Written by Bryce Klatsky: email@example.com Friday, 22 June 2012 00:00
On June 23, Neil Connolly will hand out one last diploma at the Carle Place High School graduation, ending a streak that began more than three decades ago.
“I’ve been at every graduation ceremony since 1980. I’ve shaken hands with every senior that’s graduated here since 1981,” Connolly recalled, and it does not take the former math teacher long to calculate that he has congratulated more than 2,000 graduates.
Connolly will retire after having worked at Carle Place High School for 37 years in a variety of positions including math teacher, coach, supervisor of the math department, assistant principal, and, for the past 17 years, principal. In addition, Connolly teaches a mathematics course at Queensborough Community College.
Connolly’s tenure at Carle Place is marked by a considerable list of achievements, which include two silver medals in the U.S. News and World Report America’s Best High Schools ratings as well as recognition from Newsweek. These accolades have distinguished Carle Place as one of the strongest high schools on Long Island, but Connolly is quick to defer the acclaim to his students and comments.
“I never did anything purposely to try and get the award. I did it because I wanted the school to be the best school it could be so that the students could get the best education possible,” Connolly said.
In pursuit of this same goal, Connolly has played an active part in many of the changes at Carle Place High School over the past 37 years. After having been an assistant principal for seven years, Connolly took the reins of a school largely known for its athletic programs.
“There are a lot of things I’m proud of,” the principal said, “but one of the things I’m proud of is how I feel that we’ve improved our music program and our art program.”
Similarly, Connolly lauded the new service learning projects, which encourage students to be active in community service-related projects at each grade level.
This focus on creating interdisciplinary learning opportunities has been one component of Connolly’s larger goal of “developing the complete young man or young woman. Trying to get them to know that it’s not solely about academics, not solely about athletics, it’s not solely about art or music, it’s about the whole person.”
Indeed, Connolly is so devoted to this educational approach that he has even participated in two of the school’s musical theater productions. And the approach seems to be working.
Connolly reported, “Over the last seven years, it feels like the kids coming out … are all nice kids – they’re all respectful, they’re all trying to do the best they can. The difference between the ‘70s and my beginning years as a principal to now, I mean the kids are just totally amazing. They’re willing, they want to work with you, they want to cooperate, they’re excited about their ideas, they love being in school and they have friends in all different avenues.”
Ultimately for Connolly, his mission as an educator has always been informed by his deep passion for working with children.
“The thing that I’m going to miss the most is my interactions with my students,” Connolly said, adding, “I have an outstanding faculty, my superintendents and board of education have been very supportive of me, but kids are different.”
And it seems that the long-serving principal will be missed just as much by his students. Maddalena Buffalino, a member of Carle Place’s class of 2001, referenced Carle Place’s mascot when she referred to Connolly as “a true frog that bleeds green.”
Buffalino said, “Mr. Connolly knew our names, our sibling’s names, our favorite sport and what period lunch we had. He wasn’t just a principal to us; he was a ‘cool’ father-like figure that we knew always had our best interest at heart.”
As a 13-year-old, Buffalino was called down to Mr. Connolly’s office in honor of her birthday and the two discussed their mutual love of mathematics. Years later, Buffalino, now a Carle Place teacher, found herself in that same office discussing the qualities that would make Connolly’s newest colleague a successful social studies educator.
“I always knew I wanted to be an educator because of the compassion that my teachers and administrators had demonstrated for me as Carle Place student. Next year won’t be the same without seeing Mr. Connolly’s smiling face throughout the halls of Carle Place; however, his legacy of ‘Compassion and Passion’ will always live on,” Buffalino said.
Indeed, axioms and acronyms such as “C.P. Compassion Passion” will be a part of Connolly’s legacy. Scores of graduates will remember receiving a list of “15 Little Things to Think About,” and “The Story of the Horse,” one of Connolly’s personal favorites, which reminds students to never forget the people and experiences that helped them reach their goals.
For his part, Connolly never forgets the devotion of his enthusiastic teachers, the cooperation of his administrators and the unflagging support of the Carle Place community. All of these influences have helped create what Connolly sees as a “perfectly oiled factory churning out great kids that are going to do great things when they get older. You just feel it.”
And with that “factory” working as well as Connolly has ever seen it work, it may come as a surprise that he is choosing to leave Carle Place High School. Connolly comments that he began considering retirement some years ago and wanted to end his tenure as principal while he was still able to fulfill his duties to the best of his abilities. For the former coach, anything less than “100 percent” is simply not good enough; he “wanted to go out on top.” He had considered extending his career for a few more years in order to see the current junior class graduate. But, he realized, “There would always be a class that would force me to come back. There’s always going be a junior class.”
In this way, the departure will be a difficult one for Connolly, who laments that he was “90 percent sure” that he was ready to retire when New York State instituted educational reforms which Connolly believes “will eventually, in three to five years, be seen as a disaster.”
An outspoken opponent of new policies, which include standardized teacher evaluations and extended testing periods for younger students, Connolly interpreted these changes as the final motivators for his retirement.
“I don’t want to leave with a bad taste in my mouth, and this ultimately will be a devastating blow to public school education,” said Connolly, who plans to leave his teachers with the charge to continue “good educational practices” and not “teach for the test.”
Ever the active individual, Connolly will continue teaching at Queensborough Community College and will be advising the incoming Carle Place High School principal over the summer. He looks forward to this opportunity and hopes to eventually teach educational administration classes or function as an on-site consultant for incoming principals at other schools. In the meantime, though, he looks forward to spending more time with his wife and daughter. He also speaks eagerly about travelling to Europe and Alaska.
When Connolly takes a rare pause from his busy schedule to reflect on his legacy, he intimated, “I think that I would want people to say that I gave 100 percent each and every day I stepped foot here [and] that I truly modeled the acronym ‘Carle Place Pride’ where the ‘C’ stands for ‘compassion’ and the ‘P’ stands for ‘passion.’ And that I treated every student as if they were my own child.”And when Connolly shakes the last hand at graduation on June 23, this will almost certainly be the sentiment within the newest cohort of graduates.
“This class is pretty special to me,” Connolly acknowledged, “because when they were in seventh-grade, they were struggling with organizational skills, homework, all of the little things.” In true fashion, Connolly went down to their classrooms and spoke to them about goals. Afterwards, each student was made to write down a list of goals. “And little did they know, I then wrote back on each of them, ‘This is a great idea,’ or ‘you should concentrate on this,’ or I elaborated on some of their thoughts.”
The following year, Connolly revisited the same classes and returned the lists of goals to the now eighth-graders.
“And, over the course of the six years, they have proved everybody wrong. So they’re special,” Connolly commented.
And when Connolly looks upon this transcendent sea of graduates later this month, it is likely the same graduates will smile back at their now ex-principal, who, through his own compassion and passion, helped inspire them and countless others.