Superintendent Strikes Home-Work Balance

Nathan Quesnel is a busy man.

The 35-year-old former teacher and principal took over as superintendent in East Hartford a year ago and has already earned the respect of enough of the system's 1,200 employees that he is this year's leadership winner among large employers in the Courant/FOX CT Top Workplaces awards.

"The fact that they see that my leadership is moving us in a positive direction is something that's obviously really humbling for me," Quesnel said.

In addition to putting in long hours at town schools, Quesnel has been busy at home, where he and his wife have six children under the age of nine. The newest additions to his family: twin boys born this summer.

"The most important thing for me in my life, unabashedly, is my family," Quesnel said. "When I'm right at home I can be right on the job, too."

Quesnel (pronounced kwe-NEL), has struck a balance and is admired by administrative staff and the schools' 650 teachers for seemingly boundless enthusiasm and energy.

"I love what I do, I love the work. I really enjoy what we're doing, I really believe deeply in what we're doing," Quesnel said.

When he first became superintendent, Quesnel said he established four standards to which he would hold both himself and all school staff: hard work, accountability, communication and visibility. But spreading that message throughout a district that has 7,100 students and an $87 million budget has meant considerable delegation.

"Those 16 principals have embraced the approach that I've brought and continued in the district," Quesnel said. "I'm not able to be everywhere at all times. ... When my voice and our voice comes together, that's how you reach this large body, and I'm incredibly proud of our principal group and the work they've done."

Quesnel also thanked the board of education for its support, saying that he often hears complaints from "my superintendent colleagues and friends regarding the challenges they have in the political arena. I do not have those challenges."

School board Chairman Jeffrey Currey "is in it for all the right reasons" and "he's willing to put himself on the line when it comes to making some bold moves," Quesnel said. "That really sets East Hartford up as being different."

One of those bold moves was restructuring administrative staff and adding an assistant superintendent, which "can be an unpopular move but I think when you go to folks with a really solid rationale for what you're doing and hard data that supports it and a really clear plan … it becomes overwhelmingly apparent for anyone whose heart is in the right place that this is the right move," Quesnel said.

Many East Hartford residents struggle with financial and other hardships, and subpar standardized test scores have meant thay the schools are designated in the bottom 30 of all school systems in the state, one of the so-called "Alliance Districts." But Quesnel said he's not worried about the program's impact on morale and believes that it's already helping to spur further progress.

"I think it's been great for us … the alliance district designation has allowed us to craft a specific plan tailored to the needs of East Hartford public schools, and then there has been funding to back that up," Quesnel said. "I think our plan is a dynamic one that really targets the heart of student achievement. I'm thrilled. Knowing where you want to go is about an acknowledgment of where you are, so I don't shy away from that ever. … We're worried about tomorrow right now."

Although the district's children face significant challenges, "we are in a position where we are working with kids to make sure that we are giving them a better hope for tomorrow," Quesnel said. "You stare down poverty, you stare down illiteracy, you stare down societal challenges that exist in the community we serve."

He added, "I think the largest challenge in East Hartford is to change and challenge the expectations. … We refuse to believe that our current reality and our current results are what they should be and what they will be. I love these kids, I love this community, and I wouldn't want to work anywhere else."

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