By Josh LaBella
Superintendent of Schools Neil Cavallaro’s father used to call working in education “the family curse.” Cavallaro, it seems, could not break the curse – he has been in the field for 34 years.
“I come from a long line of teachers,” said Cavallaro. “It’s like anything else. When we are at family gatherings we talk about school.”
The West Haven native said he always like working with kids and that it comes natural to him. Cavallaro graduated from West Haven High School in 1981 and said the jobs he worked had a correlation to his future career.
“They all involved teaching and working with kids,” said Cavallaro. “So, they were fun kind of jobs.”
After graduating with a teaching degree from Southern Connecticut State University, Cavallaro said he got a job in Clinton teaching eighth grade science with the help of a colleague of his father’s. He said after a year in Clinton he came to West Haven to teach elementary school and then middle school.
“I wanted to be in the middle school, not only to concentrate on one subject,” said Cavallaro, “but it also allowed me earlier dismissals so I could go coach sports at the high school level.”
Cavallaro said he taught basketball and baseball at the high school while teaching at the middle school. He said he soon got his masters as well as a degree in administration as a way to progress within the education system.
“I could get the raise and never do anything with it [the administration degree] – as most people do,” said Cavallaro. “But, if I ever want to advance myself, at least I’ll have the certificate.”
The superintendent said he taught for nine years before he became vice principal of Carrigan School. He said due to a number of retirements the next year he was able to get hired as the principal of Thompson Elementary School at the age of 32.
“I was there for five years,” he said. “I then became the assistant superintendent for seven or eight years. This is my twelfth year as the superintendent.”
Cavallaro said he tells people that for the first 40 years of his life he went to school every day and after he became superintendent, he started going to work. He said his work is different from what most people would think of in the field of education.
“You’re dealing with contract negotiations and bidding processes,” said Cavallaro. “So, that was the biggest change – going from principal to assistant superintendent.”
According to Cavallaro, finances are the biggest challenge in his job – especially in West Haven. He said he thinks they have done a good job at keeping the quality of education high while finding ways to operate more efficiently.
“The hardest thing I’ve done is close a couple of schools,” said Cavallaro. “During my [time as superintendent] we closed two schools but we also reorganized the district. We went from eight elementary schools to six. We went from two middle schools to an intermediate school and a middle school.”
He said he doesn’t think West Haven’s situation is unique, and pointed to a number of other towns and cities which had to make similar decisions. He said while what they did was not popular at first, it seems to have worked out for the better.
Cavallaro said 90 percent of the Board of Education budget is fixed costs, leaving them with relatively little to start new initiatives or make improvements. Taking that into account, he said he thinks they have become much more efficient.
“In this job, a lot of what you do doesn’t have an impact immediately,” said Cavallaro. “But, when you look back, I can see how it’s made a difference. If you give it time, things work out pretty well.”
With the high school project well under way, Cavallaro said he is proud of the role he and others have played in developing it. He said it will be a great thing for the community.
“Even if you don’t have a child that is going to go to West Haven High School in some way, shape or form you’re going to be down there,” he said.
Cavallaro will have been working in education for 35 years next year. He said it’s a big number because it means he can start thinking about retirement. He said he still has to put his son through college but has to start thinking about what he will do next.
“I like this job,” said Cavallaro. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done. Before I jump the gun and retire and regret it, I’ve got to figure out what the next step is. At this point I’m not rushing.”