"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.