New NFA head of school emphasizes student opportunities, parental ‘partnership’
Norwich ― When an education executive recruiter contacted East Hartford Superintendent Nathan Quesnel last summer about the head of school position at Norwich Free Academy, his mind went into flashback to his first experience with NFA.
More than a decade ago, when Quesnel was boys’ basketball coach at East Hartford High School, the team traveled to NFA for a game against the Wildcats, then led by star RJ Evans.
“He sent us packing with our tails between our legs,” Quesnel recalled. “I knew at the time, there was something different about this place, whether it was the student body or the institution.”
Quesnel will now get the chance to learn everything about NFA, its independent governance model, its role as the designated public high school for eight local school districts, and its academic, sports, arts and music prowess.
Quesnel, 44, an award-winning school administrator and 10-year superintendent of East Hartford public schools, was named Monday as the new head of school at NFA. He will succeed Brian Kelly, who informed the Board of Trustees in February he will depart June 30 at the end of the 2022-23 school year.
Quesnel will have a three-year contract starting July 1 at a salary of $280,000, NFA spokesman Michael O’Farrell said.
After the recruiter came calling, Quesnel started his own research about NFA and quickly became interested in the position. The “ultimate hook,” he said came when two NFA students led him on a campus tour, knowing he was a candidate for the head of school position.
“They talked about a student body where everyone has a place, where it’s much bigger than having (students) in class,” he said.
Quesnel was impressed by NFA’s “incredible tradition, incredible history and even more incredible opportunity.”
Quesnel has had an award-winning career in the East Hartford school district, where he started as an English teacher in 2002. He served for three years as principal of East Hartford Middle School and two years as assistant principal of East Hartford High School before being named superintendent in 2012.
He has been recognized as a Statewide Outstanding Leader and a 40 under 40 recipient, which recognizes young leaders under age 40. He was also awarded the Outstanding Superintendent Alumni Award by the Neag School of Education.
Quesnel also has held leadership positions on education associations in Connecticut and nationally, including as co-chair of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents Alliance District Committee and the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents. Like Norwich, NFA’s largest partner sending town district, East Hartford is part of the state Alliance District program, which provides grants to struggling school systems.
But Quesnel said Alliance District status should not define the participating school districts. He said he became superintendent when the Alliance District program started. He said his message is that all children in all districts have bright futures if given the opportunity to see their potential.
“I’ve really been blessed to be part of a school system that sees kids’ potential and sees kids for what they can be,” Quesnel said. “Norwich schools have as bright a future as any kids in the country.”
Quesnel and his wife, Melissa, live in Portland and have seven children, ranging in age from 2 to 18, with their oldest son a freshman at the University of Connecticut, two daughters and one son at Portland High School, twin fourth-grade boys and a toddler daughter.
Quesnel co-leads the “Radical Family Engagement Cohort” of the American Association of School Administrators. He said it is critical for school leaders to gain the trust of parents. He said parents “are on our side,” and educators must realize that no one loves the children more than the parents, and parents. But many parents do not have time to join PTOs or parent groups.
“We treat them as partners, and we work together on behalf of their kids,” Quesnel said. “I see the world as a parent. … I want to be part of a school system that believes that. Finding opportunities for (students).”
The leadership transition at NFA has not yet been worked out. Quesnel said he will continue to focus his attention on the 7,000-student, 15-school, preschool through high school East Hartford district for this school year. He hopes to discuss the transition with Kelly more later in the school year and will sit in with the NFA Board of Trustees as the time approaches.
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