Joe Arcarese retiring as Fitch High School principal

Groton — Whether greeting Robert E. Fitch High School students outside as they came to school or giving them a high-five or a "you got this" in the hallways, Principal Joe Arcarese has been a presence at the school for the past decade.

Superintendent Michael Graner said Arcarese "brought a real vitality to the school" and knew all of the school's approximately 1,100 students by name and had a genuine relationship with them.

"He would really bolster the kids and support the kids," Assistant Superintendent Susan Austin said.

After 10 years as principal at Fitch High School, and 23 years there overall, Arcarese is retiring today from the school, where he said he worked to ensure all students had access to a rigorous curriculum and to develop the school climate and culture.

Equalizing the playing field

Austin said Arcarese always looked for equity and access for all kids to take the most rigorous courses.

About four years ago, he eliminated the basic-level classes at the high school to "equalize the playing field" and expose all students to a rigorous and much more engaging curriculum, Arcarese said. SAT scores for students of color are increasing every year, he said, adding that it was a social justice issue.

In conjunction with eliminating the basic-level classes, Arcarese also oversaw a major expansion of the International Baccalaureate program at the high school, Graner said.

Developing Fitch's climate and culture into a welcoming environment that people can notice when they step through the doors is another hallmark of his time at Fitch, Arcarese said. 

"They feel welcomed when they come in and it's a warm, family-like feeling," he said.

Arcarese said he focused on building relationships with teachers, staff and parents — and with students, who call him "Papa Joe." He, along with staff, remain visible throughout the day, greeting students, and attend games and events in the evening to show students that "we care and we're behind them."

His door is always open for both students and staff, he said, and he's proud that about 10 assistant principals he's worked with are now principals in Connecticut. 

"I think being a good listener and helping folks is a good recipe of preparing people for the next step," he said.

Under his leadership, Fitch High School started the "ABC's" of Fitch: "Achieve More, Believe More, Care More!" He said he emphasizes to students that they need to get better and be better every single day and to help other people; to believe in themselves and the people around them; and to care more as "we need a lot more caring in this world."

Over time, students start to realize that the motto, posted in all the classrooms, is more than just words and it becomes part of their lives, he said.

While Fitch has its share of high school "drama" like every other school, he said the kids at Fitch all get along and are some of the most tolerant students.

He said so many Fitch graduates returning for a visit have said they were prepared and are performing well because of the school and its diversity, evident in the flags in the hallway representing the students' heritage.  

"When you walk down the hallway, it's part of life and it's part of the world and to see them all getting along, that's the beauty," Arcarese said. 

He pointed to examples of students going over and sitting down with a student eating lunch alone, or participating in Unified Sports where "you can feel the love there that goes on."

More than two decades at Fitch

Over the course of his education career, Arcarese got hired four times at Fitch, a place he said he has always loved because of its "outstanding staff" and students who "are the most caring ... that you can find in any high school."

Arcarese grew up in East Hartford and, as a student at East Catholic High School in Manchester, was inspired by his coach and principal to go into education. He graduated from the University of Connecticut and got his master's and sixth-year degrees from Sacred Heart University.

Arcarese started as a teacher in East Lyme, but, at a time before the Education Enhancement Act raised teacher salaries, he couldn't really survive financially so he left after eight years to work at New England Savings Bank. But after 11 years, he wanted to return to education and was hired as a part-time teacher at Fitch. Due to reduction in force, he then went to teach biology at New London High School for a year, but when a teaching position opened up again at Fitch, he returned to teach biology for six or seven years. 

He said he then wanted to go into administration so he personally could affect all the students in a school and hoped he one day could bring his talents back to Fitch. He became assistant principal at Cheshire High School and then, when the position opened at Fitch, served as assistant principal there for about six years before leaving to become principal at Windsor High School and then Plainfield High School.

He realized his dream 10 years ago, when he became principal of Fitch.

Arcarese, 68, said he felt it was time to retire and he is ready, but it was a very difficult decision and he will miss coming to work and seeing kids every day.

He thanked his family, as well as staff, for their support over his career. Arcarese is a Niantic resident who is married to Paula, who works for New London Public Schools, and has three children, Michael, a cardiologist; Joanna, a teacher at East Lyme High School; and Brian, a webmaster; and a stepson, William, a financial advisor.

He said his 23 years at the high school have been the most rewarding he could ask for, and he feels both sad to be leaving and glad that he's going into his retirement to enjoy it. But he said he'll always have a place in his heart for the school and staff members and students.

He fondly recalled graduations over the years, including when the Class of 2015 handed him notes with messages such as "best four years of my life" and "thank you for being there" and when the Class of 2019 lined up in the form of a '19' out on the field and gave him a photo of it on the day before graduation.

Recalling students he has helped over the years, he said he was so happy to not only be their principal, but to be part of their life.

School district officials have formed an interview committee and anticipate having a principal in place for the start of the school year.

Austin said Arcarese had a "presence in the school," showing respect and caring for the students that they reciprocated. He was personable and supportive, but also had high expectations of the students and ensured they followed the rules.

Graner said Arcarese embodied the spirit of the school and "Achieve More, Believe More, Care More!"

"He really embraced that we’re all in this together and should be kind and hard-working and very enthusiastic, so he’s a real Fitch Falcon," Graner said.

k.drelich@theday.com

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