Fox Chapel hires new superintendent

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Gene Freeman knows what it is to pen a letter. In longhand.

He spent a good portion of his free time last year scripting notes to the students and staff who comprise the Manheim Township School District in Lancaster County, congratulating them on their accomplishments, commenting on their progress, basically affirming that he recognizes that he’s the head of a team that includes the entire school district.

In all, he estimates he sent about 2,000 such notes, signed Gene Freeman — though he holds a doctorate degree that in, most circles, would warrant the courtesy title of “Dr.” and his “real name” is Robert Eugene Freeman.

"Call me Gene,” he says in a recent interview.

Mr. Freeman has been hired as superintendent of the Fox Chapel Area School District. He’ll begin his duties, earning about $195,000 annually, in March.

Originally from North Carolina where a big segment of the population qualified for free or reduced lunches and the American Indian population was significant, Mr. Freeman has spent the past six years as superintendent of Manheim, a school district much like Fox Chapel, with a good deal of financial resources in the community and high expectations for achievement. He earns a similar salary to the wages he’ll be paid in his new post.

“I see a lot of parallels between Manheim and Fox Chapel. I think I understand the issues: The desire to maintain high quality programs balanced with good stewardship of financial resources; growing diversity in the (resident and student) population. I’m excited to take this on,’’ he said with a soft southern drawl underscoring his remarks. Manheim has about 5,800 students compared to about 4,250 at Fox Chapel.

At 52, Mr. Freeman has had a varied career. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in textiles from University of North Carolina Greensboro, he initially worked in the clothing industry before deciding to seek an elementary teaching certification that landed him a job as a kindergarten teacher in a private school in North Carolina.

From there, he entered the Robeson County (Lumberton, North Carolina) School District — a district with about 30,000 students, where he grew up — and began teaching sixth graders for about six years, until he moved into administration in the year 2000. While teaching, he earned a master’s degree in elementary education in 1995 from UNC Pembroke then an education specialist degree from South Carolina State University in 1998 then an educational doctorate in educational administration in 2005 from Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.

Soon after his move to administration in the Robeson County School District, he was notified that he had won the coveted Milken Educator Award (a national honor that carried with a $25,000 cash prize) for teaching excellence in 1999 — the same year he was named the district’s “teacher of the year.” And the same year he won a Fulbright Memorial Fund Award to study a month in Japan.

He moved to Weatherly Area School District in Carbon County as superintendent in 2006, staying two years until his relocation to Manheim.

Part of what attracted him to Fox Chapel was the excitement and beauty of Pittsburgh, which he encountered when his daughter began college four years ago at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“It’s a fantastic area. My wife and I are excited about the opportunities to live in Fox Chapel and the proximity to a city like Pittsburgh. We like city life and look forward to exploring all it has to offer,’’ he said. His wife, Allison Freeman, is a medical doctor who is chief of the allergy and asthma department for Geisinger Hospitals based in Danville. They’ve been married for seven years and together have blended a family of three adult children.

Teaching was his heart’s calling but he said he is invigorated by “the responsibility and challenge of running an $87 million organization” like the Fox Chapel School district. He said the district’s profile impresses him and the school board members seem like people who will be “great bosses who see us all as team members who really have the children at heart.”

His hallmark is knowing and being known by the staff and students of his school district.

“I’m really proud of the fact that when I walk into any school, any classroom, the kids know who I am. I do not isolate myself in an office,” he said. He intends to follow the same protocol at Fox Chapel.

He said he’s had to make tough decisions involve program and staff cuts that have earned him some ire over the years, but his mission to be “good stewards of the money” can’t come at the expense of quality education. “There is a direct correlation between student achievement and being a well-rounded student,” he said. Just as there is a direct correlation between a quality school district and property values, he added. Communicating the balancing act to the taxpayers, the board members, the staff and the students will be a top priority, he said.

As for any substantive changes, he said he can’t speculate until he “gets in there and get’s to know the place.”

Until Mr. Freeman arrives, Linda Hippert, the current executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, will serve as Fox Chapel’s acting superintendent.

“Fox Chapel Area has a long tradition of superior performance, which has been achieved by the hard work of our staff. We believe Dr. Freeman’s skills and experiences are an excellent match for our district and our district’s shareholders, and that he will help us continue to improve and grow,” said Sandra Garbisch, Fox Chapel Area School Board member and search committee chair, in a news release announcing Mr. Freeman’s hiring.

During his time at Manheim Township, the district added an intermediate school, an International Baccalaureate program, and full-day kindergarten. He also led an effort to create a consortium of three districts to create a “virtual high school” - the first in Pennsylvania. In addition, Manheim Township High School was named one of the top high schools by U.S.News & World Report, and was placed on the Advanced Placement Honor Roll by the College Board for expanding opportunity and improving performance for AP students.

About two dozen people were interviewed for the post. The search was led by a consultant and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Former Superintendent Anne Stephens announced her retirement in June, effective at the end of this calendar year, following an eight-year tenure as superintendent. Her retirement came amid criticisms from a group of residents concerned about the quality of her doctoral degree in educational administration. It had been conferred by LaSalle University in Mandeville, La., an unaccredited school that was investigated as a diploma mill in 1996. The founder pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion.

Ms. Stephens has acknowledged LaSalle was unaccredited but said she did legitimate coursework through correspondence and wrote a dissertation on the topic of how prepared administrators are for their duties. In May, some residents asked the school board to take action against Ms. Stephens, who was hired in October 2005, because they contended she does not have a doctorate from an accredited university.

The board backed Ms. Stephens, saying that although the district requires its superintendent hold a doctoral degree, its policy does not explicitly call for a degree from an accredited university.

Karen Kane: or at 724-772-9180.

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