Woodbridge Elementary School District Superintendent Dr. Guy Stella in January announced his intention to retire at the end of this school year, and the news was greeted with much regret, both at the school and at Town Hall. There even were a few tears at the January staff meeting, when he attached his announcement to the end of a long list of planning items. “It was very emotional,” he said when he sat down with this reporter to reflect on his ten-year tenure in Woodbridge and the 40-plus years as an educator before that.
Beecher Road School nurse Stacey Katz attended the staff meeting. “For the first time he talked to us about his life before he came to Woodbridge,” she said. He talked about his curriculum work in Venezuela, as well as consulting in Egypt, India, Chile and Ecuador. The teachers were in awe about the breadth of his experiences. You could hear a pin drop.”
When Dr. Stella first came to this district it was in disarray, with tension between all constituents, the administration, the teachers, the town. In fact, the town was getting ready to cut the school budget to under the previous year’s level, a course of action that would have gotten it a fine from the state. Instead of going to war, Dr. Stella sat down with the town leaders and explained the need for technology and professional development and all the other costs, and the budget passed.
“He’s an incredible communicator,” said Stacey Katz. She remembered him traveling to New York to bring a batch of famous pastries for a staff meeting when he first came. That act of caring struck a note with her, since previous staff meetings had had nothing personal, she said. When he insisted on moving the superintendent’s office back to Beecher Road School, staff was apprehensive. But he soon convinced them that it was purely about being present and building connections. Every morning he is out at the entrance, greeting students. He visits classrooms every day, not for teacher evaluations, but to be present and supportive. The most gratifying to him are the hugs he’s been getting lately from students since they learned of his retirement. “It’s a sign of a good community when that happens,” he said.
Why Woodbridge? When Dr. Stella joined the Woodbridge School District in January 2006, he was already at an age where others consider retirement. He came from the Stratford school system, where he had served as assistant superintendent for elementary schools. But before coming to Connecticut he called the Bronx home, where he started as a teacher, then rose through the ranks, first as principal (Fiorello La Guardia School), then supervisor of principals, then deputy superintendent.
What he saw in Woodbridge was a community where he could be close to the children. Working in a New York district with 35,000 students was fulfilling in many ways, but here he can enter a classroom at any time. He can have impromptu conversations with parents or residents who come to use the swimming pool. “You see the whole 360 here,” he said.
Dr. Stella grew up in a large, bustling Italian family in the Bronx, and realized more and more the importance of community. “Here I experienced it completely,” he said.
If Beecher Road School is “the school that never sleeps,” (one of his favorite quotes) then Dr. Stella is the superintendent who never sleeps. “I get so energized,” he confessed. Being an educator is “a lifestyle and a mission”. The paperwork gets done at night.
The time in Woodbridge was very, very fulfilling, he said, calling Beecher Road School a microcosm of what education should be. What makes it so? “It’s a vibrant, diverse learning community,” he said; also the administration, the faculty and staff are smart and committed. “They make this an exciting place to think and collaborate on improving education,” he said.
Two years ago, the school was recognized as a School of Distinction by the state Department of Education.
Looking back over 50 years, his work has been recognized in very public ways. But he doesn’t take the credit for it. Rather, he sees teaching as a collaborative effort. “I am a good cheerleader,” he said, cheerfully. “And I know how to promote genius.” “If I want to be known for anything, it’s that I recognize the talent in people,” he said.
At Beecher, he supported Arts Week, the Drama Club, and encouraged the musical programming. He recognized the value of the Multi Age Program, which was close to losing funding when he first arrived. He supported and furthered the Readers and Writers Workshop classroom management model. He built a relationship with Columbia University, and, further afield, he built a relationship with Chinese schools.
Building renovation: He recognized pretty quickly that the school building was deteriorating. Several Building Committees had looked at, and discussed, options ranging from constructing a new school to simply replacing the heating system. It was the connection with ESG that led to a breakthrough and brought down the project cost. When the building committee was ready to present the renovation project to the town, it made a video with teachers speaking about the day-to-day reality working in a building with air quality issues, leaks and lack of ventilation. When the citizens came out to vote in referendum, they overwhelmingly supported the project. “It was a big achievement for all of us,” he said.
Over the past two summers the school building was totally updated from the inside out. This spring, some 900 solar panels will be installed on the new roof, offering many new ways for students to study energy conservation.
Finding community: As opposed to previous superintendents, Dr. Stella was always present at major community events. He remembers particularly fondly the parade celebrating the Civil War and President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. Stella played the role of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin. A number of children were marching in the parade, clad as farm boys and girls. “To march with the children, what a feeling that was,” he reminisced.
As for the future, he has a lot of work ahead for the next five months. There are administrative teams working on the technology plan, on the school climate and on the math curriculum implementation. He wants to make sure that the transition will be a smooth one.
And then? Well, he plans to spend more time with his grandson, who is already 18 months old. He will travel and spend time reading and writing. He said his whole life has been service oriented, and that won’t change.
In his letter to Beecher Road families, he said the Board of Education will hire a consulting firm to assist with the search for a new superintendent. All stakeholders will be involved, he promised. “You will have a chance to voice your opinions as to the qualities that you want in a new superintendent.
“The district is attractive and desirable,” he wrote. “I have no doubt that there will be many highly qualified candidates.”
By Bettina Thiel, Woodbridge Town News Correspondent