NEW FAIRFIELD – A large number of people gathered at Meeting House Hill School in New Fairfield this past Thursday, August 24, for New Fairfield Public Schools’ (NFPS) opening day convocation. After enjoying a complimentary breakfast, the crowd, which included local and regional educators, elected officials, and members of the community, moved to the school’s cafetorium, where they watched and listened to several presentations intended to kick off the new school year, which officially begins Wednesday, August 30.
Short, heartwarming presentations featuring music, photos, videos, and inspiring personal stories were offered by New Fairfield Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino and New Fairfield educator Robin Welton, who was awarded New Fairfield’s Teacher of the Year position. New Fairfield First Selectman Pat Del Monaco and Connecticut State Representative Michael Ferguson took to the stage to congratulate Ms. Welton. The crowd also heard briefly from Principal of New Fairfield Middle School Christine Baldelli, President of the New Fairfield Education Association (NFEA) Keith Conway, Special Educator and Director of Pupil Personnel Services Andrea Einhorn, Consolidated School Assistant Principal Karen Gruetzner, Principal of Meeting House Hill School James Mandracchia, Representative of the school district’s Administrative Association and Principal of New Fairfield High School Dr. Richard Sanzo, and New Fairfield Consolidated School Principal Rob Spino.
A continental breakfast, including a small buffet, was offered from 7:30am to 8:30am, before the convocation began in Meeting House Hill’s cafetorium.
Opening remarks were given by Superintendent Dr. Patricia Cosentino. “As someone who has been in education for, I think, 35 years, I absolutely love the first day of school,” she remarked from the cafetorium’s stage. “Where else in life to get the chance to start anew, and fresh?”
Dr. Cosentino then introduced local Board of Education members, most of whom were attendant and part of the audience: Board Chair Peggy Katkocin, Kathy Baker, Dominic Cipollone, Greg Flanagan, Secretary Kim LaTourette, Samantha Mannion, Rick Regan, and Ed Sbordone. She also introduced First Selectman Del Monaco, gave a shout-out to members of the town’s Board of Finance—Chairman Wes Marsh and member Brian Shea were in the audience—and introduced State Representative Ferguson.
Dr. Cosentino thanked school administrators before welcoming New Fairfield Education Association President Mr. Keith Conway to the stage. Mr. Conway thanked Dr. Cosentino and the Board of Education, and then introduced “NFEA officers, committee chairs, building reps, and negotiators.” Mr. Conway noted that the NFEA maintains an official Facebook page, and that the group is holding a raffle this year. He went on to thank building reps for the town’s Consolidated, Meeting House Hill, middle, and high schools, and then mentioned members of NFEA’s negotiation team and support team.
Mr. Conway briefly explained the work that NFEA has recently been doing, especially in negotiating fair contracts between local educators and the schools that employ them, and then went on to mention charitable efforts, public events, and scholarship opportunities offered by the group. He finished by mentioning NFEA’s primary goals for the remainder of 2018.
At 8:45am, Dr. Sanzo took the stage. He welcomed the audience “back for a new school year,” expressed his excitement to begin the new school year and thanked “fantastic” local Paraprofessional Margaret Brie for her positive work mentoring and educating students.
“You never know how the small moments of time that you take to share positive words with your colleagues, with parents, and, most importantly, with the students in front of you, will have an impact,” said Dr. Sanzo.
Dr. Cosentino then invited other principals to the stage, beginning with Consolidated School principal Rob Spino. Mr. Spino congratulated new staff members at Consolidated “for joining such an amazing district.”
Mr. Mandracchia then took to the stage and introduced his staff, namely new teachers and paraprofessionals. Afterward, Baldelli came up to introduce her new staff. She was followed by Dr. Sanzo, who came back to the stage to introduce his new staff.
Then Andrea Eihorn, special educator and director of New Fairfield Pupil Personnel Services, took to the podium. She introduced “a few new district people.”
