Timing is everything.
For James D’Amico, fortuitous timing has been part of every career step. Last week — just a few days into his new job — he reflected on the turns of fate that brought him to the post he’s most excited about: Staples High School principal.
D’Amico grew up in New Fairfield. His mother was a nurse; his father commuted every day by car and train to Brooklyn, where he worked for the New York Transit Authority.
After graduating as an all-state chorus member (tenor) and avid musician (clarinet, sax, a little piano), D’Amico headed to the University of Connecticut. He loved his time there — and met his wife in the marching band. But if he had anything to do over, he says, he’d have taken a gap year to explore himself, and the world.
He earned a BA in communications science, but also fell in love with history. He’d always admired school and his teachers, so with the encouragement of his wife — a teacher – he added a graduate degree in education.
Westport had an opening in 2001. D’Amico parked in front, tried to figure out where the main entrance was, entered the moldy, low-ceilinged building, and interviewed with principal Gloria Rakovic and social studies department chair Elliot Kraut. “I couldn’t believe this was Westport,” he says of the soon-to-be-demolished school.
“They took a chance on a green kid,” D’Amico recalls. It was a wise choice.
His new colleagues were “so creative,” D’Amico says. “And creativity was encouraged.” Friends teaching in other districts were handed curriculum binders; he was encouraged to teach to his strengths.
“From Day 1, my colleagues trusted me. They were very kind — and real characters. I knew I’d found a home.”
Led by challenging, student-oriented mentors like Stephanie Muson, Jackie Boland and Rich Mott, he thrived in the classroom.
When Kraut retired in 2004 and a replacement could not be found, D’Amico became temporary “department liaison.” He enjoyed learning how the entire school ran, and helping staff set goals. The next year, he was appointed social studies chair. He taught 2 to 3 classes, led the Junior State of America club, and also got involved in the rest of the building.
When that position was expanded to include the middle schools, D’Amico gained even more experience. He hated leaving the classroom — but kept his beloved JSA club.
After 9 years as department head though, he felt he was growing stale. He looked for jobs beyond Westport.
But when the director of secondary education position became open, he threw his hat in the ring. Older, more experienced administrators applied. A different Elliott –superintendent of schools Landon — again took a chance on D’Amico.
He liked the curriculum and assessment aspects of the job. He helped teachers grow professionally. But, D’Amico admits, “It was an office job. I really did not like being in Town Hall. I learned a lot there — but I realized I need to be in a school.”
He was on the 2015 search committee to find a replacement for retiring Staples principal John Dodig. No one could be found. An interim was hired.
Several months ago, D’Amico’s wife said, “You’re going to apply for that job, right?”
“She knows me so well!” he says. “She knew I’d be happier around kids.” Though they have 4 young boys, involved in a variety of activities in Bethel, she encouraged him to go for it.
In March, Landon announced D’Amico as Staples’ next principal.
“Every morning when I walk through the doors, I say, ‘I’m home!'” D’Amico says.
He believes that his district-wide experience gives him a sense of how the elementary and middle schools fit in to Staples.
He also knows many Staples staff members.
“Any job is about relationships,” D’Amico notes. “I have a feeling for how this place works. I know the secretaries, the custodians, the people who make it go.”
As a former social studies teacher, he also knows its history. “I was here with the jackhammers outside my room.”
But he knows he has a lot to learn. He’s spending time with the assistant principals, maintenance supervisors Horace Lewis and Tom Cataudo, and many others to really understand how the many high school pieces fit together.
He gives props to secretary Karen Romano, who has served — and guided — several principals. “On Day 1, she had a folder for me outlining the entire summer,” D’Amico laughs.
Starting at the same time as new superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer is “fun,” says D’Amico. “There’s a clean slate. We’re figuring out where we want to take the high school.”
However, having been a teacher, he’s well aware that ideas need to be shared — not imposed.
“We’ve got a great school,” D’Amico says. “Our job is: How can we make it greater?”
He plans to listen to ideas. They’ll come from teachers, parents and students.
“It’s clear Staples is a competitive, high-powered place. We have courses and opportunities other places only dream of. Most kids come here wanting to learn and participate. But what about those who don’t fit into the prevailing goals, or feel too much pressure?”
He’s spoken with Dodig about ways to offer “emotional support.” As a strong supporter of the district’s “Guiding Principles” initiative, D’Amico is eager to carve out time to help implement them.
“How you spend time shows what you value,” he explains. “Right now we value moving kids through 6 or 7 periods a day. I think about systems and policies a lot. There’s a lot of different ways we can do things.”
His 1st staff meeting next month will provide a good introduction to the new principal, and his philosophy. His plan that day is to bring the large, often departmentalized faculty together — in a fun, kind, sincere way.
There’s a lot ahead. But D’Amico understands he needs his own life too. “If I’m not good with my family, I won’t be good with the school.”
His 4 boys are 11, 9, 8 and 6. He’s been involved with their Cub Scouts, baseball, soccer and church activities. He’ll cut down to 1 or 2 of those — but he plans to stay active.
James D’Amico’s career has been all about timing: being in the right place at the right time.
The right place now is Staples. As for timing: School starts September 1.