ROCKVILLE — Retiring Montgomery County Public Schools administrator Pat Abrunzo said he was about nine years old when he started waiting on customers in his father’s shoe repair shop.
Some of his father’s responsibilities involved a lot of physical labor, working on his feet for 10 to 12 hours per day, so he had his son deal with the public to realize the difference between “working with your hands versus working with your mind.” Abrunzo continued to assist his father throughout high school, helping at the shop whenever he was not playing sports or other extracurricular activities, and later as he attended Lycoming College in his hometown of Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
Abrunzo learned to be respectful regardless of how people acted. He remained kind if customers complained about prices they thought were too expensive or services they thought weren’t quick enough. He grew to understand that individuals displayed different personalities in various situations.
Abrunzo’s ambition for teaching began in his junior year at Lycoming when the director of the college’s education department asked Abrunzo to read stories to an elementary school class in neighboring South Williamsport. At the time, Abrunzo was a biology major with plans to become a pharmaceutical salesman, but he had also been taking a few education classes and said to the director “OK, sure, no problem.”
After seeing the enthusiasm and excitement from those children as he read to them, Abrunzo’s career path changed.
“I said, ‘Man, you know what this might not be a bad field. All of the sudden, pharmaceutical sales doesn’t look all that great,’” Abrunzo said. “It was really based on that one experience that turned me around.”
Those were lessons Abrunzo has carried with him throughout his 53-year MCPS tenure, starting as a fifth grade teacher at Aspen Hill Elementary School and ending as the Director of School Support and Improvement of Elementary Schools, the position he’ll retire from at the end of the school year.
Abrunzo, who will be 77 this summer, plans to spend more time with his wife of 48 years, Jean, travel and visit his son in Florida.
“I’ve never seen him angry or upset,” said Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill (District 3), who has worked on the board since 1998. “He has so much knowledge and he’s seen every situation imaginable.”
Abrunzo went into human resources after first teaching for five years. He has also served as an assistant principal, principal, elementary school supervisor and elementary school director. Abrunzo became director after his department reorganized into the Office of School Support and Improvement in 2012.
Abrunzo has “seen it all” according to O’Neill. He was there during the 1980s when MCPS closed 65 schools and enrollment bottomed to a low of 90,000 students. He’s seen the growth of the school system too, as MCPS welcomed 156,000 students this past year, the largest number in its history. It marked the eighth straight year that enrollment rose by more than 2,000 students.
One of the most significant challenges Abrunzo said he’s faced during his tenure is bringing the academic performances of Hispanics and African Americans to the same level as those for white and Asian students. He’s also seen several colleagues he mentored become county administrators, which Abrunzo calls “some of my best moments.” However, it’s the bond he’s built with coworkers that Abrunzo and his fellow employees will remember the most.
“His leadership is all about people first and the strength of the relationships he’s had for decades with people,” said Loretta Favret, the Director of Elementary Leadership Training. “He moves schools by directing with people.”
Favret will take over as the Director of School Support and Improvement with the responsibility of supporting and supervising 17 principals from schools in Rockville, Quince Orchard and Wootton. She will continue to work with the principals on “closing the achievement gap” between minority and majority students.
What she will not be able to emulate is Abrunzo’s experience and calming personality that he’s brought to the MCPS for more than a half-century.
“There’s no replacing Pat Abrunzo,” Favret said. “He’s one of a kind.”