By Dan Hust
JEFFERSONVILLE If you think school superintendents live in a bureaucratic, regulation-obsessed world far removed from your own, well, you might be right.
But if you think that makes Sullivan West’s new supt., Dr. Nancy Hackett, a bland, unapproachable paper-pusher, well, you’d be wrong.
Her enthusiasm amidst all the paper the NYS Education Department does require her to push is infectious, rooted in a deep love of education.
“Honestly, in the third grade I decided I wanted to be a teacher,” she relates with a grin as wide as the Niagara River she grew up alongside.
A phys ed teacher at her home Tonawanda (NY) High School inspired her to major in same at SUNY Brockport, where she also earned a bachelor’s in elementary classroom education.
She graduated in 1975, and her career took off.
“A month later, I was a physical education teacher in Hilton High School,” Hackett recalls.
She taught there for 11 enjoyable years, then took time off to raise a son and daughter with her husband, John, who’s in the printing business.
The lure of teaching, however, propelled her to take a part-time phys ed job with upstate Monroe Community College, not far from the family home.
That turned into a full-time position. Meanwhile, Hackett began taking administrative courses which proved invaluable when the college downsized its staff.
She became the assistant director of the Student Center, which allowed her to continue coaching the softball team, with whom she had become close.
“I loved being an administrator,” she affirms. “It gives you a much broader impact point than just the classroom.”
Thereafter, she joined the private Harley School in Rochester as both a phys ed teacher and an administrator first as athletics director, then as principal.
In 2005, she moved back into public education, assuming the principalship of nearby Brighton High School, one of the top schools in the country.
“Seven years later, I’m here!” she expresses, that grin again sweeping across her face.
Already possessing a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Rochester, Sullivan West is Hackett’s first superintendency.
What attracted her here, far from the Buffalo-Rochester area she’s long called home?
“The people,” she affirms without hesitation.
As in both the school staff and the district community.
“They’re a great group of people… who are passionate about education and the community,” she says of SW’s board. “You need people thinking and caring about a school district that will extend all those hours.
“I think our biggest strength is the faculty and staff,” Hackett continues. “How they care about kids is really impressive.”
And now that she and her husband are residents within the district, she’s seeing the similarities between here and her childhood hometown.
“My parents still live in Tonawanda,” she says of her mother, a homemaker, and her father, a retired mailman. “It gave me a sense of community. That was an important part of growing up.”
And it still is precious to her.
“That sense of community is so important for a school,” Hackett acknowledges.
Such support will be crucial for this new superintendent, who comes to what is, yes, the top-performing school in the county, greatly healed from the merger divisions that defined its birth, but a district that still has challenges.
Chief among them, she says, is making sure SW is in compliance with ever-changing state standards.
“The state tries to find one way to evaluate all schools,” she notes. “The hard thing is, schools are not alike. At some point, there is going to have to be some wiggle.”
So she attended a talk this summer at Harvard University with 27 other school superintendents about the latest research toward meeting educational goals.
But she’s also not forgetting SW’s own history of success, especially with her predecessor, Dr. Ken Hilton.
“I’m definitely following in good footsteps,” Hackett affirms. “I’m learning what we do and what we do well.”
She’s also literally making waves, thanks to a love of the outdoors.
“I took the administrative team kayaking out on Lake Huntington,” she admits with a laugh.
Still, this is someone who’s serious about good education. Hackett recently met with 34 NYS school leaders in Albany and got the rare chance to discuss her concerns directly with NYS Education Commissioner John King.
“He’s very thoughtful and very genuine,” she relates, adding that he told her to “let us know what works and what doesn’t work.”
You can be sure she’ll stay in touch.