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Ex-Wilton High Principal to Serve As Avon High's Interim Principal

Out of retirement again, New London native John Sullivan, who served as Wilton High's principal from 1992 to 1998, has vast experience in school administration.

 

John Sullivan tried to retire a few times before accepting the interim Avon High School principal job following Jason Beaudin's recent departure.

But he keeps finding himself drawn back into education. Most recently, he came out of retirement to be interim associate superintendent of Middletown Public Schools from March to August of 2012.

“And then I thought I was done until that fateful day in Christmas vacation when Mr. Mala called me," Sullivan, 61, said.

Sullivan thought a lot about Avon Superintendent Gary Mala's offer – and the fact that his family would like him to stay retired – and ultimately accepted. He said he plans to stay until the end of the school year as the district searches for Beaudin's replacement.

“He and the (school) board want to have thoughtful and purposeful search," Sullivan said.

Sullivan works four days a week, giving him personal time that often includes spending weekends skiing in Vermont.

“There was a void thought I could successfully fill," Sullivan said. “In the end, coming and helping out overrode my need for personal recreation time, so I hope I made the right decision."

His philosophy hasn't wavered as he jumps into the principalship mid-year – "do what's best for the kids." He said his job is to “keep the ship going in the right direction" and "to empower and enable good people around me to do what they do best."

Coming in with no agenda, Sullivan said he's encouraging educators to pitch their programming ideas and give them a try.

He's also met with students so they can get to know him and understand he supports them. He wants them to close out the year feeling a sense of unity at school.

"I want to make your school our school," he said.

It's the students, afterall, that give him energy as an educator. Observing the moment when the lights go on students' heads is special to him.

“I like leadership. Some will say leaders are born, some will say leaders are made," Sullivan said. "I don’t know what the answer is."

Avon is new territory for the New London native who now lives in Essex, but there is at least one familiar face in the district. Sullivan was Mala's mentor through the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents when he was a new superintendent in the state. At the time, Sullivan was Westbrook's superintendent, a job he took in 1998.

“I was his mentor, although he didn’t need much mentoring," Sullivan said.

And who filled in as interim superintendent in Region 17 – Haddam-Killingworth – after Mala left in 2011 to become Avon superintendent? You guessed it. Sullivan.

As Westbrook superintendent, Sullivan said that getting Westbrook Middle School built $1 million under-budget on time was one of his greatest career highlights. The new buiilding, which opened in 2005, was "badly needed," he said. He said he is equally as proud of his smaller accomplishments.

Sullivan's start in Avon on the first day of the new year comes on the heels of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre that killed 20 children and six educators. Soon after the Dec. 14 tragedy, the district implemented new safety measures at Avon High School like locking doors, requiring visitors to sign in at the main entrance and installing an electronic entry system with a buzzer and intercom. Sullivan's already been a part of meetings on school security.

“When I first heard about Newtown, I was en route to Vermont," Sullivan said. "When I first got there and heard what the carnage was…I cried like a baby.... I pray to god no one has to go through that again."

Sullivan – who said he is friendly with Newtown Superintendent Janet Robinson, Ph.D. – felt empathy for Robinson's experience. School security is "on our minds all the time" and is dependent on school culture, he said.

Sullivan majored in special education as an undergrad and grad student at Southern Connecticut State University and earned a sixth year degree in education administration at the University of Connecticut. He also specialized in education for a doctorate program at the University of Bridgeport. 

He began his career in special education at Norwich Free Academy in 1973. Three years later he became a principal at Stonegate School, a private school in Durham for students with intellectual, social and emotional disabilities.

After that, he worked as administrative assistant to the Montville superintendent. Sullivan became the first principal of Montville's alternative high school in 1978 and served in that role for about four years. He was principal of Montville High School from 1981 to 1986, Nantucket Hight School and Cyrus Peirce Middle School from 1986 until 1992 and Wilton High School from 1992 until 1998, as well as interim principal of East Lyme High School from 2009 to 2011.

From 2006 to 2008, Sullivan was superintendent of Unified School District 2, run by the Department of Children and Families. His office was in Meriden.

What's next after his principalship is over in Avon? He's said it three times.

“This is my last job," Sullivan said.

