If Dr. Mario Almeida had any lingering doubts about accepting the job as Head of School and Assistant Superintendent at Joel Barlow High School, this month’s senior prom sealed the deal.
Looking out onto the dance floor at the Amber Room in Danbury, the administrator knew he made the right decision. Many of the seniors he’d connected with throughout the school year seemed to be dancing away the mental stress and anxieties caused by the pandemic.
“It all came out on the dance floor. I’ve never seen a prom where kids danced from the first to the last song,” he said. “They danced until almost to eleven. They were so well behaved and even thanked the adults for putting on the prom.”
Almeida accepted the position in October of last year to replace Gina Pin, who retired in June. He started mid-term during the school year, a challenge for any new administrator. He also stepped into the new role when students and staff were still feeling the residual effects of Covid-19 restrictions.
“There have been some challenges, of course, but it’s been great,” he said.
Almeida was 8 years old when his family emigrated from Portugal to the United States. His family first settled in Hartford and later in Newington. He earned undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Central Connecticut State University, a master’s degree from the University of New Haven, and an advanced degree in Education Administration from the University of Connecticut. He has worked in suburban and urban school districts, including as an assistant principal at Windham High School and Manchester High School, and as principal of Rocky Hill High School.
“I have not had the most traditional path to get where I’m at. I’ve never taken anything for granted,” Almeida said, who is married with two grown daughters ages 30 and 23. He moved his family from Cromwell to Monroe to take the job.
Almeida said he remains focused on student challenges that have emerged during pandemic.
“Right now, there is a huge challenge for some of our students with school avoidance, depression, and anxiety. Our kids have to relearn how to become students again–how to socially interact as students and with other students and adults,” he said.
Another goal is to close some of the academic gaps that have resulted from the pandemic. Barlow students continue to perform well academically, but there are also some students who are struggling, he said.
“The staff has been working very hard with students on engagement, work completion, building student confidence, and on improving overall performance through many of our school-wide supports. Some of these include our writing and math centers, after-school credit recovery modules, as well as summer credit recovery and enrichment opportunities,” he said.
Over the summer, the administration plans to work with district administrators to develop both school and district wide performance goals, as well as a Vision of the Graduate statement. The statement will outline the skills and attributes students should leave Barlow with in order to continue succeed in their lives after graduation, he said.
The best part of his job is interacting with students, who he said have figured him out quickly.
“I’m always in the hallways. I’m always up for a laugh. They also know that I’ll go to bat for them,” Almeida said.
He’s also been known to pop into the gym when students are ballroom dancing as part of a class offered in the school’s wellness curriculum.
“I’ll ballroom dance with the students,” he said.
Photo at top by Rick Falco