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A Chat In Hamden

May 5, 2008

Photo/Sharon Bass
Rebecca “Becky” Muolo, 12, town government observer/critic, Hamden Middle School student/reporter, avid reader, curious/insightful child

By Sharon Bass

Talented & Gifted middle school student Becky Muolo is becoming a town fixture. Much the way Police Commissioner Meg Nowacki has. Both females, who are about two generations apart, attend nearly every council and Board of Ed meeting -- and listen in closely.

Becky got turned onto town meetings nearly two years ago, when she was 10. She’s followed two budgets so far and said she hasn’t missed a deliberation in her tenure as the town watchpuppy.

Her grievance this budget season is how Police Chief Tom Wydra was treated by the Legislative Council. “They were laughing at him,” she said.

Born and bred in Hamden with three older brothers, Becky is the “around the town” reporter for the middle school paper, the Flame Thrower. She’s been playing flute since third grade. And reads about three books a week on top of her school assignments.

Inarguably smart and mature, Becky every once in a while lets you know, despite everything, she's still a child. For instance, asked what would she do as mayor, she said she would convert Government Center into a kid hangout and send town workers back to Memorial Town Hall.

Hamden Daily News: What draws you to study your local government in action?
Becky Muolo: Well, my mom was always going and I wanted to know what she was doing. So I asked her if I could go one night to a Board of Education meeting and it was very interesting.
HDN: What did you find interesting?
It’s kind of hard to say. Just everything about the meeting. The way people had a chance to talk and were actually heard and their opinions were considered. And how no opinion, no matter how ridiculous it could have been, was turned away. It was all taken in.
HDN: Did that surprise you?
No, because it’s democracy.
HDN: How about council meetings?
Becky: I like to know what’s going on in the town. I like to know other things that they do. I’ve learned some new words -- revenue, expenditure, those sort of things.
HDN: So this is the second budget season you’ve sat through. How would you compare the two?
I think this year’s is a little bit more competitive because of the current economical situation. Everyone [town departments] needs the money and they [councilmembers] want to give everyone the equal amount of money but there are hard decisions. It's different than last year. Last year, they were a little more lenient and this year they’re really buckling down.
HDN: Have you disagreed with any of the Council’s decisions this budget season?
I disagreed with the way they treated the police chief. The way they joked around with his budget and the way they were laughing at him and he’s very gentlemanly standing up [at podium]. And how he was being very respectful and they were being very disrespectful.
HDN: How did that make you feel watching your elected officials mock the police chief, as you say?
Becky: It made me feel kind of disappointed because they were there to help so the town can run smoothly. And the police chief is appointed and he’s supposed to protect us.
HDN: You also sat through the Board of Education budget meetings. What were they like?
I thought it was very well prepared by Ms. Rabinowitz [school chief] and I thought she did a very good job the way she cut some of the budget back without cutting all the important educational supplies.
HDN: Do you feel you’re getting enough from your school?
Yes and no.
HDN: I wonder if religiously attending all these town meetings fills an educational need for you.
Becky: I think what’s missing is just like in the [town] meetings, every voice is heard and we’re all kind of blended together. [But at school] we’re not all heard the same way. We’re kind of lumped together and stereotyped.
HDN: How have you been stereotyped?
This is just an example of a recent thing. All the kids in my grade like rap and I find it very demeaning to women. My friends and me prefer pop or alternative or classic rock.
HDN: Do you have a favorite school subject?
English. I like the writing.
HDN: What sorts of stories have you written for the Flame Thrower?
Becky: Last December I wrote about the mayor election. I got some help from other students and we all came up with a way to describe each candidate. We got the actual information from the election results -- actually off Hamden Daily News.com.
HDN: Cool.
Yeah. [giggles]
HDN: You said you went to all the mayoral debates last year. What did you think?
I found them very well structured and very well done.
HDN: What were the candidates’ strengths?
Becky: I thought [Republican candidate] Ron Gambardella’s strength was more connecting with the voters and the audiences. And I think [Mayor] Craig Henrici’s strength was just being able to like get down to brass tacks. I think he just got down and said this is what’s going on. And Ron Gambardella was kind of ‘we’re going to change all this.’ But I don’t really think that we’re going to change it.
HDN: Hamden Mayor Becky Muolo, what’s on your agenda?
I would actually connect Town Hall and the police department but not too much. Just make a small addition to house maybe a holding cell or two. So we don’t destroy Town Hall too much. And I’d actually like to move the town back into Town Hall.
HDN: Why’s that?
Because Town Hall is Town Hall and should be the center of all things working. In first grade we went on a field trip to Town Hall and that’s when everyone was still there. And it was just so amazing seeing everyone busy working and running around.
HDN: Then would you sell Government Center and put it back on the tax rolls?
Becky: Actually, I’d turn it into a kids’ club.
HDN: What kind of kids’ club?
There could be like a few videogame things. Some books. Lots of books.
HDN: On all three floors?
Yeah, because we don’t really have that in town. We have small playgrounds and things but we don’t really have places for kids.
HDN: Walk me through your redesign plan. On the third floor where the mayor’s office is, what would you turn it into?
Becky: I’d put the older age kids, like the high-school age, up there because I think they could actually climb the stairs. And they could have videogames and just hang around and have some fun and relax.
HDN: Would there be a staff?
I would have a big staff of volunteers. And like the lower [-aged] kids thing could be run by teenagers who are like 18 who enjoy working with kids.
HDN: What else?
I would probably change a few things to make it more fair for everyone. I would make things more accessible. Like getting a birth certificate shouldn’t be hard and you shouldn’t have to fill out a bunch of forms and wait in line so long.
HDN: What are your thoughts on the Democratic primary race for president?
Becky: I think it’s very good but one of the candidates is not my favorite and I don’t like the way she’s been acting.
HDN: Yah. Would you care to elaborate?
Have you seen the [3 a.m.] phone-ringing commercial? Barack Obama said, ‘I wouldn’t let it ring that many times. I’d pick it up on the first ring.’ [giggles]
HDN: Do you like Barack?
Yeah. I like his stand on everything. His stand on health care and all the things he wants to change in this country and his plans to help the economy.
HDN: What about Republican John McCain?
Becky: I think he’s OK. He’s not my favorite. He was a war veteran, I know that, but he just is, I don’t think he’s right to run the country because I have a feeling he’ll keep us in war ’cause he’s kind of stated he’ll keep us in war.
HDN: What’s your opinion of the Iraq War?
I think the weapons of mass destruction search was a little hoo-ha.
HDN: Hoo-ha? What does that mean?
We never found any weapons of mass destruction so it was basically a wild goose chase.
HDN: What do you want to do when you grow up, Becky?
Becky: I want to be a writer slash staff detective slash forensic anthropologist slash criminalist.

