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Stratford Superintendent Looks Back on Tenure

Irene Cornish improved instructional curriculums, raised test scores and made substantial gains against the achievement gap.

"I hate the cold -- everybody knows that about me," Stratford Supterintendent Irene Cornish said to explain her decision to retire at the end of 2012.

Last year, she bought a condominium overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and this is the last winter she said she intends to endure in New England.

A photo she showed on her iPad of the view from her balcony has palm trees in the foreground and blue water sparkling in the sunshine receding to the horizon.

Cornish has a substantial record of achievement since she came to Stratford in 2004. She said she has reformed Stratford's core curriculums for reading, writing, math and science, cut unnecessary administrative positions, beefed up teacher training, raised test scores and restored the Board of Education's reputation with the town's contentious political leaders.

She also established all-day kindergarten throughout the district, and this year is hoping for approval of a new foreign language program that will start in kindergarten.

"We'll be one of the only districts with a foreign language program in our elementary schools," Cornish said.

Under her leadership, Stratford made enviable gains closing the achievement gap, the gulf in test scores between students from affluent families and those from poor and minority families.

Cornish said the word is, Stratford did one of the best jobs in the state in that area. "We've heard that from a number of sources," she said.

She said she didn't do it alone. She gave most of the credit to her staff and the district's teachers, to the town school board and the PTA Council, and even to the Town Council, which saw that that improvement was being made and approved budget increases that made it possible.

She said she was fortunate to have a good working relationship with the school system's unions.

Cornish grew up in the Rockville section of Vernon, Conn., and graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in French, Spanish and secondary education.

Early on she set her sights at becoming a school administrator. She got her Master's degree in French from Central Connecticut State University, and her administrator's certificate for secondary education from UConn in 1978.

She taught French and Spanish from 1963 to 1971 at Rockville High School, at Manchester Community College from 1971 to 1973, and at Tolland High School until 1978. Then she became the assistant principal at Bloomfield High School.

Cornish pursued a law degree from UConn in 1987, and then practiced law in Vernon for seven years. When her husband died suddenly, she took the job of assistant superintendent for pupil services in Chelsea, Mass., in 1994, and was promoted to superintendent. In 2004, she was hired by Stratford.

At the time, many Stratford residents were critical of the Stratford public schools for having a top-heavy central office administration and unremarkable test scores, she said.

Cornish cut the central office staff and appointed department heads for the two high schools. She revamped the instructional curriculums by moving back to more traditional forms of teaching. Reading instruction focused on phonics. Math instruction was simplified so parents could understand it.

A committee of teachers and administrators wrote a district improvement plan that the state Department of Education has held up as an example for other districts to follow. Each of the town's schools also wrote new improvement plans, and teacher professional development training was improved.

"From my perspective," Cornish said, "the district has made tremendous progress.

