‘Woodland Way’ going strong after 20 years

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By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News

Woodland Regional High School teachers and staff who have worked at the school since it opened in 2001 hold a flag commemorating the school’s 20th anniversary on the front steps of the school in Beacon Falls on Sept. 3. Pictured, front row from left, Jim Amato, Mark Dandelske; middle row from left, Jill Blasi, Sheree Cherry, Kate Smith, Loren Luddy; back row from left, Chris Misuraca, Deb Betkoski, Lena Warren and June Rydzik are pictured with a flag commemorating the school’s 20th anniversary on the front steps of the school in Beacon Falls on Sept. 3. Not pictured are Laura Blaho, Tracy Brunelle and Lorraine Little. Lauren Lombardo, a 2016 Woodland graduate, designed the logo for the flag. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

BEACON FALLS — Two decades into the existence of Woodland Regional High School, there are still plenty of familiar faces from those early days who have seen it all — and they’ve got some ideas on why the school continues to flourish.

“In 20 years, we’ve built a family of traditions and relationships,” said Jim Amato, an English teacher and volleyball coach who is one of 13 original staff members still at Woodland. “Over the past two decades, you don’t forget the first classes you had. That’s something special to Woodland, the connections you make.”

School officials marked the anniversary during a brief ceremony Sept. 8 in the school’s media center.

Board of Education Chairman Priscilla Cretella, who has been on the school board for over 30 years, said Woodland brought the region together after a rocky start and talks of dissolving. She called the school the “crowning glory” of Region 16.

“It was something that was the most miraculous thing the both towns did,” she said.

Officials spoke on the importance the school’s staff has had on developing the culture, climate and community at the school known as the “Woodland Way.”

Arnold Frank, who served as the school’s first principal from 2001 until his retirement in 2013, helped develop that Woodland Way, which administrators, teachers and students have continued to embrace over the past 20 years.

That’s not to say it’s always been rosy atop Rimmon Hill, but Loren Luddy, another original staffer who teaches Spanish and coaches softball, feels as though the community vibe is strengthening again.

“I honestly feel like there was a bit of a lull when Woodland started to lose its Woodland Way, but then Kurt (Ogren, principal) rallied, Dana (Mulligan, assistant principal) rallied, Ryan (Mackenzie, assistant principal) was added, and I feel like we all rallied back. We re-grabbed the Woodland Way. We reemphasized the community, and we were able to put it back together.”

Luddy said the feeling at Woodland this September, with all students back full-time for the first time since the start of the pandemic, is proof that the community continues to thrive.

“This year, the seniors are all in,” Luddy said. “Admin is all in. The teachers are all in. The football game was packed (Sept. 17) and everybody in school was wearing black and gold. With the feeling I’ve had over the past month, I feel like the Woodland Way is back.”

The longtime teachers agree that there are some important ingredients that help pave the Woodland Way and maintain the sense of community.

Woodland Regional High School principal Kurt Ogren, left, watches a recorded message from former principal Arnold Frank on Sept. 8 during a ceremony to observe the school’s 20th anniversary in the school’s media center. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

“I really think it has to do with the advisory program and how it was developed,” Amato said of the 20-minute period teachers have with the same group of students every day for four years. “Especially in a block schedule with classes every other day, you see the same group of students every single day.”

“Every teacher gets to know their 10 or 12 kids,” Luddy said. “At Woodland, there’s no kid who slides through the cracks. There is one adult watching out for every 10 or 12 kids.”

Neither Amato nor Luddy is surprised that they’re still at Woodland after all these years.

“When I first got to Woodland, one week in, I 100 percent thought that I would be here until I retired,” Luddy said. “The kids were fabulous, mature, articulate, and happy to be there. I was actually able to get to know my students. … At Woodland, I’m forming relationships with kids. I get to know their interests and strengths. After a week, I thought, this is what teaching is supposed to be.”

Amato remembers a conversation from the early years of Woodland that proved to be prophetic.

“We had just put on a play, and we had one of the first graduating classes, and we talked about where you’d see yourself in 10 years,” Amato said. “I said, ‘I’ll still be here. I’ll probably be here when your kids come here.’ As it turns out, I have taught some of their children.”

Amato and Luddy are among the 13 staff members who have been working at the school since it opened, and another eight have been there since 2002.

“It’s a beautiful building — architecturally, the campus is incredible — but it’s the people that really make Woodland go,” Ogren said.

Since Day 1, Woodland’s administrators have aimed to hire teachers who want to become involved in the school outside the classroom.

“I think it’s part of legacy,” Amato said. “Teachers are part of the community and are invested in what’s going on. When administration is hiring, they look for those qualities in the people that they hire. A lot of teachers are involved in so many things outside of their (teaching) disciplines.”

Officials plan to mark the 20th anniversary throughout the year with different displays at the school, and hopefully a community celebration in the spring. The school will also celebrate the milestone at the WRHS Hall of Fame banquet Nov. 23 at Aria in Prospect. Tickets will be available this fall.

Elio Gugliotti contributed to this article.