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New Port Chester superintendent hopes to help at-risk students

Kudos to an educational leader who starts off his new job by pointing out that NCLB is a dead duck, or words to that effect. Kudos also for his concern with reaching out to parents and to students called at-risk.

By Leah Rae

PORT CHESTER Students and teachers will see a change of direction this year as they welcome a new superintendent, the first in memory to be hired from somewhere else.

Donald Carlisle started out as a history teacher in his home state of Texas, and arrives after serving as a superintendent in Miller Place, on Long Island. Along the way, he has served in no fewer than 15 school districts, and says he is adept at fitting in.

"My style is called 'gentle leadership,' " Carlisle said last week after a luncheon with school custodians. He described a people-oriented approach that would include regular visits to classrooms, a wide-ranging search for high-quality teachers and a communication style that's "real."

Carlisle is not a fan of the federal No Child Left Behind initiatives that emphasize testing and annual standards. While academic improvement is his top goal for Port Chester, he called the act "a failed initiative for the most part."

That stands in contrast to his predecessor, Charles Coletti, who emphasized the new standards as a measurement of the quality of instruction. During Coletti's 11-year tenure, the district had success in raising scores and pursuing innovations such as the new health centers operating in two elementary schools. With an enrollment of 3,600 students, the district is challenged by high poverty rates and a large immigrant population.

Among the plans this year are a $25.4 million building renovation project and an expansion of health services into the middle and high schools. Carlisle wants to increase communication with Hispanic parents through a series of community discussions led by Briarcliff Manor author Mariela Dabbah. About 65 percent of the district's students are Hispanic, and 20 percent have limited English.

Carlisle said he would bring a greater emphasis to improvements at the high school level.

"I think my comfort zone in the high school will be a great advantage," he said. Among his interests are efforts to help at-risk students, something he focused on in the upstate district of Hudson, near Albany.

Port Chester is a slightly larger and far more ethnically diverse district than highly rated Miller Place on Long Island, where he served for five years.

"We are very optimistic this is going to be a very good match," school board member Ann Capeci said, noting Carlisle's experience with diverse student groups and the feedback received from his employees in Miller Place.

Carlisle said he was "at-risk" when he learned the importance of education as a child. Growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood on the north side of Houston, Carlisle said, he was put on notice when he was 12 that he needed to start supporting himself.

"I had the largest paper route in the city of Houston as a 12-year-old," he said. He worked at a post office to put himself through college at the University of Houston, and ultimately earned a doctorate in education at Harvard University in 1995.

In his career, he went from serving as a principal in Texas schools to working as superintendent in Maine, Hudson and Miller Place.

"He seems so comfortable here," said his wife, Barbara Carlisle.

Carlisle assumed the $210,000 position July 1. He and his wife said they've been busy settling in and looking for a home while seeing their youngest daughter off to college. They met as teachers at a Houston junior high school and raised three daughters, two of whom have graduated from college. The third is beginning at Trinity University in Texas.

Carolee Brakewood, a parent who served on the interview committee, said she felt fortunate to have a superintendent coming from a high-performing district.

"I'm hoping he can take Port Chester up to the next level," said Brakewood, the mother of a first-grader and a preschooler. She thought Carlisle would help give school personnel a fresh start.

"It's always good, when you have an institution, to bring in some outside blood to take a look at how we're doing things, and see weaknesses or strengths with fresh eyes."

August 27, 2006

— Leah Rae
The Journal News


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