Way back in 1999, Joyce Landon saw an ad in the New York Times. Westport needed a new superintendent of schools.
She and her husband Elliott loved Westport. When he was superintendent in Ridgefield — a decade earlier — they spent a lot of time here, shopping and riding bikes to the beach. She encouraged him to apply.
He was reluctant. He was happy as superintendent of Long Island’s diverse Long Beach district. Nearly 60, Dr. Landon figured Westport wanted a “crackerjack young curriculum guy.”
His wife persisted. Landon was hired. “Everyone thought I’d be a short-timer,” he recalls.
He certainly was not. He’s been superintendent here for 17 years — nearly 3 times the national average — but the final chapter of his education career is about to close.
As Landon prepares to retire — his final day is June 30 — he looks back on his long and remarkable tenure in town.
“I feel like I arrived yesterday,” he says in his Town Hall office. “I’ve had fun. Even with the controversies, I’ve enjoyed it all.”
Landon cites “great Board of Education and community support, and great faculty and administrators. Even during the economic crisis, we held our own. The district did not cut programs. In fact, we’ve expanded them.”
He ticks off his — and the town’s — accomplishments. At Staples, graduation requirements increased from 21 to 25; world language is now a 2-year requirement, with Italian and Mandarin added to the offerings; Science Research, robotics and freshman World Cultures were introduced; music grew; senior internships, the guidance department’s Resilience Project and the Hwa Chong partnership began; John Dodig added “the social and emotional piece,” and guidance, nursing and psychological services were expanded.
The middle schools added Mandarin and STEM programs, while introducing a teaming approach. Elementary schools now have literacy and (soon) science coaches.
District-wide, there’s Singapore math, a relationship with Teachers College, and the vision for 2025.
Landon arrived at the start of a major building program. Coleytown Middle School was being modernized; Greens Farms Elementary was reconfigured from the Arts Center, and Bedford Middle School was built on a former Nike missile site.
Meanwhile, the old Bedford Middle was gutted and turned into Saugatuck El. With leadership from Steve Halstead and Dan Kail, Staples was transformed from a dark, cramped and moldy old school into a modern, airy new one.
More recently, Kings Highway Elementary is now fully air-conditioned, while Coleytown El’s gym and cafeteria added a/c too.
Yet Landon is proudest of the staff he’s helped assemble. “In all those years, we never put limits on hiring,” he says. “We always went for the best people we could find. We picked up people at the top of their game. No one ever stopped us from hiring the best, no matter what the cost.”
He calls the unions — teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals and others — “good to work with. I have no complaints. We might be on different sides of issues, but all of us always wanted the best people, and the best for the kids.”
Landon adds, “The RTM would scream, but it was never personal. And no matter what they said, the Board of Finance always came through in the end.” The result is a staff and school system envied throughout the state.
The retiring superintendent also mentions some of the Board of Ed members he’s worked with: Halstead, Sandra Urist, Gene Cedarbaum, Cheryl Bliss, Linda Merk-Gould, Caryn Gagliano, Don O’Day, Jim Marpe and Michael McGovern, among many others.
“We’ve had issues, of course,” he says. “But overall, they’ve been very, very good.”
Landon did not get everything he asked for. The expansion of Staples High and redistricting of elementary schools are two examples.
But overall, he says, Westport has been “a fantastic experience. Despite the challenges, the support was always there.”
Among Landon’s personal highlights: Four years ago, he addressed the Staples graduating class that entered kindergarten the same year he arrived. “I saw an entire generation go from K to 12. Knowing I was in some small measure responsible for that was very fulfilling.”
A couple of years ago, Staples baseball coach Jack McFarland invited Landon to throw out the first pitch on opening day. Without any warmup, he delivered “the most perfect pitch ever thrown,” he recalls.
Not long ago, Landon was certified as a mediator by Quinnipiac Law School. In retirement, he plans to help administrators and teachers settle differences before arbitration.
It’s not a new path. In 1973 — as a young teacher — Landon’s photo appeared on page one of the New York Times, with Albert Shanker. They’d just helped Port Washington negotiate the first 5-year teachers’ contract in the country.
He and Joyce — the woman who convinced him to apply for the superintendency he’s now leaving — do not plan to leave Westport.
They love the town, their home, their neighbors, the beach and library. “I may have time now to join the Y’s Men,” Landon says.
Finally, what advice would he give his successor, Colleen Palmer?
“That’s easy. I’d say, ‘You’ve got great people. Encourage them. Support them. Take their advice. And learn from them.'”