MONROE, CT — Stepney Elementary School staff members and families welcomed Ashley Furnari with open arms when she was hired as their school’s new principal last October. Furnari grew up in Monroe, attending Chalk Hill School as a sixth-grader when her family moved to town, before graduating from Masuk High School in 2001.
“They have been absolutely incredible,” she said of the school’s staff, recalling how nerve-racking it was adjusting to a new place after serving as assistant principal of West Elementary School in New Canaan for the past seven years. “It was a seamless transition. They just welcomed me, and the administration and the district were supportive as well.”
Furnari arrived during a time of sadness and transition for Stepney. Longtime principal Bruce Lazar had retired and was battling cancer, while former Monroe Elementary School Principal Debra Kovachi came out of retirement to lead Stepney during the principal search.
Furnari said Kovachi was helpful to her early on. “I feel grateful to her,” Furnari said. “I felt prepared. Of course, I was nervous.”
Furnari also credits the PTO for their support.
Lazar, who succumbed to his illness on Dec. 27, had taught Furnari’s younger brother when he was in the fifth grade, so she said she remembered Lazar as “an amazing educator.”
While applying for the SES principal position, Furnari mentioned Lazar in a letter she wrote to Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza, Assistant Superintendent Jack Ceccolini and the hiring committee.
“The ‘shoes’ of Bruce Lazar, will be very big shoes to fill,” she wrote, “but I would work hard to continue to lead by example, with the same high standards he has set, as a teacher and an administrator.”
Kobza is pleased with the school district’s hire so far.
“Making the transition as a principal mid-year would be difficult for anyone,” he said. “Doing it during the pandemic … well that’s a whole other story, but Ashley has managed to make this transition seamlessly.”
“True to everything she conveyed during the interview process, Ashley has been ‘Kids First,'” Kobza said. “She has been working tirelessly to get to know every student, staff member, and family at Stepney Elementary. Knowing how much Bruce Lazar treasured his time with kids, I’m sure he would be proud. She is such a great addition to our wonderful community. We’re fortunate to have her!”
Furnari and Tony, her husband of 10 years, live in Trumbull and have two sons, John, 9, and Anthony, 6. Her family also has a golden retriever named Lucy.
Born to teach
Ashley Furnari, whose maiden name is Farrow, remembers enjoying her interactions with children throughout her life, whether it was connecting with the kids she babysat for or students in the classes she taught as a religion teacher at St. Jude Parish, while she was still a student at Masuk.
“I’m definitely an elementary person,” she said of the age range of children she works best with.
Furnari was a double major at Western Connecticut State University, majoring in English and elementary education, and she was a student teacher for fourth-graders at Elizabeth Shelton School in Shelton.
On what she likes most about teaching, Furnari said, “I think it’s being able to look at a concept, break it up into smaller pieces, then teach it to kids — and they learn the larger concept. I always say kids are amazing if you break it down and are patient.”
Furnari said teaching is not a “one size fits all” and she loves seeing children get to the same answer in their own way. “And they learn from each other along the way,” she said.
“I just think I was always able to connect with kids,” she said. “I think I’m able to form a trust with them and that’s why I enjoy teaching.”
Furnari’s first education job out of college was a third-grade teaching position at Long Hill Elementary School in Shelton. Then she taught at Lafayette Elementary School until it closed and came back to Elizabeth Shelton School.
A path to principal
Furnari went back to school and earned a Master’s degree from Southern Connecticut State University, so she could become a reading specialist. Then she moved to Fairfield and served as a reading specialist and an instructional improvement teacher at Timothy Dwight Elementary School.
Furnari found that she enjoyed working with other teachers as well as students. She went to Sacred Heart University to earn an administrative degree. After that she was hired as assistant principal of West Elementary School in New Canaan.
“I always could see the work the teachers did and what administrators were doing — and I like both,” she recalled. “I loved that I could help shape the building to make it a trusting, welcoming, open space where kids felt they could take risks.”
Furnari said she enjoys being able to coach teachers while trying to foster that learning environment, adding she also learns from them through collaboration and the sharing of knowledge.
“I see myself as a facilitator,” she said. “I feel I work with colleagues to grow ideas and grow a vision.”
As much as Furnari enjoyed her job in New Canaan, she always wanted to find a place closer to home and pursued the Stepney Elementary School job when it opened up in Monroe.
After she was hired, Furnari met many of the families at the Stepney Spectacular at the beginning of October. “I try to make myself visible outside,” she said of greeting families at the beginning and end of school days.
Furnari said SES strives for open communication, sending out weekly newsletters to keep parents informed of the goings on at the school and to allow them the opportunity to participate in events, like the book drive for the Read-A-Thon late last week.
Furnari said she feels more comfortable at Stepney every day, adding, “I’m so grateful to be here.”