Not much gets by Colleen Palmer.
“I noticed the Westport Public Schools website has very few photos of students,” the town’s new superintendent of schools said last week, at the end of her 1st week on the job.
She knows there are privacy issues involved. But, she said, if students are the primary focus of the district — and she is emphatic that they are — they should be a visible focus online too.
It was a whirlwind week for the incoming education leader. She’d just finished 5 successful years in Weston; before that, she was superintendent in Monroe. Palmer also served as a high school prinicipal at Nonnewaug, Hamden and Simsbury.
She was not looking to leave Weston. She’d invested a lot of time and energy there; the schools are excellent, and she was deeply rooted in the community.
Yet when Westport’s search firm tapped her on the shoulder, she turned around.
Palmer knew this town, from working many years with then-superintendent Elliott Landon. The closer she looked at Westport — learning about initiatives like the 2025 Lens and collaboration with Teachers College — the more excited she became.
The opportunities and challenges here — in a district larger and more diverse than Weston — offered “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Palmer says. “I realized if I didn’t apply, I would always regret it.”
Now, she’s got a nice Town Hall office. But she’s not spending too much time there.
“I’m visiting every school, and meeting every person I can,” she says. “I’m getting to know the facilities, and what goes on behind the scenes. I’m trying to listen and learn.”
Her initial impressions?
“Westport is a very authentic place. Everyone is focused on what’s right for students. They’re passionate, dedicated and inspiring.”
Educators “want to share what they’re doing,” she adds. “There’s a can-do attitude, and a lot of collaborative problem-solving.” One immediate example: addressing space issues at Kings Highway Elementary School.
That’s wonderful. But, I wonder, don’t all teachers and administrators focus on kids?
“There are great educators everywhere,” Palmer counters. “What I see here is such a high level of performance, throughout the entire district.”
In that context, she says, “I tell people: ‘dream big.’ My job is to remove barriers. We’re all looking for better ideas, and better ways to do things.”
Palmer looks forward to building on the strong foundation that already exists. She is particularly excited by the “Guiding Principles” initiative, fostering emotional intelligence.
“We have to look at the whole child,” Palmer says. “Success is not bound by academics alone. There’s also the quality of life as they go through the school system, and the tools they have for life.”
She hopes that Guiding Principles values like “kindness with sincerity” will be part of the entire district culture, for adults as well as students.
Using 2 of her favorite phrases — “Failure is not an option” and “Hope is not a strategy” — Palmer calls herself “tenacious and realistic.” She cites a major achievement in Weston — getting a waiver from the state, in order to do holistic rather than formulaic scoring for teacher evaluations — as an example of her ability to do what’s right for students and staff, unencumbered by rigid thinking.
She is not anti-data. But, Palmer says, “we have to be smart. My job as superintendent is to be effective, efficient and coherent. Any goals we set need realistic timelines. And then we have to all hold ourselves accountable.”
Though she calls a superintendent’s job “24/7,” Westport’s new leader has a life beyond school. Three years ago, driving across the Saugatuck River, she saw scullers on the water.
She took lessons at the Saugatuck Rowing Club, and fell in love with the sport. Now, at dawn, she rows a single.
“There is nothing more beautiful than the flat Saugatuck River, as the sun comes up,” Palmer says. “It’s so peaceful and serene. It’s where I do great thinking.”
Palmer — a swimmer — recently joined the Westport Weston Family YMCA too.
She loves cultural events, travel, and her 3 sons and 5 grandchildren. She just built a lakeside house in Vermont. It’s her “grandchild trap.”
The new superintendent — who prefers “Colleen” to “Dr. Palmer” — replaces a man who served a mind-boggling 17 years, in a very difficult public position.
How long will she be here?
“I love my work. I thrive on it,” she says. “I have a healthy balance in my life. This job has long hours, but I take care of myself.
“I have no exit plan in mind. I look forward to a long tenure here.”