Retiring Stonington High School principal: 'I had a five-year plan but that plan ended up being a 19-year plan'

Stonington High School seniors Amethyst Maynard, left, and Paige Pyles ask Principal Stephen Murphy to sign their yearbooks Thursday.
Stonington High School seniors Amethyst Maynard, left, and Paige Pyles ask Principal Stephen Murphy to sign their yearbooks Thursday. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

Stonington -When Stonington High School Principal Steve Murphy arrived on the job, he had a five-year plan: make an impact and then move on.

But whether it was an upcoming accreditation, curriculum improvements or a building project, things just kept coming up that he wanted to see through to completion.

Before he knew it, 19 years had passed and he was still at the helm of the high school, an unusually long tenure in a profession where principals often leave for new positions after just a few years.

"I had a five-year plan but that plan ended up being a 19-year plan," he said last week in the conference room next to his office as he discussed his retirement at the end of this month, when Assistant Principal Mark Friese will take his place.

"I really do like working here," Murphy said. "I enjoy the community and the environment. Over the years, the principals have had a lot of autonomy when it comes to making changes and adding programs. I was concerned that I wouldn't have that if I went to another district."

He also was a little worried about asking his wife to move again, after living in Providence, East Greenwich and finally Westerly during his career.

When Murphy arrived at the school in 1995, he was the assistant principal in charge of curriculum. When the principal took a new job and the other assistant retired, he was left doing all three jobs for the remainder of the school year. He was named principal for the 1996-97 school year.

For a while, Murphy said, he thought about returning to Massachusetts, where he had spent the first 20 years of his career in education. Murphy had taught English and had been a curriculum director in Seekonk, Mass., before coming to Stonington.

"But it didn't seem to make sense," he said.

Many innovations

Murphy has been credited with implementing many innovative programs: the school credit union, advanced placement and early college experience courses, a career center, and a digital portfolio long before the state required one. He also obtained grant money for some of the programs.

He implemented X-Block scheduling and policies such as those involving drug and alcohol use by students and increased academic standards for students participating in sports and extracurricular activities. He also helped establish the high school's Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.

"Every year, I tried to increase opportunities for students. That's what kept me going," he said. "There was always more to do."

Murphy also oversaw the $39 million expansion and renovation project as well as two accreditations. Some of his proudest accomplishments, he said, are in the area of professional development for his staff and teacher evaluations.

Murphy led the school during a time when the proposed budget often faced cuts.

He said that he and the three superintendents for whom he has worked have shared a similar philosophy: "Try and keep cuts away from the classroom as much as possible."

With the school due for another accreditation in 2017, Murphy said, now is a good time to step aside.

"He's certainly made a huge contribution, not just to Stonington High School and our (school) district, but our entire community," Board of Education Chairman Frank Todisco said.

Todisco said Murphy is always willing to share his wealth of knowledge, is pleasant to deal with and always has an open door policy. More important, he said, Murphy has taken a special interest in students who have had challenges in school or in their personal lives, and in helping them succeed.

"That's not something you see every day," Todisco said.

He noted that Murphy also has played an important mentoring role for future administrators - several of the school system's current administrators first worked under Murphy at the high school. These include Friese, Pawcatuck Middle School Principal Tim Smith, Mystic Middle School Principal Jennifer McCurdy and Director of Special Services Allison Van Etten.

Smith worked as a teacher for 12 years at the high school before becoming principal at Pawcatuck Middle. His last three years were spent as an interdisciplinary coordinator for math, science and special education, which called for him to work closely with Murphy on curriculum issues.

'One step ahead'

"One of the biggest things about Steve is that he always seemed to be one step ahead of things," Smith said. For example, when the state would issue a new educational mandate, he said, Murphy already had planned how to address it and who would be responsible.

"He'd ask what are we doing now and how do we change it. His foresight and organization were unbelievable," Smith said, adding that Murphy also demands a lot from his staff and, at times, could be tough to work for.

"But he would go to the end of the Earth to make sure you had what you needed to be successful," Smith said, "and I've never worked with someone who is as fiercely loyal and protective of his people as Steve Murphy."

Smith said he and his fellow administrators know they can always ask Murphy for his advice, and he is not shy about asking them what they think.

The school employee who might know Murphy best is his secretary, Sue Weber, who has been with him during almost all of his 19-year run.

"He's so easy to work for," she said. "He's just an all-around great guy, the best. I'll miss him but I wish him the best of luck."

Murphy, who will appear at his last graduation ceremony on Thursday, said he's had no second thoughts about his decision, "but it is an unusual feeling to not be planning for next year."

Murphy will be busy, though, spending time with his grandchildren, traveling and teaching graduate level classes at the University of St. Joseph and Southern Connecticut State University.

He said he feels like he is leaving the high school in good shape.

"The ball will keep rolling even when I'm not here," he said. "A lot of things we've done will continue."

As for his proudest accomplishment, Murphy said he feels it was the work done with teachers to improve learning that has determined how successful the students have been.

"I feel they are my legacy," he said of the teachers. "To be a good leader, you never lose sight of the fact that you are a teacher first."

j.wojtas@theday.com

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