Beginning this past June, Dr. Patricia Charles assumed her role as the new Middletown Superintendent of Schools, replacing Interim Superintendent Dr. David Larson. The superintendent position was wrought with controversy last year, with the Board of Education (BOE) unanimously voting for the removal of then superintendent Dr. Michael Frechette last March.

The BOE carried out a search process for a new superintendent earlier this year. While a hired firm conducted a regional search, the BOE set up focus groups of teachers, parents, and administrators to determine what qualities the community was looking for in a new superintendent.

In a phone interview with The Argus, BOE Chair Gene Nocera said that Charles’ experience made her stand out; she had served as principal of both Farm Hill Elementary and Keigwin Middle Schools in Middletown, and is also the former Superintendent of Schools in Westbrook, Conn.

The BOE unanimously found Charles to be the most highly qualified candidate for the position.

“Dr. Charles was the principal at Farm Hill and then Keigwin for both my daughters,” BOE Vice-Chair Sheila Daniels wrote in an email to The Argus. “I got to know her very well in those years and admired her greatly. She was a fantastic building administrator. She knew every student by name, had high expectations of both her staff and students, she was willing to assist any teacher in need of classroom support, and [was] always willing to roll up her sleeves and do whatever was necessary. She was friendly, fair, and firm. You always knew where you stood with her and her positive attitude was contagious.”

Over the course of his term, Frechette was criticized for authorizing the use of time-out rooms, or “scream rooms,” as a means to discipline students at Farm Hill Elementary School. Further controversy arose when an audit conducted during Frechette’s administration revealed a $1 million deficit in the Middletown Public Schools’ 2010-2011 budget. Last June, the BOE paid Frechette a nearly $300,000 settlement to leave his post as superintendent.

“It was apparent that the school board and the community wanted to move in a new direction,” said Nocera of Frechette’s removal. “We felt that the decision was in our best interests and in the doctor’s best interests….We thought that he was disturbing our new direction.”

Charles hopes to use her experience with both the Middletown public school system and the superintendent position to move the district forward in the wake of Frechette’s dramatic tenure.

“My children went through the Middletown Public Schools, so there’s an emotional connection as well,” Charles said. “I really feel that I’m the right person—I hope that I’m the right person at the right time. More than anything I want the Middletown Public Schools to be the very best that [they] can be.”

According to Nocera, it was her unique combination of intense work ethic, leadership ability, and people skills that set Charles apart from her competitors.

“Pat’s a real collaborator,” Nocera said. “She is focused on bringing the city government and BOE together in a collaborative way because that’s so important. We want to have a community that is working together, not against each other. That was a concern before [under Frechette].”

The main goal of her term, Charles said, is to reestablish the trust that the Middletown community once had in its school system. She attributes part of her success as the superintendent in Westbrook to her close partnership with the Westbrook city government. She said that, thus far, Mayor of Middletown Dan Drew has been very responsive, and she is looking forward to collaborations with Drew and the rest of the city government in the future. The two attended a meeting of the Middletown Youth Services Bureau last week.

“If we [the City Government and the Middletown Public Schools] are at odds with each other, we aren’t going to get anything accomplished,” Charles said.

Charles also sees professional development programs for teachers and administrators as central to a school district’s success. She claims that past professional development in Middletown has consisted of lectures and seminars offered occasionally during the year. Charles wants to go one step further and emphasize recurrent teacher training. She offered extensive professional development programs at the beginning of the year for teachers and hopes to continue to offer similar ones in the future.

Since she became superintendent, Charles said that she has faced the particularly difficult challenge of balancing the school budget. The economic climate has intensified the overwhelming need in the district, she said, adding that the past three years of economic management under Frechette served as another financial setback. Using her new budget, she plans to emphasize improving the schools’ technology and facilities. Charles also intends to expand resources for English as a Second Language (ESL) students.

“Our ESL population has grown by over 50 percent and their resources have stayed the same since I last worked in the district…It’s very important to me that we get ESL the support it needs [because] there is a connection between ESL and the wonderful diversity of culture that Middletown brings,” Charles said.

In addition to her emphasis on cultural diversity, Charles said that she also wants Middletown Public Schools students to see themselves as part of a global community. She hopes that expanding the schools’ technological resources will allow Middletown students to connect with students from other countries. She looks forward to collaborating with schools around the world, particularly in China, and with schools closer to home, including Wesleyan University and Middlesex Community College.

Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Charles said she focuses on keeping a positive attitude.

“Middletown Public Schools is an uncut diamond,” Charles said.  “There [are] all these fabulous valuable things right there at the surface but we haven’t been doing a great job at polishing it and letting things shine. That’s my job.”

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