Eustace Tilley January 29, 2013 at 02:25 PM
Mr. Sullivan did an outstanding job for Wilton. Many of the best teachers we have had were recruited by him and his legacy survives in the classroom.
WT February 02, 2013 at 04:51 PM
ETP, While those of us who worked with John Sullivan wish him all the best in his newest position, you once again demonstrate that you know very little about the working of the Wilton Public Schools and Wilton High School in particular. During Dr. Sullivans tenure as principal at WHS, the student population was at it lowest, between 800-900 students, and fairly flat. The teachers that were hired during this time were mostly to replace teachers who retired. The student population bulge that drove the population to nearly 1300 students and resulted in the hiring of two the three times as many teachers as were hired under him occurred after he left. The credit, if you will, for hiring so many of the "best teachers we have" were in fact recruited during the principalships of Debbie Low and Tim Canty.
WT February 02, 2013 at 04:52 PM
Went a little long. Sorry. The principal at WHS actually plays a very small role in the hiring of a new teacher. When a teaching position opens up, a hiring committee is formed . It is headed by the Instructional Leader of the department in which the opening occurs. An associate principal, who usually has no content knowledge in the subject being recruited, joins the committee along with members of the department. That committee reads through the resumes, conducts interviews, observes sample lessons and selects the finalist candidate. Generally, only then does the principal meet/interview the candidate. While the principal certainly can reject the candidate, it almost never happens. So if you want to commend the quality of the teaching faculty at WHS, your praises should be directed to the Instructional Leaders.
Eustace Tilley February 02, 2013 at 08:01 PM
Thanks for your thoughts Our children thrived under Mr Sullivan's guidance. Debbie was a huge loss to the Wilton school system. We were involved in the process leading to her promotion to Principal. Now, I do know the school budget is out of control, there are fewer students, the average teacher salary in wilton is some 20,000 dollars more than the state average, the admin staff is also paid significantly more than the state average. Most of the budget goes to salaries and benefits when national studies clearly indicate more $ does not necessarily translate to better teacher performance. Wilton test scores are flat as I recall despite a doubling of the budget. Oh, and Arne Duncan, the cabinet Guy running the Department of Education in DC earns less than $200,000.00. The DOE budget is over 80 billion $ as I recall. Have you ever considered the influence student demographics has on education and test scores.
WT February 03, 2013 at 01:38 AM
ETP, I'm happy to hear your children did so well and enjoyed their time at WHS. I'm sure John, and all the teachers your children had would love to hear that. Have you ever done that? You say that " I do know the school budget is out of control, there are fewer students, the average teacher salary in wilton is some 20,000 dollars more than the state average, the admin staff is also paid significantly more than the state average." Where did you get that data? How was it compiled? I'm sure Wilton teachers and administrators are paid more than the state average, I'm not sure that it is by the amounts you quoted. While you are at it, which studies are you referring to that indicate that the money, above the state average, being paid to Wilton teachers and administrators doesn't mean that those people are more effective teachers and administrators? Last time I looked WHS is not only well above the state average, but one of the top high schools in the state and nation. Do you believe that the quality teachers and administrators that have helped make this happen would have come to Wilton if they could have only earned the state average? In any business in order to attract the best talent for any position, you need to offer appropriate salaries.
WT February 03, 2013 at 01:50 AM
Sorry, I am running so long. When you have student test scores as high as WHS, it is very difficult to get them much higher. As Ms. Low can tell you, because she has done the calculations, the difference between 82% of students making goal on the CAPT and 90% could be as few as 7 or 8 students getting just one or two more questions correct on the test. From when has the current budget "doubled"? Oh, yes Arnie Duncan may not be currently making millions, but when he does step down from the DOE, he will be. You are absolutely correct. Student demographics, including genetics and family income does have a positive effect on education and test scores. However, as our expanding SPED expenses and numbers of students arriving to school with severe social/emotional issues clearly demonstrates, just because a child comes from intelligent parents who make a lot of money is not even close to a guarantee of academic success.
Eustace Tilley February 03, 2013 at 02:16 AM
Connecticut teacher salaries are some of the highest average salaries in the nation, with a 2009 figure of $64,773. In Wilton, its either 82k or 94k if administrators are included for the new budget. Why are Wilton's teachers paid 28% more than the State average? If we paid the average rate, we could dramatically lower classroom sizes or tax rates. I wonder if our benefits are as distorted as salaries.... Why does the school need an Assistant Superintendent, three Deans at Middlebrook, several assistant princilpes and several other slots? Add them up and it must be a million dollars better spent in the classrooms As I say, there is plenty of money in the budget....but it is not being managed correctly.
WT February 03, 2013 at 06:30 PM
Connecticut teacher salaries area among the highest in the nation, true. The cost of living in Connecticut is also among the highest in the nation and the cost of living in Fairfield county is the highest in the entire state. Would you agree that just to get anyone worth having teach in one of the most expensive parts of the most expensive states in the country would require offering a salary above the average? If so, then it is a question of how much more expensive it is to live in this area and how much above the average needs to be offered. Maybe 28% is about right. If cannot agree with that premise, then I'm afraid you may not understand basic economics. Now to complicate things, Wilton is in competition with other DRG towns for the best teachers. If Wilton were to offer only the "Average" salary, I'm sure you can imagine the Exodus of all the best teachers to our neighboring towns and Wilton's inability to replace them with the kind of people who helped you children have such a positive experience. Would you be Willing to work for a salary that would not allow you to own a home and raise a family when you could get a similar job in a nearby town that does?
WT February 03, 2013 at 06:49 PM
The Wilton Public Schools is a multi-million dollar enterprise. It is responsible to educate a couple of thousand students and is held accountable to the local BOE, the state BOE, the federal DOE and in the case of WHS, NEASC. All of these bodies require a number of activities, programs, accommodation, and mandates be fulfilled and documented as having been completed on a regular basis. Over the past 20 years or so, the state and federal overseeing bodies, along with NEASC have instituted a myriad of mandates for school districts to comply with. Most of those mandates came with little or no funding for their design and implantation. As a result, local communities across the nation have been saddled with covering the costs of these mandates resulting in the kinds of budget push-backs we see in Wilton. Among the costs of these mandates is the need for people (administrators) to oversee the implantation of these mandates and document the operation. IF there were NO mandates, NO SPED requirements or laws, etc. If Wilton were free to educate its' student the way it feels is best (which is how private schools work).Then, and only then could it look at cutting back on its' administrative costs. However that is NOT going to happen, so we are going to have to meet all the requirements with the fewest number of administrators we can. This is what is happening now.
WT February 03, 2013 at 06:56 PM
Our current administrative model is the result of nearly 60 years of annual review and scrutinization by superintendents and the Wilton BOE (who has the final say in all such decisions). If anyone, felt that there was redundancy or excess capacity you can be sure those positions would be eliminated. In fact, a number of administration positions at WHS have been eliminated in the last few years to reduce costs. So it does happen, but not willy-nilly.

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