enough buyouts so that the district won’t have to lay off any unionized workers at this time, Clark said; they’ll be replaced with part-time, non-unionized custodians.

Superintendent Reggie Mayo said he’ll launch a nationwide search to find replacements for so many long-serving administrators.

The blow will hit hard at Edgewood and Daniels, where the principals’ names have become interchangeable with their schools’.

In interviews at their schools Tuesday, Pachesa and Wells reflected fondly on their tenures and said they hope to be part of training future leaders to replace them. Both have taught generations of families in their respective neighborhoods. When Mayo launched a citywide reform effort, he chose the two strong leaders to pilot reforms at their schools.

“It was a hard decision,” to leave, the longtime colleagues both said.

Pachesa and Wells both joined the district straight out of college.

“It’s My Baby”

Pachesa, who’s now in her 37th year in the district, got her start as a middle-school teacher the former Scranton School. She spent two years at Edgewood, 13 years at Martin Luther King School, then returned to rise up the ranks at Edgewood as a teacher, staff developer, assistant principal and principal.

She returned to Edgewood in the early 1990s, at a low point for the school. Parents were “leaving in droves for many reasons,” she recalled. There were a lot of older teachers who weren’t coming up with new ways to help kids learn. There was “nothing pulling the school together and unifying it,” Pachesa recalled. There was only a half-day kindergarten.

And West Hills, the city’s only magnet school at the time, was pulling Westville families away to join its full-day kindergarten and a promise of racial balance. Pachesa was working as a classroom teacher for elementary grades. Her rise to leadership began when Edgewood, in search of a new model to reverse a backwards trend at the school, became a HOT or “Higher Order Thinking” school. That meant teachers got free professional development in how to integrate the arts into the classroom. Pachesa said she left for the training unconvinced. “Then I really bought into it.”

When Edgewood became a magnet school, Pachesa jumped at the chance to become a magnet resource teacher.

“We worked really hard to change everything about the school—the culture, the way people looked at kids, at education,” she recalled. When the mayor launched a citywide effort to rebuild or renovate every school, Edgewood signed up as the first candidate, expanding to serve 450 kids in grades K to 8.

Pachesa headed half of the school when it split up into two swing spaces while the building at 737 Edgewood Ave. was being expanded, then became principal when the two halves reunited in the new building. She said getting the school together didn’t happen right away. For example, she went through nine math teachers before finding someone who stuck. The school took about five years to cohere, she said.

“Our success as a magnet in the first round was that we tried so hard,” Pachesa recalled. “We welcomed people.” They held town meetings, invited parents to a morning Edgewood Café, and touted a strong arts program.

The campaign worked—and “slowly the neighborhood came back” to the school, she said. Neighborhood kids still have to preference in admissions at Edgewood Magnet school. The neighborhood stretches from Forest to Sherman, bringing in a diverse group of students.

Over the years, Edgewood began to attract more talented teachers and emerge as a top-performing school with “the best staff in the city,” in Pachesa’s words. When New Haven began a school reform drive two years ago, Edgewood was one of the first schools to pilot a new way that schools would be managed. It scored in the top-ranked Tier I, earning more autonomy—and a chance to return to the arts integration of its past and focus less on standardized tests.

Pachesa, who grew up in Westville and attended city public schools, has stayed in the neighborhood as her school blossomed. Now in her 10th year as principal, she said it’s time to move on and care for her ailing parents. “This [principal] job is all-encompassing,” she said.

“I’ve raised this school. It’s my baby, but it’s time for someone else” to take over, she said.. “I want to go out at the top of my game.”

She has been keeping a notebook of tips to hand off to the next principal, whoever that might be. The notebook includes tips like how to run dismissal so that kids don’t hurt themselves running down the steps to catch the bus.

Her biggest advice, she said, is to focus on school culture. “Before school learning can happen, a place has to be a place where students want to be, where staff feels supported” and parents are listened to. She said she sought to build an environment of trust by making herself accessible to parents and students, and by building school pride and engagement through various school traditions.

Traditions at Edgewood include the biweekly Edgewood Café, where parents and teachers can mingle over baked goods and student music; the Harvest Hoedown, an evening of square dancing; and ArtsNight, a talent show.

“I’m hopeful that whoever comes and takes over for me will keep those traditions going—and start some new ones,” Pachesa said.

Pachesa hopes to share more wisdom by continuing to work as a part-time consultant to teachers or principals. She said she doesn’t have anything lined up yet.

She announced her departure in a series of letters to Superintendent Mayo, her staff and parents.

“It was hard to write those letters,” Pachesa said. Her tenure at the school has spanned two generations of some families. “This job has been my life for a really long time.”

Her farewell takes place during the school’s centennial celebration, which culminates in a June party for alumni.

42 Years, 2-Mile Radius

Over in the Hill, Principal Gina Wells’s 42-year career with the district has spanned two and even three generations of Hill families. (She’s pictured with Tavon Charles, the 6-year-old son of a student Wells taught.)

“For 42 years, I’ve been within a two-mile radius,” Wells said. “I’ve never worked in any other neighborhood except for Hill North. It was the only place I ever wanted to be.”

