CAS Announces 2022 Principals of the Year

The Connecticut Association of Schools is pleased to announce the winners of the 2022 Principal of the Year Awards. Congratulations to these outstanding administrators!

  2022 Elementary School Principal of the Year

  2022 Middle School Principal of the Year

  2022 High School Principal of the Year


Cynthia Callahan, principal of John A. Langford School in East Hartford, has been named the 2022 Elementary School Principal of the Year. Assistant Superintendent Elsie Torres, who nominated Cyndi for the award, praises her ability to lead with “grace, poise, consistency, and with a strong emphasis on building a culture in which everyone cares for one another and supports one another.”

Reacting to the news of her selection, Cyndi remarked, “This is such an honor and I am so proud of our school community. I am thankful for our committed staff who meet every learner, every day, with rich opportunities for important, purposeful, student-centered learning at Langford! I am very grateful to be a part of the Langford/East Hartford Schools team!”

Cyndi joined the Langford administration in 2016 at a time when the school was struggling with declining student achievement, increasing levels of student discipline and low staff morale. She immediately set about working with staff to develop and implement a schoolwide plan focused on improving learning outcomes for all students, especially high needs learners. As a result of Cyndi’s intrepid leadership, combined with the hard work of her staff, Langford was named a School of Distinction by the CT State Department of Education in 2018-19. East Hartford Superintendent Nathan Quesnel credits Cyndi for this “remarkable transformation story.” “Cyndi’s teachers believe in her, they believe in themselves and, most importantly, they believe in our students,” says Quesnel.

During her 6-year tenure as principal, Cyndi has put in place a number of systems and structures to ensure that each child is provided with the instructional, behavioral and emotional supports they need to grow and succeed. One of the most successful practices that has been implemented is GLAMS, or Grade Level Achievement Meetings, which brings staff together to collaboratively set goals for student improvement and utilize reflective data team systems to measure the impact of specific teaching practice on student learning. According to Sarah Chmielecki, an instructional coach at Langford, GLAMS is a “revolutionized data process” that has a direct, positive impact on the school’s overall improvement plan.

Since her arrival at Langford, Cyndi has worked to improve the school climate and culture and to build positive, supportive relationships both in and out of the classrooms. Thanks to her efforts and leadership, Langford is now a vibrant, caring, student-oriented learning community where students can grow socially and emotionally as well as academically. Says colleague Talisha Foy, principal of O’Brien STEM Academy, “Cyndi has a natural talent and innate ability to connect with individuals on all levels. Her compassion and empathetic nature allow her to foster collaborative relationships which result in student academic growth.”

Cyndi has an all-in, “every day matters” leadership style that inspires staff and students to higher levels of success. She has fostered a sense of ownership and collaboration among all members of the school community to make Langford the educational powerhouse that it is. Notes Foy, “I have witnessed first-hand the relentless passion and pursuit that drive Cynthia’s strong work ethic and core values. She has established a vision centered on intricate structures and instructional practices that have catapulted student academic success.”


Mark Ambruso, principal of Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School (LOLMS) in Old Lyme, has been named the 2022 CAS Middle School Principal of the Year. In a demonstrative outpouring of support, seventeen members of his staff nominated him for the award. “He is the best!!! There is a LONG list of teachers who want to nominate him!,” wrote school counselor Renee Molnar upon submitting her nomination.

When notified that he was selected, Mark stated, “I am humbled and honored to receive this award. This would not be possible without the collective commitment and exemplary efforts of my colleague and assistant principal, Noah Ventola, and Lyme-Old Lyme Middle School’s faculty and staff. Most importantly, I’d like to thank our wonderful families and amazing students. The success of our middle school and district is a testament to the support and direction of our superintendent, central office, and board of education. I’d like to also thank my wife and children for supporting me and sharing in my career.”

A passionate child advocate who cares deeply about the academic, social and emotional well-being of his students, Mark arrives at school each day with the goal of connecting with, engaging and empowering every student in his building. Highly visible and immersed in all of the goings-on at LOLMS, he is a constant presence in the corridors, classrooms and cafeteria. He can also be found at most sports events and after-school activities, whether they are on- or off-site, using every available opportunity to build relationships with his students. Says parent Elizabeth Montanaro, “Mr. Ambruso is the gem of this community. He is hands-on at all times. He doesn’t sit still. He floats around the school, always with a smile on his face, getting to know the kids above and beyond their test scores. He makes a real connection with them. There is genuine care and love.”

Mark’s daily interactions with students reflect his earnest belief that each child is important and special. Ask a group of LOLMS students to describe their principal and the barrage of adjectives that follows includes: funny, hard-working, easygoing, determined, caring, kind, happy, compassionate, positive, inspiring. They know that he is there to support them and help them to be their best selves.“Mr. Ambruso is always getting us what we need to succeed,” states eighth grader Tanner Snurkowski.

Mark has worked intentionally to create a culture of shared learning among staff. He has built a common collaboration period for teachers into the daily schedule and makes every effort to create conditions and supports for staff that enable them to be their very best for their students. Says 6th grade ELA teacher Marc Vendetti, “Mark’s behind-the-scenes efforts enable us to focus on our work with students. So much goes on at the administrative level that we never even know about so that we can do our jobs better.”

