Hamden Hall celebrates a centennial of molding young people into lifelong learners



It’s hardly unusual for a school to recruit students based on their athletic gifts. But being recruited while still in elementary school came as a bit of a surprise to Christopher Kuselias.


“I was a sixth-grader at Alice Peck School [in Hamden] and we were playing a football game against Hamden Hall. I scored six touchdowns,” recalls Kuselias.


The rival-team coach was impressed enough to suggest that Kuselias consider transferring to Hamden Hall. Kuselias did, the following year. Not only did he end up excelling on the field at Hamden Hall, he went on to attend the University of Connecticut and become a member of its storied basketball team.


Today, Kuselias is a proud Hamden Hall alumnus who, like so many other alumni, enthusiastically sings the praises of his alma mater. He thinks so highly of the school, in fact, that he’s entrusted it to educate his three children, ages eight, 11 and 13, who now are students there.

“It’s such a great community,” says Kuselias, echoing the sentiment of several alumni, parents and other affiliates. “It [consists of] a welcoming group of people, and it’s a place where you get a lot of personal attention.”


This year Hamden Hall Country Day School is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Established in 1912, it emphasizes excellence in academics bolstered by a team spirit reflected in its sports programs and other extracurricular activities.


Kuselias especially remembers, for example, out-of-classroom academic and cultural enhancements such as a trip to Europe as part of a student-athlete exchange program and excursions to New York City to see Shakespeare works and other plays.


“We got that experience. It was wonderful, being exposed to that,” Kuselias recalls.


“It goes back to our charter,” explains Robert Izzo, Hamden Hall’s head of school. “We’re the oldest co-ed country day school in New England. The concept came up at a time when public schools were not equipped to prepare kids to go to college.” For that, boarding school was a popular option for families that could afford it, Izzo explains. It was in this climate that the country day school emerged.


“It had strong academics, lunch in the middle of the day and field athletics in the afternoon. So we became an alternative to boarding school.”


Family involvement and high expectations of students were then, and are now, essential components of Hamden Hall’s core values, Izzo says.


“We really expect our kids to strive for excellence in everything they do. It doesn’t always mean achieving excellence. But they strive to do the best they can.”


That includes developing a variety of skills. Sports, for example, are paramount to the school “because it’s an issue of a healthy lifestyle. The more healthy the body is, the more healthy the mind is,” says Izzo. With such extracurricular activities “they learn teamwork, they learn about helping each other.”


And inside the classroom, Hamden Hall’s nurturing environment is supported by its size, academic rigor and flexibility.


“Classes are small, about ten to 12 students, 15 max,” notes Sanda Lujic Tomak, a 1989 alumna of the school who went on to undergraduate studies at Yale and medical school at George Washington University. She also earned a fellowship for post-graduate fellowship study at Emory University.


“As a student, it was a very warm and welcoming atmosphere,” she recalls. “You were not a number. You felt you were part of a family and that the teachers really cared about you. At the same time, it was very demanding and they expected a lot out of you.”


For Tomak, Hamden Hall has become an indelible part of her family. She has three boys — a first-, a third- and a fifth-grader — attending the school. Currently a total of 11 of Tomak’s relatives, including siblings’ and cousins’ children, attend Hamden Hall.


“They all love it,” says Tomak of her boys. “They’re really thriving both socially and academically.” The “nurturing” atmosphere — a term heard repeatedly from alumni and parents — is especially appreciated now, when social pressures have the potential to negatively affect a youngster’s development.


“It’s a very kind environment,” says Tomak, adding, “I really truly love the school.”


So does Blake Acquarulo, a senior who has spent all of her academic career so far, from pre-K on, at Hamden Hall. The “community feel” of the school is what led her parents to believe it would a good choice for her, says Acquarulo. “They instantly knew it was somewhere I could stay, and I haven’t left.”


Acquarulo, who intends to concentrate in biology/pre-med in college, likes the small classes and campus. She says she enjoys the seamless interactions the institution’s intimate size helps foster.


“I have very close friends who are freshmen,” she notes.


