New Milford happy to have Paddyfote

In spite of the weather, the members had a task they knew was long overdue, and they didn't want to let anything interfere. So they braved the elements, and with no audience in attendance, they removed the "interim" from the title of interim Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote as of July 1. It was a move all hailed as best for the entire community, not just the school district. After the vote, board member Robert Coppola said, "Only for you JeanAnn would we have come out in this snow to make this happen." All eight attending board members wholeheartedly endorsed Paddyfote, as well as the four who were absent, for a job she thought would be a temporary one back in 2002. In return for the confidence from the board, Paddyfote promised to give her very best every day for the sake of the students. It was the same promise the 53-year-old educator made to the district when she was first hired as the director of pupil personnel - heading the district's special education program - 26 years ago. "All children have a right to be in a public education setting," Paddyfote said. "Everyone can learn something. I have a real passion helping children achieve, no matter how basic that might be." As a teenager, Paddyfote recalls, she was playing at a neighbor's house when she first met a child with disabilities. His name was Davy, and he had Down syndrome. She remembers playing outside with the 8-year-old boy and wondering what he did when the other children were at school. She found nobody wanted to talk about Davy's daily life or his future. It kindled a desire in her to work with special needs children and help them succeed. "Every child can learn and succeed given the opportunity with the right tools, materials and staff training,'' Paddyfote said. Always interested in becoming a teacher, Paddyfote found after college she wanted a job working with special needs students. Unfortunately, she said, in 1973 there were no such jobs in public education. So she started out as a teacher in a fifth-grade class. Just a year later, though, the state was starting to hire teachers to work with handicapped children. She was quick to accept a job. She taught both severely handicapped and emotionally disturbed children. She also worked as a kindergarten-to-12th grade special education department head. In 1976, she earned a master's degree in special education. Two years later, she earned a sixth-year certificate to work in educational administration and later earned her doctorate from the University of Connecticut. For a change of pace, she left her native New Haven in 1978 to work as a central office administrator in Jacksonville, Fla. But within a year she tired of the sunshine, and returned to Connecticut. She accepted a teaching job in Cromwell, where she met her Jamaican husband, Kenneth, a retired Cromwell superintendent who now works as an educational consultant for Region 15. The couple have one daughter, Kristina, 14, a freshman at Pomperaug High School in Southbury. When Paddyfote started looking for a special education administration job she got a call from an administrator in New Milford about its director's position. "New Milford was emerging as being on the (special education) cutting edge," she said. But she needed to check a map to find the town. "I'd only ever been to Danbury for the fair," Paddyfote said. "But once I got here I loved the area." Northville Elementary Principal Thomas Atticks remembers the night Paddyfote was hired, partly because it was the same night he was hired. He said the school board made a good choice. "First of all, JeanAnn is a quality person," Atticks said. "She is just a top-notch human being. She's extremely intelligent, a sharp thinker, good-hearted, kind, strong, dedicated, all those wonderful things." Paddyfote built the backbone of a nationally recognizedspecial education program, and over the years families with special needs children moved to New Milford specifically because of the services offered to these students. One program that blossomed under Paddyfote's watch was the district's early childhood program for special needs children, EXCEL. It started out as a segregated pre-school program just for children with disabilities, but later evolved into a program that combined typical students with special needs children. The inclusion program started at just one elementary school, moved to a second and now is in all three elementary schools. The program is so popularity the district has a lottery for regular education students whose families want them enrolled in EXCEL. New Milford Education Association President Lisa Mosey also praised Paddyfote's work. "She's been super supportive of the teachers in the district. She is very willing to listen, and to work with the association on numerous issues," said Mosey, an eighth-grade math teacher at Schaghticoke Middle School. "She's easy to work with, a really good listener. She's not one to stop listening if she doesn't agree." Assistant Schools Superintendent Thomas Mulvihill complimented Paddyfote for her tenacity and respect for others. Most important, he said, is her belief in children. "I think she has a real passion for education," Mulvihill said. "She wants good things for kids. And I think she has a real concern, and feels personally responsible if we can't get things we really need. For her, it's a source of frustration, but symbolizes how much she cares." Paddyfote's tenure as the interim superintendent has required steering the district through some financially turbulent times. In the past five years, the school budget has grown much more slowly than the Board of Education has advocated. Staff has been cut, along with the summer school program and the alternative high school. A pay-to-play program was started for high school sports. This year, Paddyfote's plea was to maintain what the district now has, with a bare minimum of additions. The proposed $50.5 million budget is expected to be debated by the Board of Finance in the coming weeks. Paddyfote was hired as the interim superintendent to replace Raymond Avery in 2002. "The challenge, when I look back, was that the budget didn't pass until the first day of school," Paddyfote recalled, noting that budget gave the school only a 1.74 percent increase rather than the 7.5 percent initially requested. "So right out of the gate there were some real challenges. It was not status quo." Despite the financial stresses and demands that come with the job, Paddyfote said she still looks forward to coming to work every day. Even though she is not in a classroom, she said everything that happens in the central administration office supports instruction and learning. Even fixing the boilers. "I have a good time," Paddyfote said. "This district has managed to find such high caliber people with such integrity. Many superintendents can topple off the pedestal if they are not surrounded by people with strong convictions." She also manages to laugh a lot. "Humor is very important to me, and I work with people with great senses of humor" Paddyfote said. "One thing I have found is that we create our own happiness." Board of Education Chairman Wendy Faulenbach said Paddyfote's attitude and commitment is why the board gave her the job. Paddyfote's annual salary will be $137,500 with a $6,000 annuity. A welcoming reception will be held this spring. "To me, Dr. Paddyfote is the total package," Faulenbach said.

Contact Nanci G. Hutson


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