Who's next for New London schools?
Superintendent of Schools Manuel J. Rivera's surprising announcement to the New London Board of Education Thursday that he will retire this summer is the latest episode in the dramatic ups and downs of the public schools.
Board members reacted with as much aplomb as they could summon because, after all, nobody is indispensable, but Dr. Rivera's presence had seemed fundamental, not only within the school system and the city but in the eyes of other key players trying to secure the educational future of the region's children. And despite a warning from him a week earlier that he was considering retirement, they must have been wishing that the boat would not be rocked.
With him at the helm, and with his stated intention of making the citywide magnet school plan his own signature project, everyone had relaxed a bit. After the debacle of almost hiring a charlatan candidate, preceded by the Board of Education having to be schooled by the state in how to function, Manny Rivera's arrival was much more than a rescue. It said it was OK to stop pretending that a struggling school district could do a good job, because soon it would become capable of doing an excellent job. It was OK to believe.
For two and a half years, as he says in his retirement letter to the board, it has been a complex, 24/7 task.
Reading between the lines, it seems clear that among his publicly stated motives, however diplomatically he phrased it, is a frustration with the way schools are financed in Connecticut and what that does to harm both long-term planning and commitment.
As he has done before, Dr. Rivera also acknowledged that despite the growing popularity and praise for the all-magnet district arrangements, student performance indicators have a way to go. He boldfaced this sentence: "Focusing on our schools will, without question, have the GREATEST impact on our community's economic growth and development. Everyone needs to share in that vision for our City, and there is much work to do in this regard."
It would seem that he wants to give up the hot seat of daily supervision for the visionary work that clearly inspires him. He continues to seek funding for a multi-million-dollar endowment so that four years from now members of the graduating class at New London High School can go on to post-secondary education tuition free. He has been collaborating on that plan with the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and a committee of educational, social services and non-profit leaders. Together they are also envisioning ways to provide access to high-quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.
It's easy to see why that work is hard to fit in to the demands of the superintendency, so if that's what Dr. Rivera chooses to do next, his decision should be easier for the board and the community to accept. He would still be working for the benefit of New London children. But what about the schools and the imminent search the school board must now face?
One asset he will be leaving with them is the central staff he has assembled during his tenure. Among them are the newly appointed principal of the C.B. Jennings Elementary School, whose assignment is to develop it as a dual-language magnet. Dr. Rivera has said he firmly believes that school principals are key to reaching all the district's goals, and he has made their performance a focus. Together they appear to be a strong cadre for change and improvement. They will need an equally strong new leader.
The last time the New London School System needed a new superintendent, it was advertising from a much weaker, less appealing position, and the candidate it nearly hired would have been a disaster and a delay. Manny Rivera helped them make up for lost time, and he is leaving a district that will be much more likely to attract a strong successor.
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