She adds that she found as much academic direction as she needed from teachers and counselors, and the school’s offerings helped draw out previously untapped leadership potential when she got to high school.


“I was very shy in middle school,” says Acquarulo. “I came to high school and kind of broke out of my mold,” becoming sophomore class vice president, junior class president and, now, president of the senior class.


Being encouraged to step out of one’s shell and “take a risk,” as Acquarulo puts it, is an element of the school’s philosophy that Kyle Ballou-Johns’ eighth-grader has learned to appreciate.


“My son was looking into starting a club. All he needed was to find a faculty adviser,” says Ballou-Johns. In addition to being a parent, she’s also a Hamden Hall trustee. Another son, now at Providence College, graduated from Hamden Hall last year.


“I love the fact that it’s a very nurturing, caring school, a nurturing community,” says Ballou-Johns. Honors and AP classes help “bolster a child’s strengths” while extra help is available when a student needs it. Like the club her son considered starting, opportunities abound for students to initiate, foster and realize an idea, she says.


“That’s the kind of thing that makes it a great place,” says Ballou-Johns. “We have fantastic faculty and administrators, and we have wonderful parents.”


State Sen. Leonard Fasano (R-34) has had two children graduate from Hamden Hall, with a third to don gown and mortarboard this spring. He himself earned his diploma from the school in 1977.


“The strongest quality is its nurturing environment,” says the North Haven lawmaker. “That’s been there since the ‘60s, when I was there, to the present day,” says the alumnus, who enrolled at Hamden Hall in the fifth grade.


For Fasano, another important school quality is “the individuality with which they approach their students,” taking into account both strengths and areas that might require increased attention. For example, a student might have a flair for science but might not be so naturally gifted in, say, math. Faculty members will work the student to develop that potential, notes Fasano. He, like others, cites the school’s “caring and nurturing” qualities as unique draws.


“I think Bob [Izzo] is doing a terrific job and the faculty is doing a terrific job, and they need to be applauded for their efforts,” Fasano adds.


“The people who work here are outstanding and dedicated,” says Izzo, noting that faculty members are experts in their fields with, for example, published historians teaching history classes, writers teaching English and Ph.Ds instructing science courses. And faculty members are committed to producing outstanding graduates who make an impact.


\drop cap\The school boasts alumni who’ve risen to the top of their fields. Renowned pediatrician Benjamin Spock, who graduated in 1919, is one. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Charles E. Shepard (Class of 1972) is another.. Then there’s Richard Lyman, president emeritus of Stanford University, who graduated in 1940; New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a 1998 graduate; and David Wade (Hamden Hall ‘93), chief of staff to U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and a former top staff member of Vice President Joseph Biden, among others.


Community involvement has long been an important element of the Hamden Hall experience. Social cognizance and responsibility are among traits the school helps foster.


“More recently,” notes Fasano, “the Class of 2009 set a new standard for the school by garnering more than 2,600 hours of community service, noted by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell.


“In 2011, the Hamden Hall Lower School community was recognized for raising more than $100,000 over a 25-year span for the American Heart Association,” Fasano adds. “In addition, we raised foodstuffs for the Hamden Food Pantry and New Haven’s Christian Community Action through various community concerts and events.”


The Hamden Hall environment is “an active learning community” where “we’re academically competitive but socially considerate,” says Izzo. “Part of becoming a lifelong learner is understanding the world you live in. We really promote our kids getting involved in community service” as well as experiencing different cultures.


“We’re very proud of our heritage,” Izzo adds. “We feel that we are an important part of the greater New Haven community. We serve the community well, and we take our role as part of the community seriously.”


While the school as a unit looks to have a positive impact on its surroundings, it also encourages students to learn from one another. That is facilitated by creating and promoting a diverse environment.


“We’re committed to diversity, we’re committed to providing needs-based financial aid,” says Izzo, adding that the school is “always in a fundraising mode, because tuition is expensive.”


Upcoming activities include an April 21 black-tie centennial gala for school alumni and affiliates at the Omni New Haven Hotel. The event will feature the unveiling of a 100th anniversary coffee table book written by Dawn Miceli, the school’s external affairs communication coordinator.