LOLMS is a dynamic, creative, student-centered middle school where innovation and excellence flourish. This is a direct result of Mark’s efforts to expand enrichment and elective opportunities and to promote interdisciplinary instruction that facilitates the development of 21st-century skills critical for student success in today’s global society. “Encouraging innovation and creativity is one thing. Opening up the space and providing the resources to realize this is another,” says Vendetti. “Mark was able to engineer an amazing, creative, and supportive work space called the Innovation Lab, in which students and teachers can explore concepts in a more rigorous and authentic way.” Mark’s kids-first philosophy and ability to seamlessly blend traditional and non-traditional instruction translate into a safe, fun and exciting learning community for students and staff alike.


Donna Hayward, principal of Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum, has been selected as the 2022 CAS High School Principal of the Year. Donna is only the fourth administrator in Connecticut’s history to have received both the Assistant Principal of the Year Award and the Principal of the Year Award. She was named the state’s top assistant principal in 2006 when she was an administrator at Rocky Hill High School.

“I am so very honored to have been chosen by CAS for this award and deeply humbled to represent the many outstanding educational leaders across Connecticut,” said Donna. “ There is something truly special about the students of HK and it is a pleasure to work alongside my talented, “all in” team as we serve those students everyday. This award is for them.”

Donna leads what she affectionately refers to as a “family of learners” and considers all of her students to be “her kids.” She works with care and commitment to maintain a relationship-centered school and to find new ways of deepening connections between students and adults. HKHS senior Ben Williams states, “At my school, it is prioritized that each student has at least one adult in the building who they can seek in times of stress. Teachers do so much more than just teach. On top of lessons, teachers truly take the time to build personal relationships with each and every student. Whether it be a custodian, a math teacher, or a front office secretary, the outgoing, friendly spirit of the staff creates a network of support which extends to all students.”

Shortly after arriving at HKHS, Donna initiated an overhaul of the school’s special education delivery model, introducing credit-bearing targeted instruction classes that have helped to significantly close achievement gaps between special education and regular education students. Donna has also led new initiatives such as the mentored study hall and the enhanced athletic eligibility program for student athletes to ensure that ALL students have the supports and resources they need to succeed. Thanks to Donna’s vision and leadership, HKHS has earned a number of honors and awards, including being named a School of Distinction by the State of Connecticut, ranking among Newsweek’s America’s Top High Schools for three years in a row, and receiving the National Blue Ribbon Award for Excellence.

A passionate and intentional leader, Donna commits herself to creating and implementing new pathways for reaching and engaging students and preparing them for college and/or modern careers and adult life. She and her staff have worked to expand and update curricular offerings, promote authentic, real-world learning experiences, and advance student acquisition of 21st century skills. Over the past five years, fourteen new courses have been introduced at HKHS; four years ago, a new blended learning model was implemented combining classroom instruction with independent study and field experiences; and beginning with the class of 2023, students will be required to complete and present a senior portfolio designed to develop critical thinking and self-management skills. HKHS Parent Chris Williams says, “Mrs. Hayward does a remarkable job of preparing kids for life beyond high school.”

In leading her school through the challenges of the pandemic, Donna has sustained a purposeful learning environment while prioritizing her students’ social-emotional well-being. She pursued and secured funding for two additional clinicians in the building; the health curriculum was updated to include more in-depth coverage of topics such as self-care, mental health, and healthy relationships; she partnered with the Haddam-Killingworth Youth and Family Services to host yoga and meditation during exam weeks and bring in therapy dogs to ease stress.; and, most recently, she allocated professional development time and funding to incorporate School-Connect, a nationally recognized SEL curriculum, into the school’s advisory program.

“Principal Hayward crushed COVID,” says Director of Athletics and Activities Lynne Flint. “Throughout the many struggles and setbacks of the pandemic, we all knew she would lead us safely through it.” Adds Marcy Webster, the chair of the fine arts department, “Donna Hayward is at her best when she finds herself and her team in a challenging situation and needs to respond with tenacity.”

Donna will represent Connecticut in the National Principal of the Year Award Program sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). She will compete for the national honor along with principals of the year from each of the other forty-nine states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and the Department of State Office of Overseas Schools. Conditions allowing, NASSP will recognize all state principals of the year at an Institute in Washington, D.C., in November 2022.

Cyndi, Mark and Donna will be honored by CAS at the “Celebration of Excellence in Educational Leadership” to be held on October 20, 2022, at Saint Clements Castle in Portland.


Principal of the Year Award Program Background and Procedures
The Principal of the Year Program, sponsored annually by the Connecticut Association of Schools, was established in 1984 to bring recognition to the principalship and to spotlight the important role of the principal in shaping the educational environment and experiences of children. The program recognizes outstanding school principals who have succeeded in providing high quality learning opportunities for students. These administrators have demonstrated excellent leadership, commitment to staff and students, service to their communities, and contributions to the overall profession of educational leadership.

Each year nominations are solicited for an Elementary, Middle, and High School Principal of the Year. Nominees must submit a written application which is evaluated by a selection committee consisting of active and retired principals and assistant principals. Site visits are conducted at the schools of the two highest rated candidates at each level (elementary, middle and high). Winners are then chosen based upon the outcome of the site visit as well as the quality of the written application. The three individuals selected for recognition are honored by CAS at an awards dinner in the fall.