Wells, originally from Brooklyn, joined the New Haven Public Schools straight out of college as a classroom teacher at Horace Day, a former school in the Hill. At the time, in 1969, female teachers weren’t allowed to wear pants to work. Wells lobbied the principal and got permission for women to wear pants—as long as they were pant suits, she recalled.

She went on to teach at Hill Central, and then at Welch Annex, which was run along with the adjacent Prince School in a rundown building on Prince Street. When Wells joined, the schools were considered the lowest performing of the city’s 18 elementary schools, she said. Wells took over as principal of Welch-Annex in 1986. The school was the “forgotten” “stepchild” of the district, she recalled. The roofs leaked. There was no gym, no playground and no cafeteria. Kids played on one piece of donated playscape.

Wells recalled walking down the halls covered in soot because she had to personally fire up the furnace to heat the building. Wells oversaw what she described as a transformation—she created a dual language program and oversaw the transition from neighborhood school to a magnet school with a focus on international communication and an official HOT school, like Edgewood.

Seven years ago, on what Wells described as the “happiest day of my life,” she led students into a brand new building on Congress Avenue. Welch-Annex and Prince School merged into the John C. Daniels School, in an “awesome environment.”

Under Wells’ leadership for the past 16 years, the school has improved dramatically. It was ranked as a middle-performing “Tier II” school under the city’s reform era rankings last year. School surveys showed Wells’ leadership—as Pachesa’s did at Edgewood—brought a strong sense of school culture, where students and parents felt safe. Wells was tapped to pilot reforms at her school along with Pachesa.

Wells, the daughter of a Brooklyn school teacher, said she tried to reach her mom’s record of years served in public schools—50 years.

Now 62 years old, Wells said she has been thinking about retirement for a couple of years.

“I want to go out on a good note,” she said. She announced the news to staff and some active parents in a meeting on Jan. 2.

“My [school] parents were in tears,” she recalled. Some of the younger teachers teared up, too, she said, because “they’re unsure about who’s going to come in.”

She said her goal was to step down “while I still have the energy to train the next person—before I’m too old to walk anymore.”

After retirement, Wells hopes is to return to the district as a consultant, to serve as a long-term mentor to principals—most of all to the one who will take over her long-beloved school. She said she’d teach her successor “to learn to juggle,” and always be aware of the many things going on at the building.

“I want to be part of the transition,” she said.

Filling her shoes will be a tough job, acknowledged Superintendent Mayo. At Monday’s board meeting, Mayor John DeStefano asked how Mayo intends to fill the void left by so many veteran administrators.

“That’s a lot of principals,” DeStefano noted.

“Great principals,” Mayo replied. He said while the district will post the jobs and advertise them in The New York Times, the recruitment will mostly take place through word of mouth.

Board member Alex Johnston suggested the district will need to search outside the school system—and outside the state—to find enough talent.

Mayo noted the district has a new pipeline of aspiring principals being groomed through a residency program in partnership with Achievement First. The district will also be looking to recruit nationally, he said.

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posted by: LOL on January 10, 2012  6:59pm

Don’t know Mrs. Panchesa, but I do know Mrs. Wells, a class act.  She is demanding yet fair, strong yet compassionate ... qualities some principals in this district lack; they ought to take a class from Mrs. Wells, who truly always put kids first.

...

posted by: Wow on January 10, 2012  7:59pm

Holy ... The old guard is stepping down. Wow. Just wow.

posted by: National Search? on January 10, 2012  8:13pm

Reggie is going to have a national search?  Wasn’t that the plan when the principalships of James Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross were vacant?  And he hired from within the district in both cases.

posted by: RichTherrn on January 10, 2012  8:27pm

All the administrators and hard working educators deserve thanks for years of service. It is a credit to the New Haven community and to the leadership of Dr. Mayo and others that such outstanding people have worked with him and many, many others to affect the lives of so many students. They are an inspiration to all of us.
Richard Therrien
NHPS Science Supervisor

posted by: westvillelocal on January 10, 2012  10:29pm

A national search? With all the wonderful press that NHPS and the city of new haven gets almost daily i wouldn’t expect much from the quality of applicants for the jobs. People job hunting generally do research on the area and the employer. Once they do that all the good people will steer clear and fast!

Pure speculation of course, but i doubt anyone would be surprised if all the spots are filled with Johnny Boys loyalists from inside who i am sure already have their tickets punched.

