Serratore ends career where it all started

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Fran Serratore

NAUGATUCK — Naugatuck High School Principal Fran Serratore’s career is coming to an end where it all began.

Serratore, who is retiring at the end of this month, got his start in teaching in Naugatuck 41 years ago.

Fresh out Southern Connecticut State University, Serratore got a call about a physical education position at the former Hillside Intermediate School. The Bristol native was happy to take the position in his college major. In addition to teaching P.E., Serratore was the school’s basketball coach.

“Athletics were very important to me growing up,” Serratore said.

Serratore never applied for the position. His college gave his name to then superintendent Ray Dowling. He drove over to meet the school’s principal and was offered the job on the spot.

“It was all just fate, I guess,” Serratore said.

The sports enthusiast didn’t teach physical education for very long though.

Five years after taking the job, Serratore took a position as a social studies teacher and basketball coach at St. Paul Catholic High School in Bristol, where he led the team to the state championships in 1988.

“We won our share of conference championships,” Serratore said. “I enjoyed the social studies. I loved the basketball part of it.”

When the fate of St. Paul was in jeopardy 16 years later in 1991, Serratore decided it was time to move on. He took classes to get his administrative certificate and landed a position as assistant principal at Portland Middle School, where he stayed for two years.

“It was a great experience,” Serratore said.

His tenure at Portland taught him a great deal about middle school and the team concept.

Before long, Naugatuck called him back.

“Naugatuck was always a special place,” Serratore said. “When I came back after 18 years, it was like I never left.”

Serratore served a brief, six-month stint as assistant principal at Naugatuck High School in 1993 before settling in as principal at City Hill Middle School, a position he kept for 15 years.

“I always wanted to have my own building,” Serratore said.

At the middle school, Serratore introduced the idea of teams, which he learned about at Portland.

“We changed that structure around and it was a positive thing for City Hill,” Serratore said. “It became a real middle school.”

By dividing the school into teams, Serratore was able to make the big school feel like a much smaller school. The same kids have the same four teachers for their core classes, allowing the teachers to get to know the students better. Parents were able to talk about their child’s progress with the team. Teachers in a team could plan co-curricular projects together and discuss student problems.

The team model allowed for more communication and cohesiveness from class to class.

“Teachers had a lot of ownership as to what went on and how they dealt with the students, and how they made accommodations for them,” Serratore said. “The kids knew when they went from class to class there was a connection.”

When Serratore finally became high school principal four years ago, he brought that idea with him.

High school freshman are now organized into teams, which helps them with the transition from middle school, Serratore said.

The team concept wasn’t the only impact Serratore made on the high school.

Under Serratore’s leadership, the high school dropped its lowest track of general level classes.

Fran Serratore

“We’re not doing anybody and favors by watering down a curriculum,” Serratore said.

He said the current job market demands skilled labor that requires continued education.

The trick is trying to provide support for students who are struggling,” Serratore said.

The high school still has honors and Advanced Placement classes for students to aspire to, but every student needs to be prepared to move on to at least a two-year college or technical training school.

“That was a big shift to make that move to heterogeneous classes,” Serratore said.

Research shows that students now need 21st century skills including critical thinking, communications, problem solving, creativity, and technological savvy, Serratore said. He has tried to embed those skills in the curriculum so students can compete in a tough job market.

Education is always changing, Serratore said.

“If you standing still, you’re moving backwards,” he said.

Serratore said he owes a lot of his success to his early mentors, Bobby Markovic, the first principal who hired him, Dowling, Carl Trombley, a guidance councilor at Hillside, and Ray Powell, also from Hillside.

“Those four guys, in my early days, were just a real powerful influence and help to me and special people,” Serratore said.

Just as his colleagues were an influence on him, Serratore hopes he will be a positive influence on his students.

“I take that responsibility that you have such a powerful influence on students very seriously,” Serratore said. “I always try to be straight with the kids.”

He said he tries to talk to them and get inside their heads to motivate them to do the right thing, both in and out of school.

As a teacher and administrator, Serratore said he walks a fine line, and he sees himself as a parent.

“Sometimes, you’ve got to give them a kick in the butt and other times you have to put your arm around them and give them a little encouragement,” Serratore said.

Serratore said his goal has always been to make students understand the importance of education.

He said one great thing about becoming high school principal when he did is seeing how his middle schools students developed into fine men and women.

In middle school, children are in a state of confusion, Serratore said, but by high school, things start settling in.

Serratore began his tenure as high school principal when Naugatuck High School’s Class of 2011 was freshmen.

“We came in together and we’re going out together,” Serratore said.

Class of 2011 salutatorian Dayna Seeger said it was nice to have Serratore follow her class though middle school and high school.

“He knows all of us by name. He knows us personally,” she said.

After four decades of teaching, Serratore said it was simply time for him to step aside.

“It’s been 41 years that I’ve been at this and I just thought it was time,” Serratore said.

Serratore said he would miss the students and staff at City Hill and the high school.

“I really, really just enjoy working with the kids and the parents and the staff all through it,” Serratore said.

He said he has made great friends at Naugatuck schools that stood the test of time.

With Serratore leaving, the Board of Education will have its hands full searching for his replacement this year and a new superintendent next year. Serratore said Associate Principal Jan Saam is doing an outstanding job and would be excellent candidate for his position.

Saam said she has applied for the position, had her share of kind words for her colleague.

“Fran is a man who, at the heart of it all, always, always puts kids first. He really, truly cares about the students and you can’t take that away from him,” Saam said.

When Serratore’s retirement came up before the Board of Education Chair David Heller voted, tongue-and-cheek, not to accept his retirement.

“I can’t believe he’s abandoning me. … I feel very upset with him,” Heller joked in a later interview.

Heller said he would miss Serratore, whom he said was a good man and hardworking, dedicated borough employee.

“He’s been a teacher and administrator for many, many years and has touched the lives of thousands of students in our town,” Heller said.

Heller said Serratore’s years of experience helped him successfully interact with students, parents, teachers, fellow administrators, and the community. Serratore has promoted diversity, showcased recently in a cultural heritage night at the high school, and worked hard to improve the high school curriculum, Heller said. Serratore was also supportive of extracurricular activities and was always on call, Heller said.

“He’s been a guy who in my opinion works at that high school 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Heller said. “He’s developed a very open, inviting, and enthusiastic learning climate at the high school.”

On behalf of the school board, Heller said he appreciates Serratore’s years of service in Naugatuck.

“We have some big shoes to fill,” Heller said. “Hopefully, we can find someone who can step in and do the terrific job that Fran was doing for us.”

Superintendent John-Tindall-Gibson echoed Heller’s sentiments.

“Fran Serratore has been a tremendous asset to the Naugatuck school system and we will be sorry to see him leave.  He is a very capable, experienced administrator who contributes to a caring and respectful climate that encourages young people to do their best.  He enjoys working with people and he understands teaching and learning well,” said Superintendent John Tindall-Gibson in a written statement.

Serratore said he doesn’t have any specific plans for the future as of yet. He said he’d wait and see what pops up as far as continuing to be involved in education at some level.

Whatever the future holds for Serratore, one thing is for sure, Naugatuck will always hold a special place in his heart.

“I truly appreciated the opportunity that Naugatuck has given me when they first hired me way back when and opportunity to return as administrator. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute here,” Serratore said. “I hope my tenure in Naugatuck at all these various levels had a positive affect on the students.”