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New NFA Head of School Kelly wanted to return to U.S. after 20 years abroad

Norwich — After 20 years as an educator at international schools across the globe, Brian M. Kelly wanted to find "a unique opportunity" to settle with his wife and young children back in the United States.

The Burlingame, Calif., native scoured education leadership postings and hit on the website of a familiar search firm, Carney Sandoe & Associates. He found: Head of School, Norwich Free Academy, and already knew the lead search consultant, Art Charles. He called to learn more about NFA.

“A school that is independently governed and is a public school is incredible,” Kelly said Wednesday. “That should be a model.”

Kelly, 48, currently is general director of Colegio Granadino, a Spanish-English bilingual, 900-student, kindergarten through 12th grade school campus in Colombia.

By luck, Kelly was in Florida in April for a combined business and personal trip when he was invited to visit the NFA campus for his first in-person interviews.

“When I got to campus, and I started to meet the people who were working at the school,” Kelly said, “I called my wife and said, ‘I really want this position.’”

The feeling was mutual, and on Tuesday, the board of trustees voted unanimously to name Kelly to succeed Head of School David Klein, who will depart June 30 to head St. Joseph High School in Trumbull. Kelly will start in July with a salary of $252,000.

Kelly said he was struck by NFA’s rich diversity of programming, staff and students. He said many of the concepts of international education — integration of art, music, sciences, community involvement and activities — were in place at NFA.

Then he entered Slater Memorial Museum, with its vast collection of cast replicas of some of the world’s greatest sculptures, along with fine art from Connecticut and around the world.

“I walked in there and said: ‘Wow! This is amazing,’” Kelly said. “For me that was kind of the exclamation point. It was really a good feel. I felt very comfortable there.”

When Kelly officially arrives at NFA, he plans to spend his early days “listening and meeting” with students, staff and with school and community leaders from all eight NFA partner districts.

“One thing very important for me and my wife is we want to be part of a community,” he said. “I had a pretty extensive tour of the area. The board took me to see all the partner districts.”

Kelly said he wants to be “part of the landscape," visible and accessible on campus and in the towns.

“I’m excited,” he said. “Excited for the diverse community. I’m incredibly comfortable with the international diversity, both the socio-economic diversity, and the learning diversity. That’s incredible for me. I don’t really see it as a job but as an opportunity.”

Kelly, who is bilingual in English and Spanish, holds a doctorate in organizational leadership, policy and development from the University of Minnesota. His Master of Education, Administration and Supervision is from the University of Phoenix.

He said he was living in California at the start of his career and decided he would teach overseas for a few years to earn money to afford a house in the expensive California market. His time abroad turned into two decades, teaching and leading schools in Greece, South Korea and Colombia.

He and his wife, Vanessa, now have two young children, Thomas, 3, and Gabriella, 2. The couple decided to settle in the United States and give the children a more stable upbringing.

Vanessa Kelly and the children are still in Colombia, and Brian Kelly is stuck in Florida with flights canceled in the COVID-19 shutdowns. After accepting the NFA position, he had hoped to return to Colegio Granadino to close out the school year and collect his family and come looking for a new home — preferably in Norwich or one of the other NFA partner district towns, he said.

But, as with schools across Connecticut and much of the United States, Kelly will finish the school year by working remotely.

While students might feel frustrated, depressed or angry at how their school year has been disrupted by COVID-19, he called it “a very good experience,” especially for middle and high school students.

“They’re in a position where they have to take responsibility for their education in a different way,” Kelly said. “Kids are a captive audience, so teachers are saying they are getting through the curriculum faster. We’re even doing assemblies remotely.”

Kelly spends much of his time now in Zoom internet meetings with superintendents from around the world to figure out the future picture of education.

“It’s an interesting time,” Kelly said. “We have a lot to learn. Blended learning is probably here to stay. We might never have to take a snow day again. And in Colombia, we won’t have to worry about national strike days.”

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