BAR HARBOR — Conners Emerson School has just finished its first year since 1991 without Barb Neilly as principal.
She went on family medical leave last September and then retired at the end of December.
Under her leadership, Conners Emerson was twice named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education – in 2004 and 2017. The Blue Ribbon Schools program recognizes top-achieving schools based on overall academic performance or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups. In 2017, Conners Emerson was one of only three Maine schools to receive the Blue Ribbon designation.
The school has continued to thrive in Neilly’s absence, but she has by no means been forgotten.
“I miss her every day,” said Heather Webster, who served as assistant principal for five years before succeeding Neilly as principal.
“As a mentor, she was wonderful. She is so knowledgeable and always very calm and steady. Nothing really fazes her.
“Barb put everything she had into this position. She really got to know students and their families, and she made a difference in so many students’ lives. And students would continue to reach out to her, even five, 10 or 15 years after they were here.”
Webster said Conners Emerson’s reputation for excellence didn’t come by accident.
“Barb made that happen with the people she hired, the people she cultivated to be fantastic educators.”
One of those is Lynda Millar, who has taught French at Conners Emerson since 2001.
“Barb is the kind of person you want with you when there’s a crisis,” Millar said. “She’s calm and very empathetic and she gets things done.
“She was always good at supporting teachers. If a teacher wanted to try something new and innovative or apply for a special program, she was always behind you.”
Millar said Neilly cared about every student and was especially concerned about those who were at risk of getting into trouble.
“She had a very good way with them, talking to them and understanding them and making them feel valued, and also working with their families.”
Roxie Brechlin started working at Conners Emerson the year after Neilly became principal. She taught first and second grade but was a kindergarten teacher for most of her career before retiring in 2014.
“Barb was always providing us with information regarding professional development opportunities and encouraged us to pursue them,” Brechlin said. “I always enjoyed her visits to my classroom and her notes of encouragement.
“On 9/11 2001, Barb went to each teacher with the shocking news, making sure each person felt safe and secure.”
Mike Zboray, who was named superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System earlier this year, was assistant principal at Conners Emerson for 14 years starting in 2000.
“Barb really believed in putting kids first in all of her decision making; the kids were always at the top of her mind,” Zboray said. “I think that was reflected in the fact that on two occasions the school received Blue Ribbon School recognition.
Barb worked really hard to make Conners Emerson a very highly respected school.”
Zboray said teachers respected Neilly because she listened to them, and they always knew where they stood with her.
“She did everything she could to incorporate staff ideas into trying new things and making sure the teachers had professional development opportunities. She also continued her own learning. She went to Harvard every year for a conference on the newest and best information regarding students with disabilities and mental health issues. Then she would come back and share that information with staff. That was near and dear to her heart.”
Neilly said last week that she is sorry she had to leave Conners Emerson and Bar Harbor so abruptly.
“Family medical issues dictated that,” she said. “I didn’t have a chance to say the goodbyes to the community that I would have liked to.”
Asked what she was most proud of in her nearly three decades as principal, Neilly said, “The students and staff. I am thankful to the staff for their expertise and dedication to students and for providing the best education. And as a staff we are proud of the two blue ribbons we received.
“I am also proud of starting the joint venture with Appalachian Mountain Club and Acadia National Park that evolved into the Schoodic Education Adventure program at the Schoodic Institute.
And Neilly’s fondest memories as principal?
“Working with the kids. The first day of school and the end-of-the-year celebrations. When we started the music festival. When we did the whitewater rafting. The Halloween parade, the art, the music performances and the sports teams. All of those things that had me out and about with the kids are fond memories.
“I am thankful for the students and their families for their support and willingness to work with Conners Emerson to strive for excellence. I am grateful to the community for supporting a school that excelled in academics, co-curricular and visual and performing arts. And I am grateful to the school board, Town Council and community for working with me, challenging me, but most importantly, supporting the school.”