January 10, 2008

Photo/Sharon Bass
Fran Rabinowitz, 58, new Hamden school super, part idealist, part optimist, all educator

By Sharon Bass

Fran Rabinowitz almost became a nun (don’t let the last name fool you; it’s her husband’s). But at the 11th hour, after thousands of hours of introspection, Hamden’s new school superintendent decided to live the secular life dedicated to educating children.

The 58-year-old Branford mother of three took over the local school system on Sept. 24 vowing a hands-on approach. So far, she seems to be living up to her promise. She regularly visits the schools and spends whole days at both the high and middle schools. Before coming to Hamden, she was an associate commissioner for the state Department of Education. Her new job pays $160,000 a year.

Rabinowitz seems refreshingly approachable and humble. In the photo above, she stands before a painting in her office made for her by an art teacher. The artist asked Rabinowitz what she wanted. Rabinowitz asked for children of diversity. “It’s optimism and it says Hamden to me,” the superintendent said.

Fran Rabinowitz:  My parents were immigrants from Ireland. I was the first person in my nuclear family to attend college. I had a huge family. I had one brother and one sister but my mother and father each had 13 brothers and sisters in their family. I always, always had support. That has really helped me to be very positive.
Hamden Daily News: What did you want to be when you were a child?
FR: I guess I had a myriad of things I wanted to do. I wanted to make the world better. I think I have a pretty interesting background. When I was 18, I entered the Sisters of Mercy to become a nun.
HDN: What happened?
FR: My reason for entering was to improve the world. I had done a lot of volunteer work prior to that, in high school. I remained there for three years. I left about two weeks before taking vows.
HDN: Why did you leave?
FR: I felt I had not experienced life enough and options in life. I wanted to know more of the world. I left and went back to college at St. Heart University. I majored in English and elementary education. I then went on to become a teacher in Bridgeport. I got my master’s at the University of Bridgeport.
HDN: Any regrets about leaving the Sisters of Mercy?
FR: None at all. It was a wonderful experience. I still keep in touch with the Sisters of Mercy. No, it was the right decision for me.
HDN: How did you meet your husband?
FR: I met him at a party 28 years ago. Then we got married and had three children.
HDN: What did you learn at the Sisters of Mercy?
FR: I was able to have the time to have a deep level of spirituality. I also learned a whole lot about human relationships.
HDN: Such as?
FR: I learned the value of human relationships. I learned the value of serving the underserved. For example, during that time I did a lot with the Vietnam War and different causes. I became much more aware of the world situation and became much more aware of the fact that I wanted to work in a capacity to be of service to others.
HDN: How did that experience inform you as an educator?
FR: First of all, I certainly became aware I wanted to be a teacher and wanted to work with children.
HDN: Why?
FR: I feel that the way to improve the world and society is through education. And I really came to the understanding if students have a good solid education and can read well, honestly they can virtually do anything they want with their lives. I came to understand that education is the ticket to success in life.
HDN: How will that determination influence your work here?
FR: The journey you’ve had certainly influences the way you are in life. I came to Hamden as I came to any one of my jobs: to work with people to make it better for all students.
HDN: How are you doing that?
FR: All students are entitled to the very best cutting-edge education that they can possibly have. Number one, I want to make sure we hire the very best teachers and staff. Number two, I want to ensure that we have cutting-edge curriculum.
HDN: What does that mean?
FR: That means being current in research-based strategies and ensuring our students are receiving the content knowledge that they need to be successful in the 21st century. I’m looking closely at the curriculum.
HDN: You said you visit at least one school a day.
