Catherine Ciarlo is an icon in Cranston Public Schools. Having grown up in Providence, she was born, baptized, raised, educated and has been employed in Rhode Island her whole life. And like athletes who dream as kids of starting and ending their career in the same place, Ciarlo has been in the same school system for 45 years. "I've had three loves in my life: my husband, my children, and Cranston Public Schools," Ciarlo says.
But after a lifetime of career success and good health, Ciarlo's life changed in 2003 when her shocking diagnosis of colon cancer nearly forced her early retirement. Nearly. "I really wasn't ready to retire," she says, "But I love the job just too much to stay here as a figurehead."
Time off: Cancer and chemo prompted months of time off for Ciarlo, followed by six months of half days last year. "It was a shock to everyone," says colleague Bob Scaffardi. "[But] everyone jumped right in and divvied up the slack. We knew that's what she wanted."
The dream team: Ciarlo returned to the district full-time thanks to the support of the district's 1,800 employees, and her small but tight administration she calls a "Dream Team." After all, "no one reaches Superintendent of the Year alone," she says (she won the state's 2004-05 award); "and if they do, they have a problem!"
Not ready for prime-time employment: Ciarlo never thought she'd be a superintendent when she began teaching in 1960 making $137,000 less than she is now. Her passion was reading and so it was back to school to Boston College for a masters in reading.
Climbing the ladder: In her career, Ciarlo was Cranston's first reading consultant, Director of Reading for 19 years, Director of Curriculum and Assistant Superintendent.
Longevity doesn't preclude innovation: To help support Cranston's graduation rate and provide an option for students gifted in carpentry, not chemistry, Ciarlo turned an abandoned school building into a public charter school for the trades.
Looking within: Instead of shipping Cranston's 2,220 students identified with special needs to day programs outside the district, Ciarlo supported the Sanders School, which now serves that special population and has attracted students from nearby communities.
Staying the course: Ciarlo's "vision" has been Every Child, a Reading Child. "One of the problems in education is that we don't stay on course. We keep jumping," she says. Ciarlo has placed a full-time, certified reading person in every Cranston school.
Her last hurrah: Ciarlo's contract expires in 2006, when she'll step down but not away from the system. Before her contract is up, Ciarlo has one last self-imposed hurdle to cross. "I hope to develop [an] inclusion model for ESL, because I believe that rather than isolate them, they have an opportunity to experience the language ... by being in the environment."
The volunteer: The remainder of Ciarlo's time will be spent volunteering in the hospitals that took care of her and her husband (who died suddenly in 2004).
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a freelance writer based in Boston, Mass.