Ledyard - After a year and change of flux and newsworthy events in this district of 2,485 students, Superintendent Michael Graner will depart next month after 10 years to take the post of superintendent of Groton Public Schools.
The 2012-13 school year began with an administrative shuffle that remained in the Ledyard family: Ledyard Center School Principal Greg Keith moved up to become principal of Ledyard Middle School, Juliet W. Long School Assistant Principal Susan Nash-Ditzel took Keith's place, and school psychologist Robin Lipman became the new assistant principal at Juliet W. Long.
Later in the year, a parent-packed conference on school security - just weeks after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School - led to improved security measures demanded immediately by the community, particularly at the middle school.
And in the spring, a $45 million proposed project that would have renovated Ledyard Middle School and closed one of the town's elementary schools - a long-awaited project for an aging facility in dire need of upgrades - came to a halt after questions about the high cost were raised, and Graner was forced to ask the Town Council to take the project off the May referendum ballot at the last minute.
Graner's departure will also coincide with the stepping down of longtime Board of Education Chairman Sharon Hightower. A new chairman will be elected in December.
"I've done it for a long time, and I really felt like it was time for… as we were changing leadership in the district, that it was time for the leadership at the board table to also experience a change," Hightower said. "We needed some new eyes and a new way of looking at things because we have a lot of new work to do."
But the new superintendent and assistant superintendent team will also stay in the family, with Assistant Superintendent Cathy Patterson stepping up to take Graner's place, and former Juliet W. Long School assistant principal and Gallup Hill School principal Jennifer Byars appointed as the new assistant superintendent.
The deep familiarity with Ledyard schools common among all of the not-so-new faces makes their hiring appear to be a purposeful move, as the schools continue to transition into the Common Core curriculum, a new system of teacher evaluations, next spring's Smarter Balanced Assessment field test, and the Municipal Building Committee pursues the goal of putting a brand-new renovation plan back on the ballot by May.
"It's unusual for a new superintendent to have this much going on. However, it's unusual for any superintendent, experienced or not, to have all these things on their plate at once," Patterson said. "If you talked to the most experienced, they would say that they were up to their eyeballs in Common Core State Standards, teacher and administrator evaluations, the database that accounts for evaluations, passing a budget … and still difficult financial times.
"For the most senior superintendent, the times are interesting," she said. "I always like to say 'interesting.'"
But Patterson in particular brings specific experience from the many positions held in her 26 years in the district - including principal of Gallup Hill, interim principal of the high school, special services director and middle school teacher - as well as her leadership in developing and implementing the new evaluation system and prepping teachers for Common Core.
She and Graner referred to each other throughout his tenure as partners, a perception board members shared and welcomed, and that Patterson said she will continue with Byars, with whom she has worked comfortably in the past.
"(Patterson's) familiarity with our process … has uniquely aligned there to support the board's work," Hightower said. "The board has the same level of comfort with her as they have with him. It'll just be a matter of us seeing her as a board in her new role."
"It's pretty seamless, as far as I can tell," she added.
Trail of praise
Graner's tenure has left behind a trail of glowing praise among colleagues and parents involved in the school system, and is leaving them feeling equipped for the challenges to come.
For Graner's part, when he was hired in 2003, his first mission was to refine the Board of Education's unfocused strategic plan to focus on four goals: a strong curriculum, strong instruction, a "culture of excellence" and transparency in communications.
"As I think about those goals and the strategic plan that we put together, I think the board more and more became empowered and were seen by the community as key educational leaders," he said.
He said his greatest accomplishments lie in forming a new working relationship with the Mashantucket Pequot tribal leaders to help bridge cultural divides among students - a project that continues to this day, with both administrator and student work groups - and essentially redefining the role of superintendent in Ledyard.
Graner said he became deeply involved in the teaching and learning process, spending four hours a week observing classrooms, and even teaching a course in global affairs and U.S. foreign policy, which he once taught at the Coast Guard Academy.
He gets emails to this day, he said, from students eager to discuss world events playing out now that they first studied with him.
"People began to see the superintendent as something … beyond budgets and kind of administrative organization," he said.
There are two types of superintendents, Graner said - those who focus on administrative matters, primarily the financial ones, and those who balance that with a strong interest in teaching and learning.
"I clearly am a teaching and learning guy," he said. "It's a great connection for me."
Michelle Hinton, a former board member and the parent of two Ledyard high school students, went through the school system herself - as did her mother - at a time when Ledyard was the school to attend, with a reputation for high achievement and future Ivy Leaguers.
That reputation declined for a period in the 1990s, Hinton said, when athletics took the spotlight.
But Hinton said Graner's arrival ushered in a new era for the district, one that put the emphasis back on academics. She recalls brainstorming strategic plans at eight-hour "retreats" with administrators, faculty and board members, aligning curriculums districtwide, using better textbooks, and grouping students "where they needed to be academically."
"He just said, OK, let's go back to basics. Let's look at our tools, let's look at our people in our buildings," Hinton said.
"He just did so much. He looks at each person - Board of Education, student, faculty, principals - he looks at every person, and he finds the benefit in them, and then that's what he really focuses on."
'Just a natural'
Town Council Chairman Linda Davis served on the Board of Education in the mid-1980s and again during the period when the board selected Graner. "He was just a natural. He was very outgoing, very well-spoken, came across as very honest," he said. "It was a slam-dunk choice."
Davis said what has stood out was Graner's awareness of political realities. Before his arrival, school budgets being defeated was "routine," she said.
"Once he became superintendent, I don't believe the townspeople ever defeated a budget," Davis said. "He always understood."
As for changes, Patterson said she would like to advertise the high school as a regional choice program, with both a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program and its vo-ag program, which many students from outside the district already attend.
"I think things are just going to happen that are going to take us down a path we may or may not expect," Patterson said. "But whatever we plan for, inevitably, something new will happen that will slightly change our path."