Principal Found The “Toy” In Learning

Allan Appel PhotoPipsqueak the diamondback terrapin, who has spent her seven years advancing the science curriculum, will remain. So will the NASA space suit, the bearded dragon and Rosie the tarantula.

The woman who brought all those aspects of the world to the 567 kids in her school, meanwhile, will leave the building.

She is Denise Coles-Cross, longtime principal of the Mauro-Sheridan Science, Technology, and Communications Interdistrict Magnet School. Coles-Cross is one of four veteran principals who recently announced their retirement.

Her retirement, which takes effect at the end of this school year, caps a 40-year career, including a combined 22 at Mauro and Mauro-Sheridan (into which Mauro merged in 2009). Before that, the New Haven native was an elementary school teacher and instructional leader at the Jackie Robinson School.

That school’s then principal, (future Superintendent) Reginald Mayo, noticed Coles-Cross’ talent. By stages, he recruited her for a future leadership role.

Coles-Cross has a voice, manner, and style reliable and steady as Pipsqueak the turtle’s. She also has a passion for learning through listening and hands-on experience. She has led they city public school to a point where it attracts students from 27 towns.

“We’ve gone from a low-performing school to Tier One over the past five years,” she said.

Coles-Cross said she made that happen in part by recruiting teachers who share her vision and style, “making teachers feel important,” she said. And she did it by being willing to try different approaches or teaching techniques until one worked for the kids.

Everywhere you turn in the school, you find a different aquarium or display case. One tells about their school’s namesakes: late Democratic Party Town Chairman Vincent Mauro and Susan Sheridan, the first New Haven teacher with a PhD from Yale.

The school also has a series of monitors on which its top-flight film and video studio broadcast a live newscast every morning and updates throughout the day.

The school’s broadcast studio—fancier than a lot of cable broadcasters’ set-ups—as well as the robotics labs were already at Sheridan in 2008 when it merged with Mauro.

As principal of the combined new combined interdistrict magnet school, Coles-Cross packed up all the turtles, lizards, fish and other creatures that she’d accumulated at Mauro. She brought her commitment to kinesthetic, or hands-on, learning to Westville.

A “Toy Store of Learning”

Coles-Cross said she came to her teaching approach in part from observing her own daughter, now a computer-science major in college, when they visited the toy store together.

Her daughter was so excited in the toy store, she didn’t know in which direction to turn. “I saw her turn left and right. I said if I could get my school this way, that learning would be fun,” Coles-Cross said.

When the new combined Mauro-Sheridan opened its doors, Coles-Cross’s administrative assistant Donna Schlank (pictured) recalled, “Let’s get a space suit [to display in the hall] was the first thing she did.”

A real-live spaceman who wowed the kids followed soon after.

“I knew what I wanted in that building. I wanted to turn my school into a toy store of learning,” Coles-Cross said.

She recalled a lesson in principalship that then-Principal Mayo gave her one day. “‘Coles,’ he said, ‘You don’t have to go into a classroom to know what’s going on. When you stand at the classroom door, you don’t need to go in. You can see everything by standing.” The translation: From the threshold you can see if there is order, organization, participation, and if there are enough visual materials on the wall.

Just as she spoke, she noticed some rapid movement in the large tank by the reception desk in the hall. “Oh look at the eel,” she said, quietly, but with a palpable excitement.

The eel, which shares the Long Island Sound tank with a crab and several other creatures at the Mauro-Sheridan lobby, had popped up,wriggling and causing a bubble stir in the tank. That’s not a common occurrence, Coles-Cross had noticed.

“I get bored quickly. [So] the enthusiasm starts with me,” she said.

The result: She brings in new posters, new programs, new speakers, new opportunities.

“Parents are the first teachers,” Coles-Cross said. She currently has 10 parents as paid staffers.

Even though the world of teaching is very different from four decades ago, she recommends a teaching career to people who have a passion for learning and the necessary interpersonal skills.

Coles-Cross said she is getting used to the reality that her career is ending. She is looking forward to traveling, perhaps to Italy, and spending more time with her daughter after June.

But the change of life is not going to be easy. “I’m still not ready. I have separation anxiety. I don’t want to give up my keys. I tear up as I drive to work. I say ‘This is going to be one day less.’”

Her staff, who have dubbed her “The Positive Body of Work Who’s Gotten the Job Done,” are planning a big party for her in June.

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