David Abbey packed the last few boxes that filled his sunlit office, overlooking Locust Avenue, this week. After nearly two decades working for New Canaan Public Schools, for which he was superintendent the last nine years, Abbey sat down to reflect on this time.
But before coming to New Canaan, Abbey, a New Yorker, studied and worked throughout the country. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1970 with a bachelor's degree in history. In 1973, he received his master's degree in special education from the University of Arizona, an early milestone that would eventually bring him to New Canaan.
Abbey, also a doctor of education since 1981, was an itinerant teacher of the blind and visually impaired in California.
"For example, students would use Braille," Abbey said. "I would interpret the Braille for the teacher, so I would write in print what the students Brailled."
He was also a special education teacher in Maryland, a director of special education in Virginia and a coordinator of a regional special education program in Westport.
"We had students attending the program from all over the county," he said of the Westport program. "New Canaan was one of the school districts that sent students to the Westport regional center at Staples High School, and that's how people in New Canaan became familiar with me."
Abbey became director of special education in New Canaan in 1987. However, he hasn't always worked in the central office.
"I had moved my office into the high school to be closer to the students and closer to where the action was," he said. "So I got to know some of the people at the high school and I think, in any event, the superintendent asked me if I would be the interim (principal), and I said sure, as long as everybody understood I wanted to go back to being director of special education."
Although the situation didn't follow Abbey's original plan, he said he was happy with the outcome.
"I was enjoying it and I thought it was something I wanted to do, and I ended up staying for six years," he said.
Except for a five-year period in which Abbey was an assistant superintendent in Bedford, N.Y. from 1997 to 2002, he said New Canaan has remained his professional home.
New Canaan News: You've been in New Canaan for close to 20 years. What does that number mean to you?
David Abbey: Well, New Canaan, professionally, has been home to me and it's been a wonderful experience. I've had a chance to do many things and I'm very grateful for the community, for the support I've received, for the colleagues I've worked with, [and] for the people in the community I've met.
NCN: Why did you choose to retire now?
Abbey: I've been a school administrator for just about 32 years and I'd like to try other things while I still have time to try them and still have my health. So this seemed like a good time.
I really decided two years ago. I developed a plan and informed the school board shortly after that, maybe about a year and a half ago, and announced it in the fall.
A colleague once shared this with me years ago. She said, "You'll know it in your bones when it's time to go." And I wasn't quite sure what she meant, and now I do.
NCN: What other interests would you like to pursue?
Abbey: I'd like to learn Spanish once and for all. I've been struggling with it on an intermittent basis my whole adult life and I'd like to go ahead and do it.
I have a strong belief that educated people should know more than one language, and [in] the rest of the world people do. It's something that we in the United States are working toward.
That's one of the reasons why we started our elementary Spanish program a few years ago, and increasing the number of opportunities to students.
We added Chinese at the high school a few years ago and now, next year, we're adding Chinese at the middle school. We're giving students an opportunity, at the middle school, who want to study two languages other than English. We're starting to provide opportunities for that.
My wife is from Montreal. Her first language is English, but she speaks French because she started learning it at a young age, and there's no reason why we can't do it here in New Canaan. It's got to be done.
NCN: Do you have a favorite experience working in New Canaan?
Abbey: I wouldn't cite one as a greatest. There are a number of things that come to mind. Our students have achieved well, and that's exciting and rewarding.
Our number of programs that we started. About 24 years ago, we started a preschool program for students with disabilities, at the beginning of my career here, for students between the ages of 3 and 5.
This year we started a program (at 39 Locust Ave.) -- a launch program for students between the ages of 18 and 21 who receive special education services and require community-based experiences in order to learn best in order to equip them for adult life. I enjoy the fact that there's some symmetry there at the beginning of (my) career and the end of (my) career.
NCN: What was it like becoming principal, based on your previous roles?
Abbey: It was a very different position because of the range of the students that you're working with and the pace.
The high school principalship is a physically demanding position, there are always things happening and the pace is very quick. So that was a change for me.
It was also a chance to work in the general ed curriculum in a way that I haven't. Learning to develop programs in some of the areas like science, where I never really worked in any kind of depth.
While I was principal we moved the eighth grade into the high school and that was a challenging and professionally rewarding endeavor. We spent a year doing it, but we moved the eighth grade into the high school because of space constrictions in the district. So, we had the opportunity to develop our own special eighth-grade program and that was, I think, successful and very exciting.
One of the joys of being high school principal was getting to know so many high school students, because you're there all day.
And that was terrific. Getting to interact with them and getting to observe them in so many ways and watching them accomplish so much and grow in four years.
NCN: As superintendent, how did your perspective of the role change over time?
Abbey: Certainly the range of responsibilities is broader than anything I had ever dealt with, working with a community, working with the different boards in town.
(He smiles) The reason I'm smiling is the operational side of things, which never was of great interest before.
Thinking of things like bus transportation or facilities or budgeting or food service was never a great interest. They're all so vital.
Everything is important. They became very important to me.
All of my previous responsibilities were really helpful to being a superintendant. I understand what it means to be a principal. I understand what it means to be a principal the day before a vacation, when you have conflicting sets of demands and all of a sudden there's an emergency you have to deal with, from bomb threats to a child who's just having an awful day.
It could be a family emergency that somebody's experiencing.
NCN: Do you see any areas where NCPS needs improvement?
Abbey: Well, I've said on a consistent basis there isn't an area where we couldn't do better in, and I think we've done very well.
NCN: What is NCPS's greatest asset, if you could name one or two?
Abbey: The community and the great support they give to the schools.
I'll name three. The students that they send us. We have a wonderful group of students to work with.
And three would be our faculty and staff. Our teachers, administration and staff are top rate. It always starts with people and it's always about people, and then the only enemy is time.
You know, having the time to focus and doing what you want to do. And in New Canaan, if you can convince people of the wisdom of your actions on behalf of the children, there's really nothing that can't be accomplished. So in that sense, as educators, we're limited by our own creativity and talent and hard work, and that's exciting. It's a great place to work. And we have great people working here. We do.
NCN: What will you miss the most?
Abbey: The people. You spend so much time with people. In this role, for example, I spend a great deal of time with school board members and principals and teachers, and I spend less time with students in this role, but I know some students and I certainly have an appreciation.
I go to many events and I have an appreciation of how well they're doing. So I'll miss the excitement.
I'll miss the work. I'll miss the relationships. I'll miss New Canaan.
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