Summer Break is just around the corner and June 7 is the last day of school at the Sherman School. In the midst of all the energy and excitement is another big date on the minds of many people within the community.
Don Fiftal, the esteemed Superintendent of Schools at the Sherman School for the past five years, is officially retiring on June 30. At the same time, he’s also enabling the transition with the newly appointed Principal and Superintendent, Dr. Jeff Melendez. Although many are thrilled to welcome a new Principal / Superintendent, the feeling is bittersweet. The Sherman School will soon say “goodbye” to a passionate administrator and educator who dedicated 48 years of his life to a career in education.
Prior to Mr. Fiftal’s tenure at the Sherman School, he was the Superintendent of Schools and the Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education for Darien Public Schools; Principal and Assistant Principal of New Milford High School; Principal at Schaghticoke Middle School in New Milford; and Acting Assistant Principal and English Teacher at Litchfield High School.
Mr. Fiftal was once recognized by Governor M. Jodi Rell with a “Don Fiftal Day” Proclamation to honor his several achievements as an educator. He also received a State of Connecticut Legislature citation for his many district leadership accomplishments. He belongs to several professional associations and was a Kappa Alpha Phi National Educational Honorary Member as well.
Mr. Fiftal also brought to the Sherman School an academic background that includes a BA in English Literature and Education from Grove City College in Pennsylvania, an MA in English Literature from Western Connecticut State University, and a 6th Year Advanced Degree in Educational Administration and Supervision from the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
Although Mr. Fiftal’s credentials and awards are impressive, he’s best known for putting his heart and soul into making a positive impact in the lives of students, teachers, staff, and Boards of Education throughout his career. Mr. Fiftal shared with the Town Tribune some thoughts on what made it all worthwhile.
When asked, “what do you take special pride in as the Superintendent of Schools?” Mr. Fiftal said, “I am proud of how the referendum passes every year. I always tried to manage the budget wisely, improve spending practices, and return a balance to the community,” he stated.
As for what Mr. Fiftal loves the most about the Sherman School, he said, “it’s the very personal nature of it. It’s a very personal place. Even the citizens that don’t have a direct connection say and do a lot of wonderful things, including supporting the budgeting of the school and coming to the events, like the senior citizens Thanksgiving dinner.”
Mr. Fiftal then elaborated on the day-to-day pride he sees through all kinds of events. “The children present themselves and what they can do. Like at The Art Show, Odyssey of the Mind, and awards and recognitions… those moments are on-going,” he said.
When asked, “what will you miss the most when you retire?” Mr. Fiftal replied, “the kids and teachers. I have a very high regard for young people right now, and I think kids deserve a lot of credit. I also really like the kinds of people that go into teaching, and I have been blessed with great professional relationships. That’s what lights my fire and keeps me going, and why the students and staff are on the top of my list.”
As for what he saw as the biggest challenge at the Sherman School, Mr. Fiftal stated, “I think objectively, and as a case study, it was the food allergies and policy issue. It was not one of these issues where there was a meeting of the minds, and there are different takes on that. In a small community, the people weigh-in, and they are very independent-minded. The divisions of opinion were very apparent and it took a long time, 2.5 years, to meld and come to some kind of common meeting ground people could come to live with, but did not all agree with.”
When asked, “what was your biggest accomplishment throughout your career?” Mr. Fiftal was proud of converting Schaghticoke Middle School from a Junior High School Model to a new Middle School Model. “Before, there was emphasis on high school-like structures. Everything was built on 12, 13, and 14-year-olds being treated like 18-year-olds. The fallacy is that human beings are developmental. We needed to realize that the best role for middle education was to best understand what their likes and needs are, especially psychologically and physiologically. The brain during those years shows less development and growth than in the earlier years of development. We needed to have much more active learning for children and find ways to let them move. It was my job to learn that and impart that to the staff and to win the staff’s belief that it was the right direction to go in. And, to also expand experiences for children.” He and his team expanded the role of the Arts in the school and offered physical movement arts, and career and vocational arts as options for the students to explore. This middle school was awarded grants and named the #1 middle school in the Arts.
Another accomplishment, and “a very different kind of accomplishment,” is Mr. Fiftal’s ability to help build schools. At Schaghticoke Middle School, the building needed renovations and additions, so he was the liaison between the school, building committees, and contractors. He also played a pivotal role in building the brand-new New Milford High School, and he worked closely with architects and the building committee. At Darien High School, he was the “ombudsman” and still thinks that, 10 years later, “it’s probably the finest high school yet to be built in Connecticut. It’s like a college campus and it’s first class,” he said. He’s also volunteering his time on a three-year project as a member of the Nonnewaug High School Building Committee for Region 14 in Woodbury, where he has lived for the past 35 years.
Regarding the future of education, Mr. Fiftal thinks the biggest challenge facing educators today is too much legislation. “Right now, in Connecticut, the State legislature is more and more into the education business. The legislation keeps coming and trying to keep up with that has been huge. Legislation now decrees different kinds of things in different curricula like bills on how to teach about electronic nicotine products or banking and finance. By themselves, these are useful but where will the teaching time come from?” he asked.
As for sharing words of wisdom to aspiring teachers or school administrators, Mr. Fiftal said, “it’s beautifully satisfying work, to work with young people. When you take the time to step back and look beyond the day-to-day, you’ll understand and appreciate the valuable role you play in the lives of children.” A passion for education goes a long way, too. “My love of education can be traced back to my childhood and my source of inspiration began with my family’s spirit. My parents were immigrants. Therefore, they had a love, respect, and goal for education for their children. I inherited this from them,” he said.
Regarding retirement plans, Mr. Fiftal and his wife are planning their 50th Wedding Anniversary in 2017, which is going to be very special. The plans include their two sons and spouses, who are also celebrating wedding anniversaries around the same time, along with their four grandchildren.
Mr. Fiftal’s first teaching job was at Litchfield High School where he taught all grades and nearly every English course offered, including a theater course. In retirement, he plans to get back into live theater. He reminisced about his “five minutes of fame.” In the mid-1960s, he started a successful summer theater program in the Waterbury / Cheshire / New Haven area whose alumni includes Ron Palillo, from the TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter,” Katherine Glass, a daytime soap opera actress, and Martha Coolidge, a pioneer among female Hollywood film directors.
Mr. Fiftal and his wife, Lois, a published writer / composer and music teacher in the public school and collegiate levels, are co-directing a musical melodrama entitled, “Tied to the Tracks” for the Community Theater at Woodbury. “It’s fun for all ages, and there’s audience involvement,” he said. At the same theater, Mr. Fiftal recently played Donner the Reindeer in a humorous musical that his wife wrote, entitled, “Shivering Santa.”
Gardening and playing more golf are on top of Mr. Fiftal’s list, too. He also made one really important promise to his wife and said, “I will do the dishes every day!”
Thank you, Don Fiftal, for your five years of service to the Sherman School.
Article and photos by Alicia Sakal. Written for Town Tribune, June 2, 2016 Edition.