After nearly 12 years as New Haven superintendent of schools, Dr. Reginald Mayo has already received a substantial number of awards for his work in public education. But last fall, as school administrators readied his application for yet another award — Connecticut Superintendent of the Year — Mayo told them not to worry too much about it.

“We’ve now conspired to submit him for — this is the fourth time, actually — and this year, Dr. Mayo said to me, don’t take a lot of time with that, don’t even bother,” Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, director of communications for the New Haven public schools, said.

Sullivan-DeCarlo sent in the application anyway, and not only was Mayo named the state’s top superintendent, but he was also selected as one of four finalists for the 2004 National Superintendent of the Year award. The award is given annually to just one of the 14,000 school superintendents in the country and recognizes school administrators for outstanding leadership in public school education.

After being named a finalist, Mayo traveled last month to Washington, D.C., where he discussed current educational issues like the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act with the other finalists and was interviewed by a panel of educators, businesspeople and government officials. That panel will announce the winner of the national award next week at the American Association of School Administrators conference in San Francisco, Calif.

Darlene Pierce, who has directed the National Superintendent of the Year program for almost two decades, said earning the distinction of finalist is an “enormous, enormous honor” and praised Mayo for his efforts on behalf of the 21,000 students in his district.

“Dr. Mayo is an urban superintendent — probably the most difficult job in education — and yet the letters that came in about him were just glowing,” Pierce said. “People think he was able to listen to the concerns of the community, able to deal with children who had a lot of other problems besides the academic ones, and he did it very well. I think that the selection committee sensed in him an enormous need for these children to move ahead.”

After starting out as a science teacher at Troup Middle School in 1967, Mayo worked his way up through New Haven’s school system. He became principal of Jackie Robinson Middle School in 1973, was promoted to executive director of school operations in 1984, and began, in 1992, a tenure as superintendent that, in terms of longevity, has far outlasted the national average for the position.

Sullivan-DeCarlo said she thought Mayo has reached finalist status in part because of his successful leadership in building the state’s largest interdistrict magnet school program and largest preschool initiative. But Barbara Knisely, public information officer for the American Association of School Administrators, said the selection panel was also especially impressed by the four finalists’ abilities to involve the community in their work.

“The thing about the folks who rise to the nomination level is that they’ve got everybody on board with what they’re doing and this is a community effort,” Knisely said. “They work really hard at keeping the local community involved and engaged in public education.”

Both Pierce and Knisely emphasized that a superintendent’s designation as finalist is also a significant honor for his school district.

“Most of the superintendents will say this is not representative of my efforts; this is representative of what everybody in the school system does on a daily basis to raise academic achievement standards and goals for all our kids,” Knisely said. “[The award] should be perceived as an element of pride for that local community about what’s happening inside those school buildings every day.”

That show of support for his and the district’s work — whether or not Mayo wins the national title — is “thrilling and refreshing,” Sullivan-DeCarlo said.

“It means a lot,” she said. “Given all the challenges that superintendents face, it’s a nice vote of confidence for the work that we’re doing in the New Haven public schools.”