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Stonington Superintendent Van Riley was praised by the school board as "a visionary and forward-thinker." | Sun File Photo

Riley credited with shaking things up in Stonington schools

STONINGTON — Closing in on one year since he took the job as Superintendent of Schools, Van W. Riley can say one thing for sure: He’s happy.

“You don’t move 3,000 miles to a new job without knowing there are going to be some challenges,” said Riley, who moved from California to take the job last fall. “It was a new opportunity and it’s been exciting. I wanted to do the right thing.

“I’m having a lot of fun.”

Since he started in mid-October, the 62-year-old Riley has made an impact in many areas. Students are now required to maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA to participate in athletics or any extracurricular activity. Riley has also set guidelines to help parents pay for testing fees, restructured the format of the budget to make it more transparent and better detailed, and secured $75,000 of new funding for full-day kindergarten.

He’s been a part of Stonington High School’s new athletic field project and has begun an extensive look at the middle school curriculum and what types of extracurricular activities are being offered.

Board of Education Chairwoman Gail MacDonald said Riley has done a lot of tangible things, and called the implementation of full-day kindergarten a “breath of fresh air.” But it’s the intangibles that have made him stand out, she said.

“He’s been able to do so much to set a very positive tone between board members and he has a very good (rapport) with other town leaders,” MacDonald said. “That’s huge. Relationship building has been key.”

Riley said he’s worked hard to narrow the gap that existed between the schools and the town.

“There had been a need to restore positive relationships,” Riley said. “It was clear to me that not only did we need to make changes to the budget, but we needed to try and understand the needs of others and listen to what they had to say.”

And town leaders have appreciated the efforts.

“We routinely get together and work on projects,” Stonington First Selectman Ed Haberek said of Riley. “We have met and discussed budget, maintenance and worked together on our fields project. I appreciate his consistent communication, much better than previously.”

Full-day kindergarten for all students is a major addition for Stonington this school year. Kindergarten Opening Day will be Friday. School starts Wednesday for grades 1 to 12.

Riley has touted the benefits of full-day kindergarten. In Connecticut, 103 school districts already provide full-day kindergarten. Including charter and magnet schools, 74 percent of all Connecticut kindergartners have full-day schedules.

“Full-day kindergarten is a feather in our cap,” Riley said. “Students are going to get a positive start to their education.”

The Board of Education gave Riley a stellar annual review in July, a 2.5 percent raise and one-year contract extension to June 30, 2016.

He will make just under $180,000 in 2013-14.

This coming school year, he will continue to help the K-12 Building Committee as it focuses on renovating the district’s elementary schools, and will look closely at curriculum choices at the middle schools, Mystic Middle and Pawcatuck Middle.

“Now is a good time to stop and look back to see what we’re doing at the middle school level,” Riley said. “Why do we do this? Why do we do that?”

Before his Stonington appointment, Riley served as superintendent of three southern California districts. Riley had visited the area often before moving here and always wanted to be closer to his grandchildren, who live in New York.

He and his wife, Mary, moved to a home on Masons Island. “It’s so nice to be here. (California) is so crowded and polluted,” he said. “We wanted to get away to a small community. We really do love it here. It’s been a good year. I’m looking forward to more good years.”

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