Following a hectic Monday as the principal of Franklin County School, Chip Clatto looked out his office window onto the stunning Apalachicola Bay and had a chance to relax after all the excitement during his very long first day on the job.
“It’s a pretty amazing view,” he said.
Clatto had been hired less than a week earlier by a unanimous vote of the school board, following a luncheon meeting with community leaders who all liked what they saw in the 49-year-old veteran educator.
Karen Peddie, the district’s director of human resources, had written an enthusiastic letter of support for Clatto.
“He has a history of proven effectiveness, strong leadership and excellent communication,” she wrote. “His experience includes being the founder of a public magnet school emphasizing bioscience and medicine whose scores were at the top of the state for two straight years while he was principal.”
In addition, the board agreed to an $85,000 salary for Clatto, with more than a decade of experience, about $4,500 more than was paid last year to Kris Bray, who only had one year of being a principal on her resume.
“I believe we’ve found a very viable candidate,” she said. “He spent a weekend here, he loved it here, and met a number of community members. He’s very interested.”
Peddie also noted the proposed salary compared favorably to that of neighboring districts, which pay between $79,000 and $84,000, as well as with the state average of more than $96,000 for principals, most of whom supervise a great deal fewer employees than Clatto finds himself overseeing.
Which leads to one of the top agenda items Clatto is facing, that of filling three teaching vacancies that suddenly opened on the eve of the new school year.
Catherine Franklin, a retired math teacher who had agreed to a part-time position teaching high school geometry, decided to stay retired, while another new hire, fifth-grade science teacher Amy Turner, was offered a position at Wewahitchka Elementary, not far from where she was living in Gulf County. In addition, high school English teacher and track coach Kati-Morgan Hathcock, mother of a newborn infant son, opted to take a leave of absence for the next year, with plans to return sometime between January and August 2017.
In an interview Monday evening, Clatto sounded an understanding note regarding such decisions teachers make regarding family, particularly since it was these family values that attracted him to come here, and ones he will have to personally deal with in the months ahead. His wife Noelle teaches high school in Davie, and he has two children, Luke, 11, and Kyra, 7, who are starting the school year in South Florida.
“Life happens and you have to adjust. Things happen in life and you have to move on,” he said. “We’re going to do what’s in the best interests of our family. I take it very seriously; my kids mean everything to me.
“The Clattos are going to be a part of this community for quite a while,” he said.
Clatto said the values he saw in Franklin County people, and their hopes and aspirations for their children, is what drew him here.
“The reason why I’m here is because of the people here, they were so sincere,” Clatto said. “They really seemed to want to get better and to have someone help them get to the next level.
“They were just well-mannered, they believe in kids saying please and thank you, that character and integrity and work ethic matters,” he said.
“Number one, they wanted to be better,” he added. “What I hear, and what my impression is, is that the school right now is coasting, that it has so much potential and that it just needs the right direction and the right vision.”
Clatto said he plans to approach the hiring of these new teachers along the lines of his broader vision, of building partnerships and collaboration.
“We’re going to be out-of-the-box thinkers and we’re going to try things that maybe a lot of folks don’t do,” he said. “For a lot of teachers, that’s very exciting to be part of something that’s on the rise. I think it will be very, very attractive to folks.
“I have to meet with human resources, and develop a plan to go out and attract people and locate people,” Clatto said. “We’re going to have to get on the phone and start building relationships, with educators and with the universities, and find the best possible teachers we can.”
Son of a trailblazing mom
Another challenge for Clatto even closer to home will be to find one.
Initial plans for a rental fell through, so now he finds himself living out of the Best Western with a truckful of belongings.
He said he’s scoured Apalachicola, Eastpoint and Carrabelle, to look for a three-bedroom, two-bath rental but has so far come up with nothing, and now has broadened the geography of his search to find something suitable for his family.
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Clatto was raised in a community where his mother had earned a fair share of fame, as she became the nation’s first African-American weather forecaster on television, in 1962. After more than 25 years on-air on St. Louis television, Mrs. White Clatto died in May 2015 at age 77.
“She was a trailblazer and did a lot of amazing things,” said Clatto.
It was loyalty to his parents and hometown roots that kept him in St. Louis, where he earned a bachelors of history at Fontbonne University, and a masters in educational leadership from Maryville University of Saint Louis. It was where he developed his leadership experience as assistant principal at a Jesuit high school, a middle school principal, and from 2013-15, as founding principal of the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience Magnet High School.
But after his mom’s death, Clatto decided it was time to leave the home where he had grown up, and move his family to South Florida. But his year serving as a principal at Nova Southeastern University School convinced him that the style of South Florida did not suit him.
“It was definitely not for our family, in terms of manners, etiquette, work ethic, from an integrity standpoint,” he said.
Clatto outlined his approach to the Franklin County assignment.
“I don’t believe in mediocrity, I believe in excellence in everything we do,” he said. “One of the things I talked about (with the director of the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium) is making this the model school in the Panhandle, a showcase for what could be done. This is our goal, to be top-notch, providing amazing opportunities for our school.
“Will it happen overnight? No. But will it happen? Yes. It’s going to get done and it's got to get done relatively quick. We’re dealing with children’s lives here,” Clatto said. “Our mission here is going to be that we think and we’re going to operate like a private school. That’s going to take the entire community. Everybody I’ve talked to so far has said they want that."
Clatto shared his thoughts on developing programs that provide students with more marketable skills, and assists in their starting businesses as entrepreneurs.
“One of the ways you get kids hooked, you have offerings that appeal to them,” he shared. “You have to get it started in elementary school. We’re going to have innovation labs and we’re going to start in elementary school.
“That’s the key, you get kids at early ages to love learning, love thinking, love communicating with their peers," he said. "That’s half the battle, so when they get to high school, they have a solid background. It’s a less arduous task than in middle and high school, to convince them you have to study.
“As concepts get more difficult and challenging, they’re able to perform because they were given this tool box in the formative years,” Clatto added. "You’re sitting on a gold mine, with the environment, the mixture of water and national forest — there’s so much going for you in this area,” he said.
And with that Clatto left for his temporary home, driving back to Apalachicola, as the glowing red sun set over the bay.