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New Crop of Principals Set to Answer School Bell

  • Jennifer Aldrich, right, the new principal at the Albert Bridge School in West Windsor, Vt., meets with teachers on Aug. 23, 2013, for an in-service day. During the meeting teachers and staff practiced an "energizer" that they do with students in class. With Aldrich are nurse Jean Chick, left, and teacher Wendy Bodley. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Jennifer Aldrich, right, the new principal at the Albert Bridge School in West Windsor, Vt., meets with teachers on Aug. 23, 2013, for an in-service day. During the meeting teachers and staff practiced an "energizer" that they do with students in class. With Aldrich are nurse Jean Chick, left, and teacher Wendy Bodley. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Greg Bagnato, the new principal at the Newton School in Strafford, Vt., sits next to parent Christine Bailey-Kellogg at the start of an open house at the school on Aug. 22, 2013. (Valley News-Jennifer Hauck)

    Greg Bagnato, the new principal at the Newton School in Strafford, Vt., sits next to parent Christine Bailey-Kellogg at the start of an open house at the school on Aug. 22, 2013. (Valley News-Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jennifer Aldrich, right, the new principal at the Albert Bridge School in West Windsor, Vt., meets with teachers on Aug. 23, 2013, for an in-service day. During the meeting teachers and staff practiced an "energizer" that they do with students in class. With Aldrich are nurse Jean Chick, left, and teacher Wendy Bodley. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Greg Bagnato, the new principal at the Newton School in Strafford, Vt., sits next to parent Christine Bailey-Kellogg at the start of an open house at the school on Aug. 22, 2013. (Valley News-Jennifer Hauck)

Connecting new names and faces, remembering the rules, managing first-day jitters — as area schools prepare to open, some as soon as tomorrow, kids aren’t the only ones gearing up for the brand new year. Across the Upper Valley, at least half a dozen schools have new principals, many with longtime connections to the area.

At Newton School in Strafford, Greg Bagnato spent the summer “getting to know the culture of the school and the town,” he said. “It’s very much a community-based school.”

The Hanover High School graduate has also been brushing up on policies and procedures and getting acquainted with the staff.

“They all came in to meet me over the summer,” Bagnato said . e_SDLqThe staff here is amazing.”

Bagnato, who grew up in Norwich, has worked in education for more than a decade. He follows Shaun Pickett, the former longtime principal of South Royalton School who served as Newton School’s principal from last December to June.

The new year marks a return to the Upper Valley for Bagnato, who was a middle school science teacher, health teacher and experiential education coordinator in Minnesota, and for the last eight years lived overseas with his family, working and teaching in international schools in Oman, the Dominican Republic and Thailand.

It may be his first foray into administration, but as the son of late Hanover High Principal Uwe Bagnato, Bagnato “knew what it was like” to be a principal.

“I could see that it doesn’t have to be all about the paperwork,” and he’s looking forward to getting to know the students, faculty and community, he said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m really excited about being at a small school.”

Bagnato, who will live in Strafford with his family, said he’s glad to be back in the Upper Valley. “Usually by now we are shopping and packing to go back overseas.”

At Bluff Elementary School in Claremont, Lebanon High School alum Aaron Cinquemani is also starting his first year as a principal. Cinquemani, who follows Linda Brenneman, taught sixth-grade math and language arts for four years in the Lebanon School District before entering administration.

“I’m a big believer in public education, and there are definitely areas in which things can improve,” he said. “I found there was only so much I can do as a teacher.”

Even with solid training and all the necessary credentials, there’s a learning curve as a first-time administrator, he said. To prepare, he’s been reviewing policies and procedures and looking over the curriculum.

“Unfortunately, being a principal is about 90 percent reactive and 100 percent dynamic,” he said. “It’s really about communicating with everybody.”

And that’s one of the things he’s looking forward to doing this year, developing relationships “with all of my students and staff.”

Cinquemani said he will “focus a lot of time and energy” on continuing to improve the connections among students’ homes, the school and the community. He also plans to emphasize improving teacher practice, “which is directly connected to student outcomes.”

At Mount Lebanon School, Mary Estee will serve as interim principal, replacing Michael Foxall.

“Everyone’s been so welcoming, and everybody has been so positive,” said Estee, who lives near Boscawen, N.H. “It seems like this is going to be a great place to be.”

A former teacher and principal, Estee worked for 33 years in Merrimack Valley School District. She retired about two years ago, but you wouldn’t know it — the Lebanon job is the second interim position she’s taken on since then.

“I guess I really don’t know what retired means yet,” she said, laughing.

