New London schools open Tuesday as new superintendent settles in

New London Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie, center, listens as administrators from the Science and Technology Magnet High School answer questions during the New London Board of Education meeting in this Thursday, April 26, 2018 Day file photo.   (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New London Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie, center, listens as administrators from the Science and Technology Magnet High School answer questions during the New London Board of Education meeting in this Thursday, April 26, 2018 Day file photo. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

New London — The city found a new, albeit temporary, home for school buses in the city last week. Work crews last month completed repairs to a leaky roof at Harbor Elementary School. In July, the state conditionally approved the school district’s future grades six to 12 magnet school operations plan.

There is plenty of good news for the school district as it prepares to open for students on Tuesday.

New Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie, upbeat and preparing for her inaugural morning school bus ride with students, acknowledged that while some things are falling into place, there is plenty of work to be done in the district.

The human resources department reported 49 resignations or retirements of certified and noncertified staff over the summer. The numbers include some key administrative positions, including the chief academic officer, an elementary school principal, a bilingual coordinator and the adult education supervisor.

Ritchie, a former assistant superintendent in East Hartford, where she was responsible for 11 schools and twice the number of students as in New London, called the amount of movement in school staff “a normal summer for me,” during a recent phone interview.

She said in some ways the fact that administrators are finding jobs elsewhere with more responsibility is a testament to work they’ve done in New London and a sign the district “helped grow them.”

Some school board members argued staff turnover is also a normal occurrence when leadership changes at the top. Human Resources Director Taryn Bonner reported the number of resignations and retirements was lower than last year, when there were more departures. Ritchie said she is working to clarify the exact number, which was reported as 72 at the last school board meeting.

The local teachers’ union contends higher salaries in neighboring school districts is partially to blame for the annual turnover of education staff.

The district had filled about 24 vacant positions as of mid-August with more hires in the pipeline. Ritchie said all the core positions essential to education of the students are in place.

The district has chosen Carol Paldino to serve as the interim principal at C.B. Jennings Dual Language and International Elementary Magnet to replace former principal Jose A. Ortiz, who left for a job in another district. Ritchie said Paldino, who was one of two assistant principal at the school, is a familiar face for the school community and welcome to apply for the permanent position.

Ritchie plans an updated job description for the chief academic officer before it is posted. That position, she said, is at the heart of “everything we do surrounding curriculum and instruction.” Former Chief Academic Officer Ivelise Velazquez left the district to serve as deputy superintendent in New Haven.

“It will be a good exercise to take some time instead of rushing to fill the position without a vision,” Ritchie said. “I want to get it right.”

Ritchie plans to outline some of that vision later this month to the school board as part of a 100-page district improvement plan.

The plan will capture the strengths and needs of the district and offer a clear focus of areas where work is needed. She said this year’s school district theme is “united in excellence.”

And while it’s clear the district overall has a dedicated staff, there are pockets of the district where Ritchie said people need to be brought together. She did not offer specific examples but said while it is healthy to have some autonomy within the district, school leaders must always have a unified vision for goals and action steps.

That will be especially true as the district tackles the makeup of administration for what will become three magnet pathways covering grades six through 12 at two campuses. In addition to the visual and performing arts and STEM programs, the district plans an international education pathway and at the elementary school level is in the candidacy phase of the International Baccalaureate program.

Ritchie said there also must be a level of accountability for the district’s goals, something she said was not in place last year but is being prepared for this year. The district will solidify internal goals related to climate and culture, student achievement and systems and operations.

Ritchie said communication is also one area she has heard time and again during her outreach efforts that needs to improve in the district. Ritchie has held regular coffee hours to bring in opinions and ideas, attended community events and continues to collect feedback from written cards available for people to fill out in person. The school district’s website is expected to offer an online link for public input.

“People want to learn more about the magnet pathways. There remain questions about exactly what the plan is. There is a fear of the unknown,” she said.

One of the themes that has surfaced during her conversations with school parents both in and outside of New London is the “huge sense of community.”

“People are proud of the history and opportunities. People like the diverse cultures represented here. I get compliments about the teachers and how well they care about the kids. It’s a committed staff,” she said.

“Ultimately all of this work is about the kids. We’re here to serve them,” she said.

g.smith@theday.com

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