'This was the best year'
Principal Leslie Hyatt retires after seeing off the kindergartners, now graduates, who started with her
By Ginny Privitar
CHESTER — The joy of graduation was tinged with sadness at the Chester Academy graduation ceremony last Friday, as students, staff, school board members, administrators and parents bid farewell to Principal Leslie Hyatt on the occasion of her retirement.
For 13 years she has tirelessly served Chester students, guiding young lives and shaping the district, first as principal of the elementary school and then as principal of Chester Academy.
She said it was good to leave when things were going so well.
“This year was an amazing year,” Hyatt said. "I don’t think I’ll ever have a better year in education. Of all my years it was the best.”
She cared about all the students who came into her life but has a special bond with the Class of 2014. “I was there when they were in kindergarten,” she said.
She arrived in January 2002. She said her plan always was that she would retire when this group left.
Hyatt has always thought of herself as a teacher, not a principal, and believes a principal is really a lead teacher.
“Sometimes principals don’t spend enough time in the classroom,” Hyatt said. “I spend a lot of time in the classroom. As lead teacher, that’s your role.”
Hyatt said the Chromebooks initiative, where every student was given a laptop, was a great accomplishment. She's also proud of the work the school did on the Common Core Curriculum, which they've been using at the high school since 2011. The Academy changed lesson plans and incorporated the new English curriculum before the state asked for it, Hyatt said.
'An amazing time'
Hyatt, 60, has been in education since 1977. She received her bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in math from Fordham University in the Bronx, and her masters in social studies and urban education from there as well. Her first job was teaching grades 7 and 8 at St. John’s Catholic School in the Bronx, then she moved to Sr. Elizabeth Seton School in Peekskill. At that point she took three years off to have her two daughters, Tracy, who is now a Spanish teacher, and Courtney, who is an accountant.
Hyatt described her bond with Chester's graduating class and their families.
“We love each other — it was great," she said. "I loved their parents, too. They were very young when I first met them. Most were in their 20s, and they were amazing, just as wonderful as the students.”
She described them as “involved, cooperative, and caring. They were advocates for their children. That meant sometimes we didn’t always agree. But they always had their children foremost in their minds. They were very dedicated parents.”
Hyatt thanked her teaching and administrative staff and school board members.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” she said.
It is impossible for many to think of Hyatt as not involved in education. And, as it turns out, she will be. She plans to get certification to teach social studies and math in New Jersey, where she lives.
“I would like to get back in the classroom and use everything I’ve learned as a principal,” she said.
She said would especially like to teach middle school.
During the graduation ceremony, Hyatt said one of the graduates, Nick Seabrook, told her he expected his diploma to be “wet with her tears.”
She also quoted graduate Chris Wittekind, who asked her, upon returning from a class trip to Cooperstown: When will we see you again? She replied with emotion that “our paths may never cross again, but I hope that you will think back, maybe at your children’s high school graduation, and remember what an amazing time we had.” Her voice broke as she said, “I hope that the road rises to meet us all and the sun be ever at our backs and that we all have many, many more “happily ever afters.”
Wittekind will be attending Lincoln Technical Institute in Mahwah, N.J. “I’ve known Ms. Hyatt since second grade, when I moved here," he said. "She’s been like the mother I’ve had away from home. The way she is with the kids — it’s incredible. She cares more about the job than herself, it seems sometimes. As a student, you couldn’t ask more of a principal.”
Graduate Larry Young, who will be heading to Mount Saint Mary College in the fall, said Hyatt "was like a second mother to me in high school. Whenever I had a problem, I went to her and she knew how to change a student’s life. She’s just a great overall woman.”
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