To prepare for the coming year, she’s been trying to learn “all the workings of the school before everyone gets back, so I can be out and about in classes with the kids and teachers,” she said. “I’m not a stick-in-the-office type of person.”

She’s also been exploring the area, by bike and by bus, and recently traveled a few bus routes “to see what the kids experience.”

In the meantime, she’s taken on some extracurricular research that might interest her students. “I’ve been out on my own testing all the ice cream stores in town, and there are several,” she said.

The challenges she’ll face include getting to know the dynamics of the school and community, she said. “But I am sure that will come as soon as everyone is back in the swing of things.”

Last week, Estee said she was looking forward to “all the different opportunities that a school setting provides. It’s exciting to see young kids learning and growing.”

At Hartland Elementary School, Hartford native Jeff Moreno follows interim principal Skip Barrett. Moreno has worked in education for 15 years, mainly at South Royalton School, where he taught middle school science for 10 years, followed by a five-year stint as athletic director, from 2008-2013. For the past four years, he also served as assistant principal.

His goals for the year include learning what the school community values “with regard to education,” and helping the staff “continue to provide rich, challenging, and rewarding educational experiences for all students each day,” he said in an email. “I want every student, every parent, and every teacher to look forward to coming to HES every day.”

One of the challenges he’ll face will be learning more than 300 student names, he said. “I hope they are patient with me.”

He’s looking forward to “building relationships with the students and parents, working with the talented staff, getting into the classrooms,” the Hartford High School alum said. “I am looking forward to all of it.”

At Grantham Village School, Heather Cantagallo lists promoting student leadership and a new “all-hands-on-deck” approach to literacy instruction among the aspects of her new job she’s most excited about.

Reading is “sort of an individualized thing,” as students’ abilities and interests vary, Cantagallo said. “The goal is to get kids really excited and (help them) find books they just can’t put down.”

The new approach will include time each day for teachers and paraprofessionals to work with students at every grade level, Cantagallo said, and the school is also recruiting parents and other volunteers to help out. It will be a challenge, “finding the balance of ensuring that all kids are getting what they need and not having people burn out.”

The spotlight on literacy will also involve field trips to Dunbar Free Library.

“I want (students) to have library cards and be able to connect with the programs the library has to offer,” she said.

Cantagallo, who follows Kurt Gergler as principal, grew up in southern New Hampshire and graduated from high school in Sunapee, where she’s lived ever since. She’s worked for more than two decades in elementary schools as a teacher and principal, most recently teaching for 10 years at Sunapee Elementary School.

“I’m just getting back into administration again, now that my children are grown,” she said, laughing. “Now I have time for lots of little kids.”

Back to school is busy for everyone involved with schools, especially for custodial staff charged with moving furniture, buffing floors, and doing whatever else is necessary to ensure a clean, safe start to the year. By last Thursday, Albert Bridge School in West Windsor had been spiffed up for opening day: the scent of orange cleanser hung in the air and the floors shone, which was good for Jennifer Aldrich, who decided to forgo shoes, in favor of a pair of white socks.

Aldrich, who succeeds Jonni Nichols as principal, recently moved to the area with her husband, Mark, a Claremont native who grew up in Keene, N.H. She previously taught science and music for seven years at an elementary school in Salem, Mass., but she and her husband wanted to return to this area.

The community has been “absolutely a dream, all-around welcoming, supportive, helpful and forgiving,” said Aldrich, who’d spent the afternoon checking the technology she’d need for a staff in-service the following day.

By last week, she had already met some parents and students, along with the entire staff. “This school is buzzing all summer,” she said.

This year, she hopes to “tap into local expertise” in the school and community and allocate time for teachers to collaborate, which they already do, informally but skillfully, she said. “They are like double Dutch, this school. I’m just going to jump in when I see the pattern.”

One challenge Aldrich anticipates is having difficult conversations with students, community members and teachers, the kind “that challenge us and make us feel uncomfortable but can be a great source of learning,” she said. “As teachers, we’ve done something for so long, we think it’s good, but in fact, it could be better.”

As a student, and later a teacher, she always loved the promise of the first day of school.

“It’s a new day and new start, and we all get it,” Aldrich said.

But with the unknown comes anxiety and “butterflies,” which is as it should be, she said. “It reminds you that you don’t know what’s coming.”

This year, her first as a principal, is no different. She’s had butterflies “for two months now,” she said. But she knows from experience that they fly away on their own.

“Once you get started, you’re in the moment,” Aldrich said. “You’re just doing what you’ve been taught to do.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.