Frank Costanzo said that applying for the principal's job at Staples High School has been a different experience from his appointment to his current post as principal of the Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School in New Haven.

At that time, Costanzo said, he was an assistant principal at the art-focused, college preparatory school, which has a diverse enrollment of 650 students.

"I was called into the office and told, `You'll be the new principal and you start in two days,' " Costanzo told the several dozen parents at a focus group Monday morning where they quizzed Costanzo, one of two finalists for the position.

The other candidate for the Staples job is slated to appear in a similar forum at 9 a.m. Wednesday, also in the school's cafeteria.

Superintendent of Schools Elliot Landon said school officials received "tons of applications" from candidates for the Staples position, and a search committee of parents, teachers, students and the administration narrowed that number to the two finalists.

The successful candidate will replace John Dodig, who served as the Staples principal for 11 years. Dodig, who was paid $183,394 last year, announced last December that he would step down at the end of the current academic year.

Costanzo, who lives in Madison with his wife -- a kindergarten teacher -- and their two young children, 4 and 1 years old, said he's completed his master's degree in education and is currently working on a doctoral dissertation at Columbia University.

"I'm principled with a strong core of beliefs and values and believer in children's abilities," he told the audience. He said the graduation rate at his high school is 94 percent, the highest in New Haven.

He was asked how he would balance his role as principal while also finishing his doctorate and the demands of raising a family.

"Balancing is important -- it's a part of our daily life," he said. He added his dissertation should be "largely completed" by July, the time when the new Staples principal is expected to begin work.

He said he has a strong work ethic and learned from his family that "honesty and loyalty are the most important" traits.

Costanzo said he's not a micro-manger, but likes to stay "familiar with the details." He said he believes in distributive leadership and sets high standards.

He said his school has evolved over the years into a more arts-centric school. The current demographic profile, he said, is 50 percent black, 25 percent white and about the same number Hispanic students. "It's an open and tolerant place," he said.

Costanzo was asked how important student input is to him. "It's very important and I will meet students here during lunch today and I'm sure they will tell it like it is," he said.

He said, if hired, he plans to do "a whole lot of listening and note-taking and hearing what kids have to say."

On the issue of managing students' stress, Costanzo said he's aware that Staples is "a good example of pushing adolescents to the limit." He added it's important to have support teams in place, especially counselors and adults that students can go to "when they reach the breaking point."

Asked about later start times for high school classes, Costanzo said it's a real dilemma, noting many of the students at his New Haven school work at night or have after-school activities. "We have discussed this," he said.

So why does he want to leave his job for the Staples principalship, one parent asked. "I'm eager for a new challenge and I hope it's here," Costanzo said, although any challenge at Staples, with its 2,000-student body in an affluent community like Westport, would be "very different from that of an inner-city or urban school," he added.