by Manuela Da Costa-Fernande, Register Staff
July 18, 2002
MILFORD – Joan Johnson officially retired as John F. Kennedy School’s principal June 30, but you can still find her in the summer toiling in her bare former office, logging in supplies, handing out health forms to parents and meeting with some new teachers.
"It’s not unusual. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the summer," said an enthusiastic Johnson, 60, about her extended time at the school, where she was principal for 13 years. Often, she arrives at 8:30 a.m. and stays until noon "trouble-shooting." She works about 10 hours a week and is being paid on a per-diem basis until a new principal is hired. School board Vice Chairwoman Cindy Kopazna, R-3, said a new principal will be selected Aug. 12 by the panel and incoming Superintendent of Schools Greg Firn. With 28 years of experience working in the district as a teacher and administrator, Johnson had some advice for her successor: take it slow. But those who know her say she has been a fast-paced innovator and was instrumental in establishing several cutting-edge programs.
These include: a multi-age program, developing classes combining first- and second-graders; looping, where a teacher stays with the same class for two years; and promoting an arts and music enriched program through Higher Order Thinking School, one of a handful of such schools in the state. Creating a student council, having older pupils be mentors for younger ones, and interviewing pupils for jobs in school as lunchroom helpers and bus monitors are among her other accomplishments.
"She’s definitely a very caring person and has tried to build a learning community at John F. Kennedy," said interim Superintendent Larry Schaefer. "She’s a very good instructional leader." Despite the innovations, the school also was at the center of a controversy about air quality and mold issues in November. Johnson said those problems are not the reason she retired."I saw the school through the air quality concerns. . I feel it is being addressed by the Board of Education," she said. Neither is she retiring for health reasons, she said.
Two years ago, Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer, underwent chemotherapy and was on leave from July 2000 to January 2001. "It was like a wake-up call," she said about her diagnosis. Returning to the school after her illness only reinforced her perspective about her vocation. "It was like coming back to living. This was my life," she said. But now Johnson, who is a grandmother, said she wants to spend more time with her family.
The New Haven native started her career in the district as a science teacher at Simon Lake School. A seasoned educator, she has mentored neophyte principals like Meadowside School Principal Michael Cummings for a year and continued the relationship for seven more years. "She was always at the other end of the phone when I needed something," Cummings said. When the school year begins, Johnson has planned a vacation in Hawaii. Her computer’s screen saver flashes images of Hawaii beaches, flora and fauna and pulses Hawaiian music. "The beginning of the school year will be emotionally difficult," she said. "It has been my life for 31 years."