“Mayo noted the district has a new pipeline of aspiring principals being groomed through a residency program in partnership with Achievement First”

Nice! they already come in beat down, broken, and assimilated in to the fantasy world of Johnny boy!

posted by: Tom Burns on January 10, 2012  10:46pm

Two champions who will be sorely missed-your legacies will live on in your students and everyone’s lives you have touched—-you certainly make the word “Teacher” proud—thanks for everything you do—-Tom

And on the Alex Johnston comment—we have all the talent in the world right here in New Haven—in selecting our new school leaders—of course we can and should look outside—but I know a stable of teachers who are certified, competent,ready and able to take over leadership positions right NOW——and I would be hard pressed to think an outsider could match their game—-All the best—Tom

posted by: Gary highsmith on January 11, 2012  3:30am

While both Gina and Bonnie have worked long and hard enough to retire, selfish on my part wants badly to urge them not to retire because they are two of the best school leaders you will find anywhere in the country.  I know Bonnie well from my days in New Haven, especially through our efforts to move New Haven forward in the area of professional learning communities and data driven instruction about nearly ten years ago.  Under Lydia Choma’s leadership, we did extensive reading, researching and implementation together.  Bonnie was and is the consummate professional and thinker that cared deeply about her kids, and was always open to innovative and meaningful change opportunities. 

I had the distinct pleasure and honor of having Gina Wells as my elementary school teacher (I was looking at the picture to see if I was in there because much of the wardrobe seemed familiar!).  I have nothing but fond memories of. My time at Hill Central with teachers like Gina and Sal Punzo, another incredible principal from whom I had the opportunity to learn when I served as Assistant Principal under during his tenure at East Rock.  Gina was without question one of the most dedicated, loving and caring educators I have ever known.

Both of these incredible women will be sorely missed.  However, we can rest assured that their legacies are so enduring that as long as their replacements are chosen because of their ability to lead, and not their willingness to pay $200.00 to DeStefano’s re-election campaign, the students will continue to thrive.  I would urge that In replacing them the powers that be stay mindful of the reliable research on organizational leadership that clearly shows when leaders are promoted from inside organizations, these organizations typically do better.  This works, obviously when organizations are functional and not dysfunctional.

Again, thanks to Bonnie and Gina.  I will see the two of you at your retirement parties.

posted by: Bruce on January 11, 2012  10:51am

Gina Wells was one of the reasons we felt so confident about choosing Daniels.  She was so vibrant and excited about the school—I actually did a double take when I saw how long she was in the system.  I’m sorry to hear this news.

posted by: Noteworthy on January 11, 2012  11:03am

Two great principals - others could certainly learn something from them.

Not to take away from these two in particular, but why must there be a national search? Why is it not the policy of the NH BOE and Mayo/DeStefano to raise up and train the next generation of principals in house? Why do all those years of service vanish overnight and the future of the children in their schools put at risk with an unknown person of unknown qualiities? Why has the replacement not been groomed?

Each principal should have a succession plan - somebody in-house who is prepared to take over in case, of sickness, death or retirement. Saying that we need to do a national search for principals, when we have more schools and principals and assistant principals than anybody in the State of Connecticut shows an amazing lack of administrative bench strength. This is what leads to last minute decisions to put people like Peggy Moore and Rose Scoggins in as principals at Cross.

Moreover, it shows once again, the void of real leadership, and vision on the BOE and the top offices of the NHPS.

posted by: Teachergal on January 11, 2012  4:15pm

Gina Wells, one of NH’s finest. Good luck to you as you enjoy your well earned retirement! Coaching new administrators would be a great way for future leaders to learn from one of the best. See you at your retirement party!

posted by: SLP on January 11, 2012  4:28pm

I know Bonnie Pachesa well, having sent children through Edgewood and NHPS high schools. Along the way, I’ve gained an even sharper sense of just how much the principal defines the tone of a school. That may not sound like much, but in fact it permeates every aspect of the building, from teacher vitality to parent morale to student trust—all the way to clean bathrooms (and everything inbetween!). Our family’s mixed experiences at the high-school level mean we treasure smart, hands-on, attentive principals like Pachesa and Wells all the more. I hope these talented women can spare a little time in their well-earned retirement to mentor new (and even experienced) principals. NHPS desperately needs their wisdom.

posted by: Teachergal on January 11, 2012  6:48pm

SLP says the principal sets the tone for the building…..so true. This is why there is so much stress in too many NHPS. The principals in NH are not leaders BUT power hungry bullies! They threaten students, teachers, and parents which is very much in tune with the style of our superintendent and mayor. Gina Wellsand Bonnie Pachesa were powerful leaders who led by example and will not be easily replaced.

posted by: Cheri on January 12, 2012  7:53am

It is true teachergal, that the principal or principals set the tone for the schools. Those two were great. There are too many who do bully the staff and our power hungry…
  We lost many great teachers who left the system because of this. A principal can turn one of the better schools into a mess. I have seen it happen. I hope they recruit teachers with experience and knowledge to be principals.  Hiring young ones without alot of classroom experience and who are just DeStefano puppets are destroying our schools.

posted by: Classclown on January 12, 2012  10:30am

Ms p Aka miss Bonnie one of the most awesom pricipal ever even tho I was a pain in her butt when she was co principal still she was a strong dominate individual who I love and was happy to see now I’m a adult good luck and I kno u and mr baldino gonna be somewhere sipping piƱa caladas and chillin 1luv (pph)

posted by: Prince welch teacher on January 14, 2012  7:28am

I had the honor of working for Mrs. Wells and believe me she was an amazing leader and role model for her kids and staff alike. She will be missed dearly! I wish her nothing but happiness and health in her retirement!

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