Old Saybrook Superintendent Jan Perruccio Talks Schools, Retirement

Old Saybrook Superintendent Jan Perruccio (CT Examiner)


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

OLD SAYBROOK — Superintendent Jan Perruccio takes pride in the stable leadership within her district, which she believes has fostered growth and enabled the creation of a community-focused plan that equips students with practical skills.

“There’s a line in our last strategic plan that came from a senior exit interview. And it was, ‘We only want work that’s meaningful and essential,’” Perruccio told CT Examiner. “If you are trying to teach a math concept, you probably don’t need 30 problems. You need two very deliberately chosen so that kids can demonstrate their understanding. That’s meaningful and essential.”

After nearly 11 years as the schools superintendent, Perruccio is scheduled to retire in April. On Monday, she talked about her experience in Old Saybrook, the challenges faced by the district and her thoughts on the future of education in Connecticut. 

Perruccio has been superintendent in the Old Saybrook school district since 2013. Prior to that, she was the assistant superintendent at the Wallingford Public Schools for four years and the principal of Lyme-Old Lyme High School for six years. 

CTEx: What got you started in education? 

I backed into education. I wanted to write. I thought about being a reporter. I thought about writing fiction and I loved literature. My father wanted me to make it a “practical career,” and I would imagine in the subtitle there might have been “practical career for a woman” at the time. 

I started to explore education classes and I wasn’t bitten until I got into a classroom and got in with kids. I became a high school teacher, but I was put by my university in a classroom with kindergarten students in New Haven. And I fell in love.

From there I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I knew I wanted to teach literature to high school students. And I had an administrator, a principal in my first years as a teacher who was remarkable — a really good leader. And I admired him so much, and some of the other people on the team, that from the end of my first year teaching, I knew I wanted to go into school leadership.

I stayed in the classroom 13 years because one of the things I was impressed about with good administrators was that they knew teaching. So I stayed in the classroom and then I moved into assistant principalship and principalship.

CTEx: What do you think makes a good teacher? What training is necessary? 

I would say that the best way for a person who’s aspiring to be a teacher to know if it’s right for them … is to get them into more apprenticeships, more application of theory quickly. We are trying to attract diverse candidates. We’re trying to attract people who are going to college first in their family to go to college. We’re trying to attract people from other countries and other states because we have a shortage. 

It’s primarily about relationships. What makes people fail in the profession is inability to really feel comfortable in the classroom, to connect with kids — and you don’t know that until you’re doing it. So I would say every year of a [preparation] program should have some significant direct application. Not unlike the medical model, where you go to medical school, you go into hospitals, you’re a resident, you’re in hospitals. Of course they get paid to do that, and there’s something you might need to look at too. But the ideal model would include a lot more of that. 

CTEx: Old Saybrook has had one of the fastest growing populations in the state of students whose first language is not English. What has the district done to support these students?  

We have just this year piloted an intake program that gives us more time with families who are new to us and who have possible language barriers, that allow us to get together with the family and appropriate staff members as the students coming into school for the first time and ask questions about their background — What are your interests? Where do you come from? How long have you been here? How can we support you? What are your aspirations, basically. We’re getting really positive preliminary feedback on that experience.

Now we’re studying our data and looking at how we can help our multilingual students perform better on state assessments, national assessments — keep them in a college bound track if that’s what they want, or get them to their career goals if that’s what they want. Of course, it’s hardest when a student comes to us in high school because we have so little time with them, but we still try to expose them to their interests. 

I do senior exit interviews with the seniors every year, and it was a suggestion of a student that I hold a special one just for our multilingual population. I heard that they feel very supported by us. Some of them said, ‘Don’t worry if you don’t see us joining clubs. Some of us are choosing not to join clubs. We either want to have jobs or need to have jobs.’ We learned that some of the students and others can’t get rides home necessarily during the day because parents are working, so we added the late bus in the hopes that they’d be able to get involved more after school.

CTEx: Recent data from the district showed that while math scores remained flat, the amount of growth that students were showing dropped significantly between 2021-22 and last year. The change was particularly sharp among multilingual, low-income students, and students with disabilities. How has the district been responding to this? 

We had a very positive year in 2019 where I think we rose up to ninth in the state. And then COVID hit of course. So you have this lack of reporting for a couple of years and then we get the post-pandemic results, and they brought us back to like a 2017-2018 number. So, in a sense, longitudinally, if you look at it over 10 years, we’re pretty flat. But we were disappointed because we had been growing. 

What we’re doing is breaking out the subgroups, seeing where we are having trouble in mathematics. We have a program that has been successful, our internal assessments are telling us that it’s successful — with the majority of students. But again, with a changing demographic, we have to make sure that we’re reaching all of our students. So is it a language barrier? Is it that we’re not scaffolding? All of those things are being examined right now. 

CTEx: Old Saybrook was recently told by the state that they would need to make changes to their reading program under the new Right to Read law. What is your opinion on this mandate? 

I’m happy to see the state of Connecticut supporting the science of reading. Our frustration and concern comes from the mandating of specific programs. And I’ve been very clear about that. 

I’m concerned about recommending a program because I have yet to see a program that has given me 100 percent of the students reading on grade level by grade 3. If that exists, I probably would spend any amount of money to get it. But I don’t believe it exists. And I don’t think a program is the answer for our school district.