“It’s been an amazing 100 years,” says Izzo. “Things have changed so much, but in some ways they haven’t changed at all.”

Among its fixed characteristics is the school’s commitment to the multi-faceted growth and development of its students, he says.


“We place a lot of value on pushing our kids,” says Izzo. “We produce students who are not only prepared for college, they’ll be prepared for life. They have a sense of social responsibility, a sense of integrity, that will carry them the rest of their lives.”


Report: State’s science curriculum no better than mediocre



HARTFORD — A national public-education think tank has given Connecticut’s science curriculum a C in its report, “The State of Science Standards 2012,”  published January 31.


Connecticut earned four out of seven points for “content and rigor” and 1.8 out of three for “clarity and specificity.” The Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued the report, repeating the C grade it gave the state in its 2005 report.


“The Connecticut science standards are generally well written, with but a few scientific errors or badly phrased statements,” the report says. “Unfortunately, a significant amount of important material is missing, preventing the Constitution State from earning top marks across the board.”


Connecticut’s grade ties it with ten other states. Twelve states and the District of Columbia received a grade above C.


Massachusetts received an A-minus and New York a B-plus while New Jersey and Rhode Island each received a D.


“It’s no secret what good science standards look like,” said Chester Finn Jr., president of the Fordham Institute. “It’s a blight upon the United States, however, that such standards are guiding the schools and teachers in so few places today.”


According to the Fordham Institute report, the scientific inquiry and methodology standards are the weakest of the Connecticut standards. In general, the report cited a lack of clarity in standards and some wrong information being fed to local school districts.


The Fordham Institute report is the latest in a series of studies that knock Connecticut down in national education rankings. Once tops in math, writing and reading, Connecticut fourth- and eighth-graders last November posted mediocre results in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, causing the state to fall to the middle of the pack in math.

Also, to date the state's federal Race To the Top grant proposals have been rejected three times, and its academic achievement gap between poor urban public-school districts and wealthier suburban ones and is considered by many observers to be the highest in the nation.

Some state schools attain pre-recession values


A number of small colleges have rebounded from the economic downturn that wrought havoc with endowments at many of the nation’s educational institutions.


The Associated Press reports that by mid-2011 about half of the country’s 823 colleges and universities surveyed had made progress towards equaling or surpassing their endowment levels of pre-recession 2008. The report cites several Connecticut colleges that crossed that threshold. But it also mentions Connecticut schools that are among those still striving to regain lost funding. Many of those are larger institutions such as the University of Connecticut, Wesleyan and Yale, according to the report.


Among the smaller colleges that have replenished their endowment is St. Joseph College in West Hartford, thanks in part to a significant gift from a generous alumnus.


“We were fortunate with market return and, at the same time, receiving the single large bequest,” Shawn Harrington, vice president of finance and administration for St. Joseph’s, told AP. He does not give details about the gift.


However, it helped raise the college’s endowment to $21.4 million during the 2010-11 fiscal year after dipping to a recession-period low of $15.5 million. Immediately before the recession hit, in 2008, the school’s endowment fund was $18 million, according to the article.


During that 2008 pre-recession period Yale’s endowment peaked at $22.8 billion. It has yet to return to that level, still falling short by $3.5 billion. The current endowment stands at $19.3 billion.


Yale spokesman Tom Conroy told AP that pursuing capital projects as a slower pace was among the tactics employed by the university as it sought to rebuild its endowment.


“In general what the Yale Corporation and the officers sought to do, and were successful in doing, was to not allow the dip in the endowment to negatively affect the quality of education and research,” Conroy said.


Colleges typically target portions of endowment funds and/or the interest generated by them for capital projects, student financial aid, endowed professorships and other school needs.


The AP story was based on data released by the Commonfund Institute and the National Association of College and University Business Officials, which surveyed 823 colleges and universities across the United States.


The article reports that in addition to St. Joseph College, higher learning institutions in Connecticut that have regained or surpassed their 2008 endowment levels are New Haven’s Southern Connecticut State University, Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, the University of Hartford, Trinity College in Hartford and Mitchell College in New London.