For the past 25 years in Darien, Ellen Dunn has succeeded in the positions she filled, moving from biology teacher, to head of the science department, to assistant principal to her latest accomplishment, the principal of Darien High School.

"This is a culmination of a lot of hard work and great joy," Dunn said.

She will take over on July 1 and replace interim Principal Arlene Gottesman, who has been in place for a year.

"In her role as teacher and assistant principal, Mrs. Dunn has been recognized for moving forward instructional initiatives focused on improving student performance and expanding opportunities for learning," Superintendent Stephen Falcone wrote to parents.

Dunn, who lives in Fairfield with her husband and daughter, said a major focus is to "take an exceptional school and challenge it to make it better."

Dunn was an assistant principal at the high school since 2007.

"As an assistant principal, Mrs. Dunn has taken a central leadership role in the coordination of Professional Learning Communities, led the process for the development of the master schedule, and served as a leader in the NEASC visit preparation and follow-up process," Falcone wrote. "Her efforts have been geared to ensuring that all students have a rich academic and personal experience, which has been reflected in her leadership in bridging general and special education as well as the coordination of the Names Day Program. She continues to exhibit a passion for mentoring teachers and supporting all teachers' instructional growth."

Dunn earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology from Trinity College in Hartford, a Master of Arts in teaching and a 6th Year in Educational Leadership from Sacred Heart University.

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Next year, the Common Core State Standards, a learner-centered style of teaching, will take effect in schools across Connecticut, but Darien has been using the model long before the CCSS.

"We recognized that the work of the classroom cannot just be a typical lecture and students taking notes for real learning to be going on," Dunn said. "For real curiosity, for real engagement, students have to be invested in what's going on. Not only does the teacher have to be asking good questions but the students need to also be asking good questions. That's the sign that a classroom is alive."

Dunn said she never expected to be a principal when she started teaching in Darien at the age of 23. She knew she definitely wanted to be an educator because of a certain professor at Trinity College.

"He taught me in a way that brought me to teaching," Dunn said, adding that his tests were unconventional. "His message was that it wasn't a good test if you didn't learn something from it. There was always questions, one after another, that would ask you to apply what you had learned in new ways. And he enjoyed creating questions that you would sit in front of him struggling with and trying to piece together what he had presented and now you had to piece the puzzle back together."

That professor helped Dunn to look at the bigger picture, she said, and to really ask, "why?"

Dunn also served as a Science Department coordinator, on the kindergarten through grade 12 science curriculum committee, the DHS faculty council and as a class adviser.

"As department coordinator, she was integrally involved in bringing technology to the classroom, particularly with the inclusion of electronic data-gathering tools," Falcone wrote. "She was the coordinator who helped to bring the Authentic Science Research program to Darien as well. During her tenure as coordinator, department offerings in science grew tremendously, AP program enrollment and offerings rose, and curriculum was continually refined to meet the needs of students."

Even after 25 years in the Darien schools, Dunn said she still finds herself amazed at the work the students produce.

"I find myself driving home in the car thinking, `Wow,'" said Dunn. "It's unbelievable what these kids are doing, even now after 25 years."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4407;@Meg_DarienNews