Administrative accolade

Hillside principal earns state honor

Hillside Intermediate School Principal Johnna Hunt talks with fifth-grader Zachary Setzer at the Naugatuck school Feb. 21. Hunt won the Connecticut Association of Schools 2014 Middle School Principal of the Year award. -LUKE MARSHALL

Hillside Intermediate School Principal Johnna Hunt talks with fifth-grader Zachary Setzer at the Naugatuck school Feb. 21. Hunt won the Connecticut Association of Schools 2014 Middle School Principal of the Year award. -LUKE MARSHALL

NAUGATUCK — Ever since Johnna Hunt was a child, she knew she wanted to be a teacher.

That passion is part of what lead Hunt, a Naugatuck native and principal of Hillside Intermediate School, to be named the Connecticut Association of Schools Middle School Principal of the Year for 2014.

The award, which has been given since 1984, recognizes outstanding middle and high school principals who have succeeded in providing high quality learning opportunities for students, according to the CAS website. Hunt is the first Naugatuck principal to earn the honor.

“I’m very proud of my school, of my teachers and my students. I’m proud of Naugatuck. I think this reflects the great things that are happening in this town and our school district,” Hunt said.

Hunt has been principal at Hillside since 2010. When she took over the school it was the poorest performing school in the district as measured by standardized test scores. The school is currently the top performing school in the district.

“To me this is just a great opportunity to showcase all the great things that are happening in Naugatuck and primarily here at Hillside,” said Hunt about the award.

Although Hunt always knew she wanted to work in education, it wasn’t the first career path she traveled. Hunt graduated from Central Connecticut State University in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and history.

“After about a year and a half in the work force I decided that I wanted to do what I always knew as a child I wanted to do, which is teach,” Hunt said.

Hunt received her elementary education teaching certificate from CCSU in 1997 and began teaching sixth grade at Alcott Middle School in Wolcott. She taught there for two years until she had her first daughter.

In 2000, Hunt was hired by the Naugatuck school system as an English language learner tutor at Hillside.

“It was three hours a day. It was a lovely job when you had a newborn at home,” Hunt said.

The following year Hunt was hired as a full-time seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher at Hillside. Her progression continued in 2009 when she was named principal of Hop Brook Intermediate School. The next year, when Hillside became an intermediate school and Hop Brook became an elementary school, Hunt moved back to Hillside where she has been its leader ever since.

A typical day for Hunt begins with her greeting students as they arrive, reading the morning announcements and checking in with teachers.

However, the rest of the day she deals with anything that comes her way.

“There really isn’t [an average day as principal]. That’s the beauty of it. I think that’s the difference between being in the classroom and being an administrator, it truly is something different every day,” Hunt said.

During the school day, Hunt wears many hats —sometimes acting as a nurse, a lunch lady or a custodian.

“I do everything, whatever is needed at that time. My favorite time is when I am in the classroom though,” Hunt said.

Knowing that she is impacting children in a positive way and seeing students come to school happy and excited, is the best part of being a principal, Hunt said.

“It’s just so fulfilling. It’s the most rewarding profession. Any aspect of education is rewarding, but being principal I think is wonderful because I get to see and take pride in what the teachers are doing for kids, I watch how caring my nurse is with the students and I get pride and joy in that. It’s just the little things everybody does. That’s the beauty in it,” Hunt said.

While she loves working at Hillside, the position is not without its challenges.

“I think the greatest challenge is always meeting the need of all your students. Do you have the resources to challenge your brightest student and still help that struggling learner, and not forget that average child in between as well and make it interesting for them,” Hunt said.

Hunt’s attitude of ensuring a high quality education is echoed through her teachers and students alike.

Teacher Karie Stango believes Hunt deserves much of the credit for the school’s recent turnaround.

“Johnna expects us to be the best we can be, but reassures us that we are not alone in our quest for excellence,” she wrote in a letter nominating Hunt for the award.

Student Julia Mariano, 11, wrote that Hunt makes Hillside an inviting and warm environment.

Although she has been in charge of Hillside for nearly four years, Hunt still keeps in mind the lessons of her mentor Brian Sullivan, who was principal at Hillside from 1993 until 2010.

“I taught under him and so much of how I lead is because of him,” Hunt said.

While she is happy to have been named middle school principal of the year, Hunt does not think it’s an award for her alone.

“It truly is a reflection on Naugatuck,” Hunt said.

The Republican American contributed to this article.

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