Marcus Aurelius February 06, 2012 at 01:05 PM
Stratford is fortunate to have the integrity and leadership Irene provided to the school district. A woman of substance and honor - never afraid to make the hard decision and pursue the right course. A job well done!
George Bernard Shaw February 06, 2012 at 03:00 PM
Marcus -- you didn't.? Were you up all night thinking of these kind words? They were very nice. Stratford Schools are nothing less than an INDUSTRY.They are "hooked' on outside money now and like with all other addictions, they usually are covered up until they become unsustainable. Besides, aen't you the guy who allowed the Tibers to overflow and all of those people to be hurt? Not sure if I'm confsing you with the original MA -- the failed leader of Rome who had nothing who brought nothing but trouble to the people.
WF February 06, 2012 at 04:49 PM
GBS The historical figure to whom you confuse ascended the Roman throne in 161 A.D. By Roman standards he was considered conservative and just. His time was beset by internal disturbances – famine, earthquakes, fires, and plague – and by the external threat posed by the Germans and Parthians. Much like Cornish’s time was beset with and rose above her predecessor’s incompetence and rampant nepotism. The English historian - Sir Edward Gobbon wrote - "If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus." Marcus Aurelius’ own life spanned almost three-quarters of this period often coined the period of the Five Good Emperors. The history lesson is free. Cheers
Charles Cornwallace February 06, 2012 at 05:15 PM
You have no history that you can teach us sir. You can keep this speech for the people over at Central. Maybe some psychologist waiting for their new dispatch wants to go over it with you. Thanks though!
Charles Cornwallace February 06, 2012 at 05:19 PM
Just to make this clear for the rest: you see the BOE as if it were the Roman Senate?
WF February 06, 2012 at 05:26 PM
Charles, You and George are droll and quite boring chaps. Will
Charles Cornwallace February 06, 2012 at 05:36 PM
Well I could have told you that -- we sit around the library all the time talking about how children would best be served with all the money that is being hustled into the education INDUSTRY. Marcus was a Stoic, he created a lot of the probelms with the Barbarians, it was only after his son took over that things calmed.
Dom DeCicco February 06, 2012 at 06:05 PM
CH, I am no fan of yours. And after the stunt GBS pulled over at Target -- I could do without him as well. However, I have to give both of you a "big-up" on this one. As for the Superintendent, she is an extremely accomplished woman and for that, I commend her. I disagree with much that has gone on in the schools during her tenure and, after extensive research conducted by me, I have very real concerns that involve the change in exactly what education is going to become in the future. I believe that we are all right on one thing – education must be radically changed in this country, but not in the way that the technocrats hope to. Students need to be taught as individuals – based on their interests and intellectual capabilities. They must be freed to research their own truths and not that which has been revised, as takes place every day in the classrooms. In essence, they must be taught how to learn and not what to learn. Rhetoric must be restored not dissuaded, as we are also seeing in these PBIS infestations of the schools – students policed on how they can express themselves and creativity all but stifled. Indoctrinating the idea of a “Common language” within the “Framework” of the “Learning community” is a joke! How does any of that reflect the principles of a REPUBLIC?
Dom DeCicco February 06, 2012 at 06:05 PM
Regarding Roman emperors, they were also jokes, as they ultimately succeeded in losing the very freedoms they claimed to hold so dearly through perversions, indulgences, and vanity as well as ideological beliefs such as Stoicism. How would an emperor of a republic fair out as a practicing stoic? In that election, I would have voted for the cynic. The IDEA legislation was a blow to successful schools – not all of it but a good part of it. Why don’t they tell the public the truth, they can’t remove psychopaths from the classrooms so they have to customize the classrooms to the psychopaths. Keep taking all the free money people – keep taking it!
Mister Smith February 06, 2012 at 08:00 PM
Man O' man - I never realized the Hellenistic schools of thought were such a topic of concern in Stratford. I think Marcus was simply commenting that he felt Dr. Cornish did a fabulous job. Bernie, Charles, Dom and the rest of your strange group took a simple though to some absurd level. Chile out you're sounding a bit nuts.
Dom DeCicco February 06, 2012 at 08:33 PM
Go to Washington and leave us alone...
WF February 06, 2012 at 08:36 PM
Chucky. Was that reply an attempt at witticism - feeble though it may be? You need to work harder on some better quips. Keep trying as you get an A for effort. Although the content grade in not strong. The BOE does offer adult continuing Ed. Classes. Call Cornish's office they will help you.
WF February 06, 2012 at 08:51 PM
Marcus began this discourse which has led to Dom insulting Mr. Smith in a most rude and unwelcome fashion. Charles is all hot and bothered and continues to prove he has no idea of history or philosophy and obsess no wit or humor. How those Giants? (Charles I refer to the football team - not those mythical creatures of yore)...
Charles Cornwallace February 07, 2012 at 12:21 AM
This is the typical ranting of a polyester warrior – the sort of guy who tosses out nickel and dime academics in a sentence but offers little substance to the issue of debate. This polyester warrior might be the sort of guy to rush to the office before everyone else so that he can bring his boss his or her favorite pastries. These people frequently rely on trying to smear a person in order to avoid debating their message. They have the conviction of a weather-vane, pointing one way and then swinging the other once the winds change. They will defend themselves with highfaluting doublespeak and insult such as “crazy, droll, feeble, and witless”. As times change, they will find that people are less repulsed by these baseless insults; the people are looking for truth. The market is open for debate. Education is failing our children – that is an irrefutable fact. Literacy has been in a tailspin for over a hundred years now. He may be the sort of blowhard who chooses to drive a Prius so that he can prostitute himself as being eco-friendly to his ilk, despite the fact that his oversized body makes him look ridiculous to others passing him on the highways. He could be the sort who hides beneath the bureaucratic umbrella of technocracy. In short, he defends his shallow existence by protecting the interests of the commission which employs him, a human marionette if you will.
Laura Clarke February 07, 2012 at 03:27 PM
All fine and well but Mr. Cornwallace's comment strand has nothing to do with the article about Superintendent Cornish who has done a wonderful job as head of our school system. I sense some anger management issues with Mr. Cornwallace. And why is he belittling people who drive a hybrid car. Bully. Laura R. (proud Prius owner)
Jason Bagley (Editor) February 07, 2012 at 03:40 PM
Yes, let's please keep comments related to the article. A reminder that it is Patch policy to delete comments that are not tied to the article. Thanks.
