Dynamo Buchanan Leads the Way in Connecticut

Principal Mary Ann Buchanan, Ed.D of Southwest School in Torrington, Connecticut, seems to be game for almost anything. She has driven a school bus, lived under cover as a “mute client” at a developmental center, built a canoe with her special needs students, completed a wilderness survival leadership course and established a charter school. 

As the middle child among nine, she had to learn self-sufficiency—and her mother Mary Ellen Cormier provided a dazzling example. Aside from raising her brood, including a set of twins and a son, Bill, with Down Syndrome, and looking after her elderly father, Mary Ellen taught, earned an M.A. in special education and started the first special education department at The Gilbert School in Winsted, Connecticut.

“Watching my mother made me who I am,” says Mary Ann, who serves as president of the Torrington Public School Administrators Association (TPSAA), AFSA Local #94.

Even her long-term involvement in the Special Olympics is attributable to her mother, who made her sign up for the program as a “punishment” for misbehaving. “It wasn’t really a punishment,” she says. “My mom just wanted me to learn to be less self-centered as a 16-year-old, and I loved the Special Olympics.” 

Her brother Bill was also part of the inspiration that led her to Special Olympics honors, including being recognized with Connecticut’s Unsung Hero Award. Her memories of her mother and brother have motivated her long after Mary Ellen died on Sept. 4 at the young age of 56, and Bill followed 33 years later on the exact same day, at the same age, in the same hour. 

“How is that for a little Irish mysticism?” she asks. 

After her undergraduate days, she had to “buckle down a little.” She drove a school bus, but that was so hard, she knew she had to get serious. She accepted when offered the job of part-time special ed teacher at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village, Connecticut. There to guide her were Bill DeVoti and Ed Thorney, and later Bill’s son Mark. To this day, she relies on their philosophy of establishing positive relationships—and has recently reconnected with Bill, now in his 80s.

“This doesn’t just happen.” she says, “You know when you’re blessed.”

This philosophy proved true in her eventual full-time work with Housatonic’s Alternative Education Program, specializing in experiential education, and life skills academics. She became lead instructor of this off-campus program. “It was all about relationships with kids,” she recalls. “They were in job-shadowing programs and team-building activities like rock climbing, canoeing and spelunking. We did it all with them.” She was transforming into a school leader, so much so that she decided to start a college preparatory charter school.

By then she had earned her master’s degree in special education, gotten married and begun building a house. Writing a proposal seemed monumental, but her husband Chuck kept supporting her. She also had to raise money, recruit a staff, find a building, and appeal to local superintendents and community members to bring the school to fruition. Explorations Charter School opened in an old bank building in 1997, with students from all over the state, under the motto “Achieve Through Self-Discipline.”

After two years with never more than two hours of sleep, she fell ill from exhaustion and had to take more than a year off. She believes her Catholic faith brought her through this tough period, and is proud to say that Explorations Charter School is still going strong today in Winsted.

Mary Ann became a leader at a traditional school when she was named assistant principal in 2001 at Housatonic Valley Regional High School. Her dedication to school climate and discipline marked her work when the school became the model site where other educators came to learn. Later, as interim principal and assistant principal at Torrington Middle School, she led an initiative called “Positive Behavior Intervention Support,” and the state of Connecticut presented her and her team with the “Positive School Climate Award.” 

“It’s still about maintaining positive relationships with kids,” she says, “but, let’s face it, you’re still the disciplinarian and they don’t necessarily appreciate you till they’re in their 20s and 30s.”

She has learned much from Dr. George Sugai, who created a framework to help improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities and behavioral challenges. “There is a learning curve for all of us adults. Learning about the child and what prompts their behaviors is instrumental in building the relationship to help students take ownership of their actions and accept the consequences.”

For the past five years, Mary Ann Buchanan has been the principal of Southwest Elementary School with a diverse population, a big departure from her work with older students. “I absolutely love it,” she says. “It’s the most dynamic staff I’ve ever had.” 

“Our motto is ‘Care for Self, Care for Others,’” and she tries to practice what she preaches by taking time to focus on herself, having fun with water sports near her 1908 cottage in Otis, Massachusetts, where she has a pontoon boat and takes her 16-year-old daughter Aurelie and her friends out on excursions.

Since the pandemic, challenges at school have soared. They require building coping mechanisms for the children and finding out what’s going on with them. She has a stellar team with her school psychologist, social worker and full staff. The cooperation and care are exceptional. She says: “It’s not Utopia, but it’s pretty close.”