By Sarah Plummer
After 12 years with Dr. Charlotte Hutchens as superintendent of Raleigh County Schools, the county will undergo a big change June 30, bringing on board James “Jim” Brown from McDowell County.
But Hutchens has had a long tenure with Raleigh, starting out as a teacher at Clear Fork 35 years ago.
At that time, she explained, she taught kindergarten at the then K-12 school.
She said teaching was a natural profession for someone who loved school.
“I always liked working with kids and I think most people who become a teacher want to help students and make things better. I am one of those people who wants kids to improve.”
After teaching at Clear Fork and Central Elementary at Bradley, Hutchens was a principal, the director of staff development and assistant superintendent before her current position. She said her passion for teaching and education, however, has never waned over the years.
“I still firmly believe public education is the strength and the backbone of our country. I tell principals and teachers all the time, ‘You don’t know how much influence you have.’ It sounds cliché and trite, but they really are shaping the future. They are the group of people who have children’s lives in their hands, and that influence is phenomenal,” she explained.
While her passion remains the same, her mindset and personality have changed with the position. In part, she said, because of being forced to deal with people-problems so often.
During her first principal position, then superintendent Bill Baker asked her what she found most surprising about the job.
“I told him people — ‘I’m surprised at the things people do.’ — and I’m still surprised, although not as much because I have seen and heard a lot. At first you are a little naive and you feel really disappointed at people’s behavior,” Hutchens said.
And dealing with people, particularly personnel issues, has been one of the hardest aspects of the job, she said.
“Superintendents in West Virginia are heavily legislated in everything we do. I think that is probably the hardest part about personnel issues. Often decisions are not what you want to do, but what is dictated to you by state law,” she said.
During her tenure, despite hard decisions, she said she has always been proud of Raleigh County Schools.
“I have always been extremely proud because I think we are one of the most progressive counties in the state and we have a great reputation,” she said. “But that is not because of this position; it is because of teachers and administration. My philosophy has always been that teachers have the most important job because they are the ones working with the kids daily and getting the real work done.”
Of Raleigh’s successes, Hutchens sees the board’s willingness to make technology a priority as a major one.
Over the last decade, she explains the schools system has made great strides in technology, moving from desktops to mini notebooks to iPads.
“At the end of the year, I was at Coal City Elementary and a kindergarten class was using iPads. I told a little boy, ‘Gee, I’m not very good with mine,” and he said, ‘If you come back, we will give you lessons.’
“I think this shows that kids are not afraid of using and learning about technology and I think that is a good thing,” she shared.
In addition, nearly every year during her tenure, local schools have been named West Virginia Schools of Excellence or Exemplary Schools. Two schools, Crescent and Maxwell Hill elementaries, have been named National Blue Ribbon Schools.
And while there have been many, many successes, Hutchens sees certain challenges for the board continuing.
Since the downward turn in the economy, Hutchens said she has seen more and more students who have less and less, and many students who only get a filling, well-balanced meal during school.
She says she expects to see this unfortunate trend and challenge continue.
“When a child is struggling and doesn’t know when their next meal is, it is going to be really hard to concentrate on learning how to read and do math. I see this as a growing challenge for the board,” she said.
She also noted that the idea of a middle-class, nuclear family with a mother and a father is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Many students live with one parent, grandparents or aunts and uncles, which can change the educational system, she said.
Though Hutchens has considered retirement in the past, she stayed on because the county was having many other central office employees retire. And, she said, she may not have been quite ready to pack up.
“Retirement is a big thing and you kind of have to talk yourself into it sometimes.”
So far she has no huge retirement plans. She wants to put her house in order, travel some and then consider other job offers she has had.
But that will come after a much needed break. The superintendent’s position is managing big operations, she explained. Even transportation and food service are individually bigger than most businesses in Raleigh County.
“Often I’ve found myself tied to the office and to paperwork, but the best moments have been when I could get into the schools and see what the kids were doing.”
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