I think the most important thing is the teacher in front of the classroom, the amount of training and reading that they’ve had as part of an educator preparation program, and also as part of their ongoing professional development. The other thing that education is running into is lack of time. There just isn’t time in the school day to fit it all in and if we’re going to say Science of Reading is important — which I believe it is — let’s find the best way to do it in our school district for our kids.

CTEx: Over the last few years, I’ve been noticing a shift away from the assumption that high school graduates will go on to get a liberal arts education, and a greater focus on workforce-centric programs like nursing, teaching, or manufacturing. What are you hearing that students want, and how are you modifying your programs in Old Saybrook to meet those needs? 

I think in education, we did everybody a disservice about 15 years ago. We put all this emphasis on advanced placement courses and on college bound students, but we didn’t pay attention to the fact that we also need people who are not tracked in that way. 

And I think we’re reversing ourselves on that, and that’s probably what you’re hearing. That the person with a trade is equally important – and, oh, by the way, we have a shortage in those areas, and we need them. You’re never going to be outsourced if you’re the plumber or the electrician. We will always need you. 

My husband’s a retired engineer at Pratt — and so, I hear about the shortages all the time. We can’t have that if we’re going to be a successful nation. And there are kids out there who want to do that work, so let’s tell them that’s valuable work. We support that. And we’ve had an intern program here, where we get kids out there — even if what they learn is, ‘I don’t think I want to do that for a living.’

We try very hard, small as we are, to have robust high school programming and feeder programming coming out of the middle school. We have a really good tech ed department. We gave a teacher some release time this year to go make connections with the local universities and employers, to see what other pathways we can put in place. 

I’d love to get an associate’s degree program in here so that kids could come out of high school with an associate’s degree in either supply side or management or manufacturing design. I just think there’s so much they could be doing.

CTEx: About five years ago, Old Saybrook began piloting a universal preschool program. What was the thinking behind that decision, and what results have you seen? 

We wanted to find a way to attract younger families to our community. We know that housing can be expensive here on the shoreline, but so can preschool. So if we can have preschool for free, maybe that offsets the cost of a slightly more expensive home. We would have loved to have done that in one fell swoop, but instead we kind of titrated that tuition down over multiple years, and then this year was the first year that it’s zero for four-year-olds. 

By the time we get to third grade, we should know if that’s made a difference on those basic things like reading. I can tell you that just learning how to do school. is advantageous for four year olds and to be comfortable in that building and then to stay in that building for a number of years. I’ve already heard from students who were lucky enough to get into the program while it was still kind of a lottery — they’ve talked all the time about that consistency and feeling like they spent their childhood in this one little home school, which gives them a sense of support.

CTEx: Across the whole shoreline I hear concerns about enrollment declines in every district. When you’re thinking about five years, ten years down the line, how should the region be preparing for this? 

There are some exciting opportunities here. There’s some legislation that needs to be modified to make some of these things happen, but there is regional programming available that would allow school districts to keep their own autonomy, their own mascot, their own schools, but still allow for robust programming. 

I’m part of a committee right now working with the [Regional Education Service Center] Learn and some of my colleagues from across the region on coming up with a regional remote program that would allow us to share staff.

Pick a hard to find area like world languages — a Spanish teacher, a Mandarin teacher, a teacher of Arabic. We can’t all hire those people, but we could this way if we find a way to kind of do a hybrid. And I teach at the university level and I had recommended, let’s look at a university syllabus where — yes, the majority of it is online, but it’s a hybrid where you do meet in person occasionally. 

It also would allow for opportunities for diversity. There’s a great opportunity for students who are in relatively small districts to get to know other students, and to have an educational experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

CTEx: What do you think should be the role of technology now that we’re in a one-to-one device kind of world and we have ChatGPT in the periphery?

We have no choice but to confront it and find a way to work with it. Technology has become another tool in the arsenal. We don’t want to see kids on phones or computers all day long. They learn how to socialize by actually talking to each other. But we also can’t ignore that that is the platform that everybody out there is using in every setting. And so how do we teach them to use it in an appropriate way?

I know the governor is interested in having a model policy that would require all school districts put, have students put telephones in a classroom pouch before they enter the classroom. Well, we’re doing that at our high school already, and our middle school doesn’t let kids bring phones into the classroom. And that’s not to discourage communication between families and kids. That’s to focus. Because let’s face it, this can be, I will speak for myself, very distracting. 

In February, the Board of Education approved the hiring of Christopher Drezek as Perruccio’s successor, scheduled to begin in May. Drezek, who spent nearly two decades as the superintendent of Enfield Public Schools, told CT Examiner on Monday that one of the things that attracted him was the district’s mission statement, which includes the word “aspirations.”

“We don’t often hear that in our line of work. We ought to sometimes tell kids what we want them to do without asking them what they want to do. And ultimately that’s what we’re here for,” he said. 

Drezek said meeting students where they are is critical right now, since they are still dealing with the academic and social effects from Covid, as well as learning how to navigate a new world. 

Perruccio expressed confidence in Drezek’s experience and in the experience of her team to provide a smooth transition for the district. 

“As I always said, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and it should be able to move on without me, which I think is an important role of leadership — is to make yourself less essential and make the work and the systems essential,” she said.  

Editor’s note: Parts of the interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.