Charles Cornwallace February 07, 2012 at 06:49 PM
The tone you detect is not anger that is in need of anger management. The tone you detect is one of disappointment. I am disappointed with the thankless position that too many of our districts fine teachers and well-intended administrators have been forced in to. I am disappointed with the fact that our educational system has been stretched so thin that we can no longer afford to pay our teachers competitive salaries that will afford them to live the lives they deserve to. Also, so that I can convince you that it was not my intention to come off as a bully, the person outlined in my hypothetical was an oversized man – an office jockey who is willing to agree to anything. He was the one in my hypothetical critique who was driving a Prius. A hypothetical critique is not real and therefore should not draw emotional response – it should be dismissed possibly as a form of cynicism or sarcasm. Unlike some on the unions, I am actually worried about the future of teaching. I see a road that is not so promising for the true professional, the certified and licensed.
Charles Cornwallace February 07, 2012 at 06:49 PM
I am not happy with measures that are adopted that continue to run the financial makeup of our schools further into the dirt, only to turn to the teachers and once again pit them against the public by suggesting that the problem lies with their health plans. I am sorry if any of my sarcasm has insulted anyone or caused any feeling of unease – interfering with the morning latte and such. I am passionate about improving the working conditions of our teachers, as I recognize that they (not some polyester warrior in the front office) hold the key to success for our children. I am not a paid teacher, love to teach, and have a deep concern for the welfare of all children. The “Gap” between my top lip and bottom lip is one that I will never allow to be “closed” so threatening me with some arbitrary form of censorship does not concern me in the least. In some forums, censorship is the ultimate form of compliment. There are specific acts of kindness and decency that I am aware of regarding Mrs. Cornish that are a testament to her sense of compassion as well as her commitments. These stories are personal and were shared with me by members of the community so I am not at liberty to disclose them; however, suffice it saying that she is kind and has been helpful.
Charles Cornwallace February 07, 2012 at 06:49 PM
Her leaving may put us at a greater disadvantage in dealing with the crisis of “BIG EDUCATION”. As she is probably more familiar with its mechanics than her likely predecessor will be, all that I feel was needed was a change of heart and a change of direction to steer us away.
Dom DeCicco February 07, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Oh, they're trying to shut you up Charles -- you Bully. LOL This was the first post for her and she was on you like white on rice. Wait! Can I say that -- has that been removed under the PC rules and regulations? She even used the anger management trick as well. LOFL By the way, I loved the polyester warrior image -- all those sychophants selling out their fellow teachers. I'll probably be tossed off the Patch for this one -- adding dialogue to an otherwise self promoting article. Oh no! I'm mellllting!!
Dom DeCicco February 07, 2012 at 07:18 PM
Is it Laura R. or Laura C.?
Victor Flores February 07, 2012 at 07:50 PM
I've seen large improvements in the school system these last half dozen years and would attribute it to good leadership. Our children have flourished here and it is much better then experiences elsewhere. The undertone of the prior messages from Mr. DeCicco and Mr. Corn-Wallace are disconcerting. The undercurrent is .... Well whatever! I hope our educators stay motivated and committed to the higher cause.
Dom DeCicco February 07, 2012 at 09:25 PM
Victor -- that's called disagreeing with someone; it happens in a free society, get used to it! Disconcerting: making somebody feel ill at ease, slightly confused, or taken aback..
Gabriel Kotter February 07, 2012 at 09:35 PM
It's obvious that all of these people know one another and that they are just trying to get one or more of you kicked off of the Patch. Large Improvements in the schools? Where are they? What supports that statement? They admit that they can't even prevent veteran teachers and administrators from leaving for other districts.
Herb Morrison February 07, 2012 at 10:57 PM
I have noticed a pattern here. The names mentioned directly and with great insult have been those that have expressed disagreement with the Cornish tenure. They’re a number of distasteful comments directed at Dom DeCicco, George Bernad Shaw, and Charles Cornwallace. One poster even goes so far as to taunt Mr. Cornwallce by intentionally misspelling his surname “Corn-Wallace.” Granted, Mr. Shaw’s response to Marcus Aurelius’ first comment was abrasive and likely unmerited; however, the continued adjectives supporting some culturally mutated form of victimization and insinuation is embarrassing and has no place in public discourse. If anything, the authors crying foul are guiltier of the very encroachments they feign. Not a once have I read where any of the wronged parties mentioned herein have directed any adjective of insult such have been endured by them. For instance, “droll and quite boring, strange, nuts, feeble, and Bully.” These are all direct attacks that are more likely designed to stifle the freedom of expression and have had nothing to do with the content of the article. Divergence of thought is necessary in order to preserve good standards of practice. Hypothetic analogies are an appropriate way, if merited, of offering criticism to an institution that may have systemic issues that insulate it from change for the better.
Herb Morrison February 07, 2012 at 10:58 PM
It is a useful way of criticizing an institution without potentially smearing the reputation of an individual who is less in control of the machine and merely a piece of it. I would also recommend some restraint be used when slanderously extending your profession into Bazooka Joe diagnostics regarding DSM conditions and treatments such as “anger management.” If you are not license to make such findings, you shouldn’t. If you are, than your statements could be actionable. The article was focused on policies and achievements, therefore responses to it could easily have encompassed a whole range of topics for debate or response. The way I see it, GBW could have offered an apology to MA but did not have to. The rest should go look in a mirror and, after reading the definition of lemming to themselves out lowed. If the definition in any way applies and you’re happy with it, continue lambasting and following your protectionist instincts; however, if you do not enjoy your roll and wish to subscribe to something better – take a chance and change.
Louise Ortega February 10, 2012 at 02:36 AM
Getting back to the subject, I'd like to say that the Stratford school district is wonderful on many levels. It has problems, no doubt about that, but my children have flourished since we moved here from NYC. Class sizes are generally small, each school has a real sense of community, and test scores are steadily improving. Irene Cornish has a lot to be proud of. Enjoy your retirement!

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