Dr. Susie Da Silva can’t imagine anyone resisting a job offer to work for Ridgefield Public Schools.

That’s why she didn’t hesitate when contacted in October about the district’s open superintendent position.

“Ridgefield has everything you’d want,” said Dr. Da Silva, who was officially hired by the town’s Board of Education at its meeting Thursday, Jan. 2. “It has a clear sense of its culture, its tradition and its priorities. I hear it from all of my colleagues ... Ridgefield has a great reputation. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want to be part of such a wonderful and vibrant community.”

Dr. Da Silva’s journey to the town’s highest-paying position began three months ago when a search firm contacted her about a new posting.

“My initial interview was with the search firm but then I met with the Board of Education’s personnel search committee when things got more serious. It was quite comprehensive,” said Dr. Da Silva, who has served as Darien’s assistant superintendent of schools since 2015 and who will take over in April for Ridgefield’s interim superintendent, Dr. JeanAnn Paddyfote.

“I had three in-person interviews with the board and then they gave me a lot of homework over Thanksgiving weekend,” she added. “Throughout the process, the board made it clear they were looking for the right person who was going to be committed to Ridgefield. ... The board really cared deeply and that resonated with me.”

For Ridgefield’s school board, it was the second October in which the position of superintendent was vacant and a job search was initiated to find interested educators both locally and nationally.

“It was the same as last year when we were looking for new leadership,” said board chair Margaret Stamatis, “the application process for both searches closed on Oct. 31.”

The 2018 search yielded the district with Dr. William Collins, who officially took over as superintendent in February 2019 and resigned abruptly due to medical complications in the middle of August 2019.

“I spent significant time in all my districts,” said Dr. Da Silva, when asked about Ridgefield’s recent instability at the superintendent position that included Dr. Collins’ brief stint, two interim terms from Dr. Paddyfote, and a resignation from Dr. Karen Baldwin in March 2018.

“If I’m lucky enough, I will become part of the fabric of this community for a long time,” Dr. Da Silva added. “Ridgefield deserves someone who’s invested in all the stakeholders and I want to show, rather than tell, everyone how committed I am to this community. ... I’m here for the long term. I want to be here as long as Ridgefield will have me.”

Background

Before arriving in Darien, Dr. Da Silva served as principal at Kings Highway Elementary School in Westport from 2010 to 2015.

She’s additionally worked as principal at Woodrow Wilson School in Waterbury from 2005 to 2010 and was a supervising vice principal in Waterbury prior, from 2003 to 2005. She’s also taught as an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s College in West Hartford (2007-2015) and the University of Bridgeport (2007-present).

“I’ve worked in high-performing school districts like Darien and Westport for the past 10 years and I’ve also worked as a principal at an inner city school, so I know what both are like and I’m comfortable in any surrounding,” said Dr. Da Silva, who’s lived in Wolcott with her husband and three kids for more than 20 years.

Fluent in both Portuguese and Spanish, she got her start teaching world language to fourth, fifth and sixth graders in Fairfield in 1997 and 1998 before becoming a bilingual and general education teacher in Waterbury from 1999 to 2003.

“My parents both immigrated here from Portugal so diversity is important to me,” she said. “When I hear their stories of coming here to America, I see a whole other experience. ... I’m grateful for what they sacrificed.”

Working with parents

In addition to having a diverse background as an administrator and as a teacher, Dr. Da Silva brings a balanced experience as a parent.

“I’m a mom of a 14-year-old, a 12-year-old, and an 11-year-old, so it’s a busy home,” she said. “Three different age levels, three different bus schedules. ... I get to see all levels of our home district so I can related to parents at all three levels.”

She said that her first priority is to build relationships with Ridgefield parents, and believes the two key ingredients to strong, long-lasting partnerships are transparency and honesty.

“If they have a question for me, I’m going to give them an honest answer,” she said. “But I recognize that alone isn’t enough. I have to understand their values and look to build on those strengths. ... Folks will need to feel that honesty more than anything.”

Closing a school?

Dr. Da Silva is familiar dealing with declining enrollment numbers and rising infrastructure costs but didn’t want to comment on Ridgefield’s specific needs in 2020 and how they might pertain to the decade-long topic of closing one of the district’s nine school buildings.

“Each community is different and every district’s internal structure is different, so I need to know what’s happening first and go from there,” she said. “ ... I want to do a full analysis on Ridgefield’s enrollment numbers before weighing in because there are short-term decisions that can have a significant long-term impact when enrollment rebounds. The numbers alone don’t paint a full picture: You also need to incorporate the district’s history and traditions.”

She plans to attend PTA meetings and host one-on-one sessions with teachers and other staff members to get a feel for each school in the district.

“I plan to listen,” she said. “Each school has its strengths and its areas of needs. I want to get to know people and how things have come to be before making any decisions. ... I can say this much: I’m not coming in to change what’s working.”

As for the district’s infrastructure needs, Dr. Da Silva is waiting until she arrives before making any judgments or decisions.

“I think you have to be on campus before you can begin looking at capital items or expensive, long-term projects,” she said.

Teachers

One area she plans to double down on is teacher development.

“The investment in human capital is imperative,” she said. “To be a high performing school district, we must continue to push ourselves to innovate and grow. ... The support for the people who are in the classroom every day needs to be there. It’s a cornerstone to any great district.”

While she doesn’t want to draw completely from her past, Dr. Da Silva said one thing that she’s seen work in both Darien and Westport is having teachers be part of the curriculum-writing process.

“It’s the most significant leverage they can have in making a difference for their students,” she said. “What I’ve seen when teachers are directly involved in writing curriculum is curated content that can be incredibly powerful. And the kids have really responded to it, and enjoyed learning that way.”

She doesn’t want to overstep as a newcomer.

“I don’t want to be perceived as someone who thinks they know,” Dr. Da Silva said. “It’s a mistake to weigh in on anything — enrollment, curriculum, infrastructure — without having a full picture. And that’s why I want to have as many conversations as possible with parents, students, and staff. It’s shortsighted to jump in without connecting with the people on the ground first.”