FR: I want to be rooted in reality. I don’t want to ever live in an ivory tower. I want teachers and principals and all staff to know that I’m part of a team. I’m going to hold them to high standards. So I go to the schools to get to know staff better and to also observe the quality of instruction in the classrooms.
HDN: What have you found?
FR: I’m very fortunate in Hamden. I think I have excellent administrators and staff. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think it could be better. I have teachers and school psychologists and teacher aides that really care about the students.
HDN: Have you found differences among the schools?
FR: I have found greater need in some schools than others. Basically I have found high-quality instruction in all of the schools.
HDN: Why did you take the job?
FR: Because I felt Hamden was a town that cared about their students. And I’ll tell you why I thought they cared about their students. I drove through the town. I went to look at every school in the town when I was thinking about applying. I saw schools that were well-maintained, well-kept. It made me think Hamden really cared about students. I also went through the district and school profiles and I liked the diversity. That was important to me. I also was very pleased to see they believe the same thing I believe in -- having small class sizes.
HDN: Small relative to?
FR: Relative to many districts in the state. We’re around the state average. There are many districts that have 25 in the early grades but Hamden has about 20. All the Tennessee studies demonstrate that small class size has a positive effect on students.
HDN: Any surprises in your first months here?
FR: It’s a great question. I don’t think I have any surprises. I have seen lots of wonderful things in the Hamden school system. Number one … well, probably there was one surprise, if I can say that. I knew that many of the principals had been newly appointed or have been here just a couple of years, and so I expected that there would be a huge learning curve with them, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see they were chosen so well. They have wonderful knowledge of the instructional programs at their schools. Leadership, what leadership means. That was somewhat of a surprise to me.
HDN: What should the public know about you?
FR: My door is always open. When I say that, that’s literal. I also take any opportunity I can to know Hamden residents better. To let them know my visions for the schools. I want to be involved in school and town activities. For example, I try to do my shopping in Hamden. I attend the PTA meetings, not every single one. My greatest fear is to become an ivory tower superintendent that is not involved and part of the schools.
HDN: What are some of your goals for the system?
FR: I certainly want to improve the performance of our students and performance is judged by the Connecticut Mastery Test scores. It should not be the only factor, but it’s one of the factors. I also want to ensure that our students coming out of high school are well prepared for college or for training beyond high school.
HDN: You sound very passionate about your work.
FR: It’s hard for me to take compliments. And I take that as a compliment.
HDN: It is.
FR: Yes, I guess I am very passionate. When I am invested, I live, breathe and work my job. I’m not saying that’s always the best trait to have. I think you need balance in your life. Even now I’m still working on achieving balance in my life.
HDN: What kind of balance do you need?
FR: I need to certainly hold my career as extremely important but I think my career many times infringes on what I do for myself. It’s a constant battle for me to be sure that I take out some time for myself. I think I’ve always been there for my children and husband, but relaxation has never been easy for me. And yet I believe it is extremely important to have time for myself.
HDN: What do you do for yourself?
FR: I love to read. I’m a huge reader. I belong to a book club although I haven’t been there in months. I like to read historical novels, mysteries, autobiographies. When I was young, young, I read every Nancy Drew book.
HDN: Anything else?
FR: I love to shop with my girls [daughters]. I live at the beach. I love the water. I love to just sit and reflect, if there’s time in life. I do an awful lot of reflection on my job, my work. How I could have handled some things better.


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