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In her comfort zone

By Vickie Fulkerson

Publication: The Day

Published February 09. 2013 4:00AM   Updated February 09. 2013 11:11PM
Former Ledyard standout Olsen is now Ledyard principal Fagan

Ledyard - Amanda Fagan was still trying to get things straight in her mind. Was she a good enough candidate to be principal of Ledyard High School this early in her career? And was it even possible to take on that role with three small children at home?

Then Fagan found out the child she and her husband Tim were expecting at the time was going to be a girl, their daughter, Hope, now eight months old.

"I was going back and forth. When I found out the baby was going to be a girl, that was all the difference for me," Fagan said. "I knew, 'I want this girl to see that she can do anything, that if it's something you want, you should go for it.'"

Fagan, 36, was having a conversation this week from the principal's office at Ledyard, the office she inherited on July 1, 2012, from outgoing principal Lou Gabordi, her former homeroom teacher and mentor.

The former Mandy Olsen, Fagan is a 1994 graduate of Ledyard, where she was an all-state midfielder for the girls' soccer team, named the Eastern Connecticut Conference Most Valuable Player as a senior, and the former Class M hurdles champion in indoor track. She double-majored in English and French while playing soccer on a partial scholarship at Fordham University and returned to teach at Ledyard in 2000.

Gabordi, who also graduated from Ledyard and worked in the school system for 37 years, the last five as the high school principal, said he sleeps better knowing Fagan has his old job.

"Amanda, I think, brings all the qualities to the job that are necessary," Gabordi said. "She brings a lot of passion, not just for the kids and education, which is important, but she has great feelings for Ledyard High School, as well. Being a person who shares that passion, I certainly feel better knowing she's there."

Gabordi remembers Fagan as an "outgoing, intelligent, witty kid."

She's all of that, plus exceptionally articulate. She's taught public speaking as part of the curriculum at Ledyard and delivered a heartfelt speech from memory when the school's gymnasium and basketball court were dedicated this season.

She also has a comfortable rapport with Ledyard's students, attending the recent ECC Indoor Track and Field Championship at the Coast Guard Academy, for instance, to hand out medals and ribbons. In addition, she cheered on the competitors at the ECC championship in girls' swimming, where Ledyard's Jessica Hespeler set two meet records.

"I always liked her a lot," Hespeler, a senior All-American said of Fagan, whom she's seen as teacher, assistant principal and principal in her four years. "I had her freshman year as an English teacher and you could tell she was a teacher who loved what she did.

"I just think she's an amazing woman. She's standing outside the school every morning saying hi to the students. She knows a lot of the student body personally. She knows everyone's name. She's a dedicated, great principal. She's really strict but has a way of connecting to the students. ... It's good to know she's not just like an in-school person. We see her as a supporter outside of school, as well."

In the end, Fagan decided to apply for the job. If not now, when? There was no guarantee the same position would be open at Ledyard in the future and she didn't really want to be principal anywhere else.

She went for her final interview on April 30 with Board of Education chair Sharon Hightower, Superintendent Michael Graner and Assistant Superintendent Cathy Patterson. She was hired by noon. Her Ledyard diploma now rests on the shelf behind her desk, a plant handed down to her by Gabordi sitting in the middle of the room.

Fagan refers to herself as "supreme geek."

"Going over the bridge driving home that day I thought, 'Life is different now," Fagan said. "It was awe-inspiring and nerve-wracking. In some ways it feels completely normal and natural and then oftentimes it's surreal. I feel very lucky. I have a lucky life and I knock on wood when I say that. To have this job with these people in this place that made me what I am?

"I couldn't ask for anything more."

***

Of course, being principal wasn't always in Amanda Fagan's career path. She recalls a photograph of her in the yearbook from when she was in high school, standing on a lab table dancing while chemistry teacher Scott Woodruff implores her to stop. Woodruff still teaches at Ledyard.

"I hope they're not horrified I'm now principal," Fagan said with a laugh. "I had Scott Woodruff for chemistry, a great teacher, the kindest teacher. I was terrible to him. I thought I was really cool. I was a big fish in a small pond. ... I apologize to Scott all the time."

Fagan grew up as the youngest of Wayne and Kathy Olsen's four children and the only girl after brothers Tom, Michael and Patrick. She loved reading from the time she devoured her first chapter book and felt like a grownup, was editor-chief of the Colonel Magazine and intended to major in communications at Fordham.

Principal? "Never in a million years," she said.

At some point, though, she did a self-evaluation. Who did she know that loved his or her life? She picked Gabordi, former Ledyard choir teacher Jamie Spillane and her former French teacher, Renee Sylvestre.

"People who I respect. People who had a strong impact on me over my lifetime," she said. "I thought, 'Maybe teachers have the best job in the world.'"

She first served as a graduate intern at Ledyard in the 1998-99 school year as she earned her master's degree in education at the University of New Haven. After student teaching in Old Saybrook, Fagan was hired at Ledyard to teach English 9, journalism, public speaking and creative writing.

She went on to become the chairman of both the English and social studies departments, was interim assistant principal in 2010-11 and last year was part of a team which rewrote the entire English curriculum at the high school to conform to national standards.

Now, as principal, she's overseeing the implementation of the new English and math curriculums, as well as Ledyard's new schedule, which went from a semester-based system to a plan where students take classes every other day for the entire year.

"I don't want to jinx myself, but I know this building. I know the routines. I didn't have to learn all the things someone else would have to learn," Fagan said. "I don't have to think, 'What was that guy's name again?' With the schedule and the curriculum, I have the advantage."

***

Waterford High girls' soccer coach Rob Brule is one of the people who has always been impressed by Fagan, having coached against her as a player and during the six years Fagan served as Ledyard's girls' soccer coach. He tells of the time she was playing for a dominant Ledyard team against one of his younger teams.

"It was over at Blonders and she was coming in to win a 50-50 ball," Brule said. "She slowed down purposely. She saw my kid was so young she didn't have any idea she was coming. ... I remember all the little stories where she was so sportsmanlike. I hope she realizes the impact she had on so many people."

Fagan said sports has impacted her life since she grew up competing against her brothers. She jokes that an early date on which her husband Tim "destroyed" her at bowling, could have proven to be their last one.

"Sports has completely shaped who I am as an adult," Fagan said. "My brothers and I always played sports ... none of us ever wanted to be anything less than dominant. But it teaches you time management, self-discipline, a commitment to people besides yourself."

Fagan and her husband, who reside in Waterford, have three children: Boden, who will be 5 this week, Declan (2) and Hope. She can balance her work and family, she said, because of teamwork.

"Simultaneously, I have the two most important jobs in the world," Fagan said. "In neither context am I doing it alone. It's all-encompassing during the day (at school), but when I get to the car at the end of the day, I can't get home fast enough.

"... I loved Fordham, I loved being in the city. I was positive when I left, just like every other student here: 'This is a cow town. I want to get out of here.' I spent a semester in Paris. It was nice, but I knew that wasn't the life I wanted, not my forever pace. I saw what else was out there. This is the pace I want."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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