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.