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After 50-year education career, Groton superintendent to retire

Groton — Superintendent of Schools Michael Graner said he’s honored to be part of this pivotal time in the history of the Groton community.

The new Groton Middle School, which all of the town's middle school students will attend, is slated to open in September adjacent to Fitch High School, while workers have begun to lay the foundations for two new intradistrict magnet elementary schools on the former middle school sites.

Graner, 70, who has led the district through planning for the major school projects, has announced he will retire in mid-October. With his retirement, he will be completing a 50-year career in education, including seven years as superintendent here.

“My seven years have really been a partnership with the school community and the larger community, and we really had a vision to provide schools that were based on the values of equity, educational excellence and efficiency, and I’m just so proud to be part of this district,” he said.

Path to Groton

Growing up in the 1960s, Graner said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a huge influence on his life. Graner said he wanted to choose a profession in which he could make a difference and saw education as the vehicle to promote people’s rights and support equity.

After graduating from Fordham University in the early 1970s, Graner started teaching at both public and private schools in the South Bronx, he said. But when New York City hit a huge budget crisis in 1976, he was laid off. He decided to pursue a commission in the United States Coast Guard and went to officer candidate school.

The Coast Guard sent him to be an educational program administrator at the Coast Guard base on Governors Island in New York City, he said. He then was transferred to be an English teacher at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., and following that tour, he became a writing and literature professor at the Coast Guard Academy in New London.

After completing 10 years of active duty in 1986, he continued to serve as a reserve officer, including as commanding officer of Point Judith Station in Rhode Island and another Coast Guard station in New Bedford, and retired as captain in 2002, he said.

Starting in 1986, he served 11 years at Waterford High School, first as assistant principal and then as principal, and then became principal of Tourtellotte Memorial High School in Thompson. He then became superintendent in Putnam, before being selected as superintendent in Ledyard in 2003.

Graner said he enjoyed “ten magical years” in Ledyard, forming a very close partnership with the community as a whole and particularly the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, and creating the More than Words diversity club.

In 2013, he was reading an article in The Day about the qualities Groton was searching for in a superintendent: someone who had teaching experience, experience as a principal and superintendent and someone who was a senior military official.

The last qualification caught his attention. He applied and was hired in 2013, stepping into his new role leading the Groton school district in January 2014.

Groton 2020 plan

Graner said the Groton 2020 plan to modernize and consolidate school facilities, promote equity and fix issues with racial imbalance was the highlight of his career.

Under the plan, the consolidated middle school, which is slated to be an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme school and science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, or STEAM, themed, will open in September. Two new elementary schools will be built on the former middle school sites and open in 2021, and three elementary schools — Mary Morrisson, S.B. Butler and Claude Chester — will be shuttered.

When Graner joined the district, discussions were underway about different options for Groton's schools.

In the spring of 2014, Graner said he convened a weekend retreat with a broad group of people to discuss ideas. He suggested creating an International Baccalaureate campus that would include Fitch High School and a new middle school adjacent to it.

Two years later, the $184.5 million plan for building a new middle school and renovating the two existing middle schools into magnet-themed elementary schools passed at referendum. It was the largest single construction referendum in state history, according to Graner.

He said the group overseeing the Groton 2020 plan kept working hard to get further approvals, including a property swap so the new middle school could be built on the Merritt Property adjacent to Fitch. Voters later approved a revised plan to build new elementary schools at the two middle schools sites.

The school buildings were slated to receive 47% reimbursement from the state, but school, state and local leaders collaborated to successfully make the argument to the state that the elementary school at the site of Cutler Middle School should receive 80% reimbursement because it addresses a racial imbalance problem, he said.

In a letter to school staff announcing his retirement, Graner quoted anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Over the last seven years, he said the district has successfully obtained grants to enhance its educational offerings. As a military community, Groton received Department of Defense Education Activity grants to support writing workshops with Columbia University’s Teachers College, math instruction, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, programs.

Groton also received a grant to create magnet-themed pathways at the middle schools: arts and humanities at Cutler and STEM at West Side. The grant also funded preparation work for the IB Middle Years Programme.

He also noted that Groton's English language learner program has had great success in helping students get the linguistic support they need to succeed in English, which has been an emphasis in his work over the last 37 years.

When Graner was in college, he could either spend junior year abroad or complete education work, and he chose to study in Paris because he knew it would make him a better teacher, he said. He studied Russian but couldn’t go to Russia due to the Cold War. He was told at the last moment that he could go to Paris.

He arrived without knowing a word of French, an experience that he said gave him lifelong empathy, especially with people who struggle with their studies or language acquisition. He also helped tutor Coast Guard Academy students who needed help learning English.

Graner said he feels like he’s ready for the next chapter of his life.

He said he is writing a book with retired Commander Marc Nguyen, one of his former Coast Guard Academy students, about his experience as a Vietnamese Boat Person who survived the war, left in 1975 and made his way with his family to the United States, was accepted into the academy and became a commander.

With the middle school completed and the new elementary schools on their way, Graner said it felt like a good time to turn over leadership to an “outstanding team” that includes the Board of Education, administrators and teachers.

The Board of Education is beginning discussions on the process of searching for a new superintendent.

“He really was the one with the community and the board who had the vision of Groton 2020,” Assistant Superintendent Susan Austin said. “I think that’s his gift he’s leaving us.”

She said he built a foundation for Groton Public Schools that the district will continue.

“We use that motto, ‘excellence, equity and efficiency,’ and I think that really is what he strived for: that he wants the very best education, he wants equal access for all kids in Groton and that we’ve really done it in a very efficient manner,” she said.

Board of Education Chair Kim Shepardson-Watson and Austin both highlighted that Graner brought More than Words, a multidistrict, student-driven club he started years earlier as Ledyard superintendent, to Groton. The group brings together kids of all backgrounds, who want more diversity, equity and inclusion, to share their stories and also teach others through their actions and friendships, Austin said.

Shepardson-Watson said Graner has a leadership style in which he established strong relationships, not only with the board and throughout the district, but also throughout the community.

“He says what he means, and he means what he says,” Shepardson-Watson said. “He really cares about people, and he really cares about the students.”

k.drelich@theday.com

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