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For Judy Greco, It’s Always About the Students

Fifty years ago this fall, Judith Greco walked into a classroom at the Smalley School and began what would be a long and transformative career in the city’s school system.

Decades later, her work to improve the city’s schools hasn’t stopped. While she retired in 1995, her vast education experience, which includes overcoming workplace barriers and a quiet display of compassion towards students, has been a valuable asset to the Board of Education.

“I want to be a part of the planning since I’m not doing the teaching or other stuff any more,” Greco, 72, says.

In 1962, while attending Central Connecticut State University, Greco did her eight weeks of training at the Smalley School. While at the college, she had asked to be placed at an inner city school. The usual practice was to go to laboratory schools, where no problems persisted, the students performed well, and where there was little diversity. Greco says she wanted a challenge.

At the end of her training, the principal asked her if she wanted to take a job there when another woman was leaving to get married.

Greco quickly accepted the position and was assigned to teach a class full of first-graders. “I was nervous but at the same time I felt that this was coming to a dream come true. I always wanted to be a teacher and I always respected my teachers growing up. They were wonderful people and influenced my life. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world that I was in a classroom,” Greco says.

The Lincoln Street resident was born in Norwich and grew up in East Hartford, but her entire working career, aside from some seasonal jobs during high school, has been in New Britain. She says her father tried to dissuade her from pursuing a career in education.

“My father did not really promote girls education,” Greco recalls of the 1950s. “He thought you should get a job, that’s what you really should do because they weren’t promoting women at that time.”

The opposition from her father at home gave her more of an incentive to pursue a career in education, she says.

For the next decade, until 1973, she taught grades 1 through 6 at Smalley. At the same time she was going to school to get a master’s degree in guidance. In 1973, she put her resume in for a job opening as a guidance counselor at Roosevelt Jr. High School, where she would work for three years.

“That was a neighborhood school. The kids walked there. We hardly had any bussing and I hardly remember much bussing at all wherever I was and the kids always walked,” Greco said.

Greco said it’s a different era now, and having throes of students walk is more of a safety issue. But she agrees with the neighborhood school approach to save money, though she wants students to be able to finish off at the school they are in now.

“We spend so much money on busing. We’re the highest per capita in the state for busing. It’s a huge amount of money and we’ve been doing it for 36 years, doing the same thing over and over again,” Greco said. “The curriculum is going down, the scores are going down, but the busing bill stays the same and we keep paying for buses.”

She notes that some buses have a few kids aboard, while some households have children going three separate ways. One of the drivers behind the crack down on busing is to put more money into hiring new teachers, Greco says.

Having sat in on two forums, Greco says she understands the concerns from active parents who are happy with their child attending high-performing schools not wanting to be relocated. “But what I think about are the kids whose parents are not there and they’re unsung voices,” she said. “Their wants and needs are not even talked about.”

The school board is expected to vote on a plan March 18. Some students may have to walk up two miles, but decades ago that was the norm, Greco says. If the plans move forward, she said safety needs to be addressed right away.

“Kids are going to have to be watched as they walk,” she said, referring to more security personnel along well-traveled routes.

Greco calls Superintendent of Schools Kelt Cooper a “visionary” and someone with “great ideas.” Change, she said, will come through shaking up business as usual and transferring teachers around to create more equity. She said she did not believe in Cooper in the beginning based on his resume, but does now.

“The superintendent wants to bring the kinds of programs that are working to every school in the city, and that’s very hard to do, and it’s going to be a tough thing for the board,” Greco said.

“This is not something that’s going to happen by snapping their fingers. It’s going to take a lot of work,” she adds. “It took us a long time to get into this mess.”

The school board has forwarded a budget to the Common Council that seeks $20 million over its current level. Greco says the request is far from likely. “You can’t do much without money,” she says, adding that she foresees layoffs. Money alone isn’t the answer, as more parent involvement is also needed, she suggests.

“I feel badly, because I think kids have it a lot more difficult today than in past years. I don’t think the parenting is going forward as much as it should be because people are out trying to work and earn a living and the kids are kind of left behind some times, and that part bothers me,” Greco said.

A Democrat, Greco joined the school board after being elected in 2009. During that election, she was endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans—a move that she says made her proud. She intends to run again in the fall for another three-year term.

“Judy is an amazing woman who is extremely dedicated to our city,” board member Erin Stewart said, adding that she first met Greco, who was mentoring students, while in high school.

Greco is an eight-year cancer survivor and has been heavily involved in a variety of community organizations, from the Boys and Girls Club to the Connecticut Race for the Cure event in Walnut Hill Park.

“Her passion for what she does is admirable, and is one of the reasons I’ve been so involved myself,” Stewart said. “She is a true role model for strong women and I thank her for all she’s taught me.”

Greco says she comes form an “old fashioned way of teaching,” but is quick to point out that she keeps herself familiar with new best practices in the field.

“People think of me as being old fashioned. But I’m really not. I want to do what’s now and not what happened then and keep doing ‘oh we used to do this and that worked’ because we are living in a totally different world today,” she said.

In 1981, Greco became the first female housemaster, or assistant principal, at New Britain High School overseeing 550 students.

Greco says she enjoyed being a classroom teacher the most. During her teaching days, her mother used to yell at her. She would often bring groceries to a struggling student’s family or buy up coats during the winter. She said compassion goes a long way.

When she first became an administrator, it was difficult, she said, because not many women held those upper leadership roles. It was very difficult at first, but with work she proved herself in every day tasks and facing challenges head on.

“There were people that resented the fact that a woman was in the administration and felt that women didn’t belong in administration,” Greco recalls, saying entering the school not knowing anyone was probably one of the most difficult things she’s done during her career. “I proved them wrong.”

Her resume also includes working as a counselor at Pulaski High School, an interim principal position at Roosevelt Jr. High School during the 1970s, an internship with the State Department of Education, and principal of St. Thomas Aquinas from 1989 until 1995. During a trip to Rome in 1992, she and 24 Latin students met Pope John Paul II, a highlight of her life, she says.

Looking back to her first year as a teacher at Smalley, Greco recalls a moment that has kept her going all these years.

“I looked at them when they walked out of my classroom after one of the last days of school, and I thought: ‘I taught those kids to read and to write.’ And what a feeling that was, really,” Greco said.