Former East Lyme High School principal John Sullivan has tried to retire a few times now, but he keeps finding himself drawn back into education.
He planned to retire after serving as interim principal of East Lyme High School from 2009 to 2011, for instance, but came out of retirement serve as interim associate superintendent of Middletown Public Schools from March to August of 2012.
“And then I thought I was done until that fateful day in Christmas vacation when [Avon School Superintendent Gary] Mala called me," Sullivan, 61, said.
Mala called to see if Sullivan would be interested in serving as interim Avon High School principal. Sullivan thought a lot about Mala's offer – and the fact that his family would like him to stay retired – and ultimately accepted.
He said he plans to stay until the end of the school year to give the district time to hire a new principal. Sullivan works four days a week, giving him personal time that often includes spending weekends skiing in Vermont.
“There was a void thought I could successfully fill," Sullivan said. “In the end, coming and helping out overrode my need for personal recreation time, so I hope I made the right decision."
His philosophy hasn't wavered as he jumps into the principalship mid-year – "do what's best for the kids." He said his job is to “keep the ship going in the right direction" and "to empower and enable good people around me to do what they do best."
Coming in with no agenda, Sullivan said he's encouraging educators to pitch their programming ideas and give them a try. He's also met with students so they can get to know him and understand he supports them. He wants them to close out the year feeling a sense of unity at school.
“I like leadership. Some will say leaders are born, some will say leaders are made," Sullivan said. "I don’t know what the answer is."
Avon is new territory for the New London native who now lives in Essex, but there is at least one familiar face in the district. Sullivan was Mala's mentor through the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents when he was a new superintendent in the state. At the time, Sullivan was Westbrook's superintendent, a job he took in 1998.
“I was his mentor, although he didn’t need much mentoring," Sullivan said.
And who filled in as interim superintendent in Region 17 – Haddam-Killingworth – after Mala left in 2011 to become Avon superintendent? You guessed it. Sullivan.
As Westbrook superintendent, Sullivan said that getting Westbrook Middle School built $1 million under-budget on time was one of his greatest career highlights. The new buiilding, which opened in 2005, was "badly needed," he said. He said he is equally as proud of his smaller accomplishments.
Sullivan's start in Avon on the first day of the new year comes on the heels of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre that killed 20 children and six educators. Soon after the Dec. 14 tragedy, the district implemented new safety measures at Avon High School like locking doors, requiring visitors to sign in at the main entrance and installing an electronic entry system with a buzzer and intercom. Sullivan's already been a part of meetings on school security.
“When I first heard about Newtown, I was en route to Vermont," Sullivan said. "When I first got there and heard what the carnage was … I cried like a baby.... I pray to God no one has to go through that again."
Sullivan – who said he is friendly with Newtown Superintendent Janet Robinson, Ph.D. – felt empathy for Robinson's experience. School security is "on our minds all the time" and is dependent on school culture, he said.
Sullivan majored in special education as an undergrad and grad student at Southern Connecticut State University and earned a sixth year degree in education administration at the University of Connecticut. He also specialized in education for a doctorate program at the University of Bridgeport.
He began his career in special education at Norwich Free Academy in 1973. Three years later he became a principal at Stonegate School, a private school in Durham for students with intellectual, social and emotional disabilities.
After that, he worked as administrative assistant to the Montville superintendent. Sullivan became the first principal of Montville's alternative high school in 1978 and served in that role for about four years. He was principal of Montville High School from 1981 to 1986, Nantucket Hight School and Cyrus Peirce Middle School from 1986 until 1992 and Wilton High School from 1992 until 1998.
From 2006 to 2008, Sullivan was superintendent of Unified School District 2, run by the Department of Children and Families. His office was in Meriden.
What's next after his principalship is over in Avon? He's said it three times.
“This is my last job," Sullivan said.