Afterward, Dr. Cosentino briefly came back to the stage to call up Ms. Gruetzner. At the podium Gruetzner congratulated and introduced Welton, her colleague.
“Robin, I’ve been so blessed to work alongside you for the past four years,” said Ms. Gruetzner of Ms. Welton. Showing the audience, a photo of one of Welton’s students looking particularly joyous, she noted, “This picture, this proud boy, this excited face—this is the face of your impact, Robin. You did this, Robin… Your engagement gave him the opportunity to shine… You teach, you lead, you motivate… Your light shines far and bright.”
Ms. Welton took the stage to a great deal of applause. “It is an honor to be standing up here,” she said. She began a speech regarding her award by mentioning that the current convocation marked her 32nd. She then shared an anecdote: While on a several-day vacation in Narragansett, RI, she met a man who carefully stacks rocks at a beach. The man, who she dubbed “Zen Guy,” was passionate about his work, and worked carefully and diligently. Welton, who admires the Zen Guy’s spirit, “began to think about the parallel of his craft, rock balancing, and our craft, educating.”
Referencing the Zen Guy, and showing the audience a photo of him at work, she mentioned the importance of mindfulness in teaching. “The first thing I noticed about the Zen Guy was that he was constantly on task,” she said. “Research on happiness shows us that remaining in the moment and focusing on just one task makes us happier people… An educator who is fully present has a special type of intensity that resonates great power in the classroom, regardless of the activity. To truly engage our students, we must be in the moment.”
Ms. Welton mentioned that he “biggest takeaway” from watching the Zen Guy was the man’s “passion for his craft.” “So, I say… bring on the passion!” she exclaimed. “I’d like you to please consider what it is about education that drives you, what lead to your fire… This year let’s truly try to enjoy our students and reignite our passion… Passion is contagious.”
Ms. Welton urged other educators to find joy and peace in their work, and to adjust their thinking to better reflect the positive and rewarding aspects of their careers. She then left the stage, and state representative Ferguson, of the 138th district, was invited up to the podium by Dr. Cosentino. “It’s incredible—the work that you do,” remarked Rep. Ferguson of Ms. Welton. First Selectman Del Monaco then came to the stage to present a proclamation from the town of New Fairfield congratulating Welton on her award.
Superintendent Cosentino was then welcomed to the stage—to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen, her favorite musician—for an extended speech introducing herself and presenting goals for NFPS over the coming year. A PowerPoint presentation, dubbed “Who Is Pat Consentino?” gave the audience a better understanding of their new superintendent. The presentation included information about her life, passions, work, family, and favorite music and sports teams. Adding a bit of humor to the presentation, Dr. Consentino included a video from the satirical news outlet The Onion, as well as an inspiring clip titled “Kid President,” which featured a child impersonating the U.S. president giving wisdom and advice.
Taking on a more serious tone, Dr. Cosentino then outlined her plans to improve NFPS. The plans included “improved student achievement,” greater “teacher engagement,” “increased achievement for special education students,” “providing meaningful and professional learning that is personalized,” “fostering social emotional (SEL) learning,” “creating a positive school, district, and town culture,” “developing a communications, public relations, and marketing plan to promote our great schools,” “provide and maintain a safe environment,” “concentrate on structures, systems, procedures, and votes to become more efficient and effective,” “assess and institute the best practices for tech and network infrastructure,” “present a 2019 to 2020 budget that provides the best education in an effective manner,” “research and explore [different] school start times,” and “collaborate with the Board of Education.”
Dr. Cosentino noted that she hopes to achieve all, if not most, of these goals over the course of the next five years. “Teachers see the person we can all become someday,” she said during her closing remarks,“Our kids need us.”
Around 10 a.m. the convocation closed, with those on stage and in the audience undoubtedly looking forward to a new and exciting school year.
By Ryan V. Stewart
Edit: This article was edited to include the correct spelling for Dr. Patricia Cosentino.