Bridging Gulfs Near and Far


When the first dozen students came back to Simsbury, Conn., from the school district’s new sister-school program in China last year, Superintendent Diane Ullman marveled at what 10 days in a foreign country can do.

“They came back pretty changed,” she says. “They were pretty overwhelmed, in a positive way, at how hard Chinese students work at school.”

Diane UllmanDiane Ullman

They were overwhelmed, too, by the environmental problems in the eastern city of Jinan, where they stayed in students’ homes and attended school, and by the stark contrast in lifestyles between the Chinese and the upper-middle-class residents of Simsbury.

It’s just what Ullman had in mind when she helped organize the sister-school arrangement, and it’s why global awareness is a major focus of her superintendency. Foreign travel, she argues, is one of the best ways to broaden the horizons of students who will have to compete globally.

The China program is one of three or four international trips taken annually by students from Simsbury, a high-achieving district of about 5,000 students in an outer suburb of Hartford. Recent trips had art students painting in Florence, music students performing in Prague and biology students studying the Costa Rican rain forest.
“We are rather isolated here as Americans,” she says, “and the fact that most of us speak only English is becoming more and more of a deficit for us.”

Affluent Simsbury suffers from another kind of isolation as well, Ullman says. For some students, her gritty native city of Hartford seems light years apart, rather than just 12 miles away. It’s another gap she is trying to bridge. In May, she convened a four-hour session with parents, students and educators from both Hartford and Simsbury to get advice on the enrichment and exchange programs operating between the districts.

Lisa Heavner, past president of Simsbury’s PTO, says encouraging community conversations is one of the things Ullman does best. That includes completing a comprehensive district vision statement last year with input from various stakeholders.

Ullman also oversees a major technology initiative, placing a digital projector, an interactive whiteboard and peripheral equipment in each classroom.

The school board chair, Jack Sennott, says Ullman’s self-confidence and eagerness to listen — along with a pragmatic, data-driven approach to school improvement — are among the reasons she has thrived after succeeding Joseph Townsley, her popular, long-term predecessor.

“When you replace someone like that, research would tell you you’re probably going to get a transitional superintendent,” Sennott says. “We were looking to find somebody who could beat those odds.”

Now starting her sixth year, Ullman has, he says. “I’ve marveled at how well Diane has seamlessly turned the district into a forward, 21st-century institution.”
And yet, the superintendent oversaw one activity last year that seemed more of a throwback to an earlier time. Simsbury, with its mix of woodlands and development, has become a favorite haunt of black bears, who think nothing of walking across school grounds or even showing up at a bus stop on occasion.

So amid all the talk of global competition in the digital age, Ullman took time out to mandate seminars for all students on what to do if a 300-pound bear wanders by.

Paul Riede is editorial page editor at the Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail:


Currently: superintendent, Simsbury, Conn.

Previously: assistant executive director, Capitol Region Education Council, Hartford, Conn.

Age: 59

Greatest influence on career: I worked as assistant superintendent for Robert Villanova, retired superintendent in Farmington, Conn., for seven years. He taught me the importance of keeping students at the center of every decision, of aligning every aspect of the district to enduring values, of continually striving for improvement, and of the value of intellectual discipline and research-based decisions.

Best professional day: The recent graduation of students from our alternative high school. These students had made their way to graduation though fits and starts, but they stood before us on graduation day as accomplished, confident young adults, each of whom had a plan for the future that included post-high-school education and employment goals.

Books at bedside: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones; Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire; Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell; The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner; and A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Biggest blooper: We first used our new emergency calling system to inform parents about an individual who was driving Simsbury streets trying to lure children into his vehicle. Unfortunately, the service had technical problems. This resulted in the computer servers delivering the message at a very slow speed, causing my voice to appear distorted — and quite ominous sounding. We received many calls from parents telling us “some very scary person claiming to be the superintendent” had left a weird and disturbing message on their answering machine.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: AASA serves as connective tissue, helping superintendents nationwide learn from each other and providing an environment where superintendents can work together to find solutions to the pressing problems.