On September 7, 2012, the Department of Education (DOE) announced that Darien’s Hindley Elementary School would be one of four public schools in Connecticut to receive the National Blue Ribbon Award for its academic excellence over the past five years. I recently sat down with Hindley’s principal, Rita Ferri, to discuss what this honor means to her, the staff and the 576 children in her care.
What does this honor mean to you and to Hindley School? It is a moment in one’s career that is the pinnacle. It’s exciting for the whole Darien community to have now produced a second Blue Ribbon school (Middlesex Middle School also received this honor in 2008). It speaks a lot for the respect and regard that parents have for education in Darien. The degree to which our parents are truly involved and concerned is incredible. It is a significant part of why we are so successful.
Tell us about the selection process. In the fall of last year, I received a call from the Connecticut DOE to tell me that Hindley School had been nominated for Blue Ribbon recognition. The DOE had tracked our Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) scores over the past 5 years and Hindley was one of four public schools in Connecticut to have exemplary highest performance in achievement over the last five years. We completed a lengthy application, which involved writing eighteen in-depth essays, disaggregating the CMT scores over the past five years, analyzing the scores and speaking about our instruction. The DOE wanted to understand the story behind the school. I received a great deal of help from Melissa Currier, my assistant principal at the time, and from Dr. Pandolfo, Dr. Falcone and other staff.
Darien Superintendent of Schools Dr. Stephen Falcone commented on Hindley’s success: “To receive acknowledgement as a National Blue Ribbon School is a tremendous honor. Yet, we know that Mrs. Ferri and our teachers do not work with students for national recognition or acclaim. It is a moral commitment they make to do what is in students’ best interest. But to be acknowledged for their work is an affirmation of the excellence they exhibit every day. Mrs. Ferri and her staff should be tremendously proud to represent Hindley School, the Darien School District, the Darien community, and the community of educators nationally–people who commit their lives to student learning.”
How has your experience as a mother and grandmother influenced you? I’m fortunate to have a significant degree of experience at this point in my life. In raising our two girls, I can recall when they first went to Kindergarten and the anxiety my husband and I felt—I can relate to all of that. As a parent, you hope life doesn’t hit them too hard and you wonder how you can protect them.
Your children are so much better off if they can, in this gentle environment [at school], learn how to manipulate and maneuver through those life experiences. We can’t protect them from life; what we can do is prepare them.
If a teacher comes to me and says, “I’m at a loss, I don’t know which way to turn here,” I can hopefully give them some solid advice from a broader perspective. It’s the same with parents who come in and want to know if their child’s behavior is typical or not. I often say, “If I’m not worried, then I don’t want you to worry.”
What is your philosophy for creating a successful environment for children with special needs alongside their typical peers? Every child is one of our children. I often say, “It takes a village,” because we’re raising every child here. Our philosophy is learner-centered; we have high expectations for all students. We take every student, we assess what their strengths are, and we work from them. Similarly, I try to extrapolate teachers’ strengths, to inspire teachers, to motivate them, to let them know we appreciate what they do and provide them opportunities, as life-long learners, to reach higher levels. Once you’re trusted and respected, I think your role as a leader becomes valued. It builds on a collaborative environment where thinking and learning is clearly regarded.
Hindley’s third grade team of teachers, Julia Belmonte, Ryan Healy, Katherine Hotchkiss, Joseph Cahill and Laura Coupe, agree wholeheartedly. “Rita is an administrator who hasn’t forgotten what it was like to be a student, teacher, and parent. She creates a collaborative community of educators where everyone works for the success of each individual student. We are very proud of Hindley’s success!”
What qualities should a great educator possess? I’m looking for someone who is knowledgeable in the curriculum and in instruction, someone that respects and values each student’s uniqueness. However, beyond that, I look for what makes a good teacher an outstanding teacher including an instinctive knowledge of children, the skill to foster and inspire high levels of thinking and an eternal hopefulness that comes by knowing each student’s psyche–what makes them tick.
I also look for someone who never gives up on a child. You don’t give up because there’s always so much hope attached to children. They are incredible human beings. The significant impact we make on those children who pass by could be indelible. You could ask adults who’ve won the Nobel Peace Prize, “Who was your greatest influence?” and I bet you’ll hear most of the time that it was a teacher. The impact we have on children is humbling. Anything that comes from us needs to be thoughtful because they cling to it. That’s the profound impact and influence we have on our children.
You truly love your job, don’t you? I love it and, for some strange reason, I love it more every year. I think it’s because I can really concentrate on the experience and the information I’ve obtained over all these years and then give it back to parents, to children, and to teachers.
I love school during the holiday season when the chorus is practicing and the strings are pleasantly squeaking; I love it when it’s raining, cresting the hill and seeing the lights on when it’s dark and dreary. I love listening to the children in the hallways and outside…it’s the sights, the sounds of a thriving school community!
Rita Ferri’s 36-year career in education and her last 5 years as principal at Hindley Elementary School can perhaps be summed up in the five words etched upon the wooden plaque that hangs above her desk: “Never, never, ever give up.”
To read the Darien School District’s press release, click here. To learn more about the 2012 National Blue Ribbon Schools and the November Awards Ceremony in Washington, DC, visit the Official Blog of the Department of Education.