As an economist and former vice president of AdvanceCT, Alissa DeJonge is no stranger to data. At the former Connecticut Economic Resource Council, DeJonge had been doing economic and public policy research to help the economy and make the state more competitive.
Now, as president of Mercy High School in Middletown, DeJonge puts those skills to a different use, whether it’s monitoring COVID cases or weather reports in the 50 communities the school serves.
“A lot of times we would say, it would be great if we could better connect education with employers and make a seamless transition – giving the students a better understanding of what they are learning and why they’re learning it and giving employers a better understanding of what is going on in the classroom,” DeJonge said.
When the president’s position at the all-girls’ school came openDeJonge said she saw an opportunity to bring the knowledge she’d gained to the community on a micro level.
DeJonge has now completed her first year as president of the school she graduated from in 1995, and has connected students and employers by bringing in speakers to talk to the students through clubs and “Tiger Talk,” a podcast the students started this year.
One thing the students learned from talking to professionals and community leaders is that they do not have to plan out their lives for the next several years.
“We’ve had several guest speakers in to talk about different aspects of business, and not just what they do in their jobs, but we also wanted them to talk about the decision-making process at different points in their career paths,” DeJonge said. “I would never have said I would be president of a high school, but you gain different experiences and skills and life twists and turns.”
This is a lesson that the COVID pandemic taught them as well, DeJonge said. “As much as you plan, things can happen that totally turn everything on its head.”
For the podcast, students would host business leaders, media professionals, public office holders, or someone whose career simply matched their interests. Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz recently joined the school’s Student Council officers to discuss what it means to be a woman in a leadership role.
To Mercy’s 375 students, Bysiewicz’s message was important, DeJonge said, as the discussion made them able to “see themselves in these positions of leadership.”
For another episode, students from the Ecology Club interviewed Bryan Garcia, president and CEO of the Connecticut Green Bank, which was established by the state legislature in 2011 to achieve renewable sources of energy while creating jobs.
Some alumnae also have been guests on the podcast, including Lori Fazio, who is the chief operating officer of R.J. Julia Booksellers. She discussed the school’s Breakfast Book Club with the student who founded that club.
From these conversations, DeJonge said, students would realize, “I can do what I love and what I am good at, and there is a job out there like that,” DeJonge said, adding she is able to use her own professional network to help connect students. “It’s been really fun to see my former colleagues and co-workers in this new light and they are excited to share their experiences and bring that advice back to the students.”
COVID has been a challenge to the first-year president, DeJonge said, but despite having to figure out the logistics, the school still held traditions such as the Freshmen Pin Ceremony and Spirit Week, as well as its junior and senior proms.
Having two principals at the school to handle day-to-day operations has helped DeJonge focus on other tasks including meeting with businesses, including ones owned by former students of the school. The restaurant business took an especially hard hit during the pandemic, so the school would feature those on its social media pages, DeJonge said.
And while the pandemic has forced many to navigate difficult issues, it also demanded people use technology in a way it hasn’t before, something that is here to stay, DeJonge said, citing the ability for schools to have a remote learning day instead of a snow day.
“It’s not going to replace in-classroom learning, but we can use it to supplement and enhance,” DeJonge said.