McMURRAY – After almost 17 years working in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system, Dr. Jeannine French had no intention of leaving.
She even declined the position when a search consultant called her about interviewing for a superintendent’s opening in Peters Township School District. However, the consultant called repeatedly and, eventually, French consented to an interview.
Officially hired by the district in early June, she began her duties as superintendent July 15.
A few weeks later, she has yet to unpack all of the boxes in her spacious office in the administration building on East McMurray Road. There are stacks of manuals and paper scattered around various tables.
“I wanted to get organized,” French said as she sat in her office, surrounded by boxes, as to the reason her office shelves lack any personal touches.
A career in education was far from French’s mind when she received her degree in psychology from Allegheny College. The native of Moon Township went on to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from Duquesne University. For the next several years, French, 46, worked in various hospital systems in and around the Pittsburgh area.
While doing consulting work in the Pittsburgh school system, French said she “fell in love” with education and returned to school to earn her principal certificate from Carnegie Mellon University and her superintendent’s certification from the University of Pittsburgh.
That’s when French began her employment in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system, eventually rising to the position of deputy superintendent. Sixteen plus years later, the consultant called.
“I never intended to leave. The children are still there whom I remember since kindergarten. But the more I thought about it, I thought I could enjoy working (in Peters Township.)”
And does a doctorate in clinical psychology help in her job as superintendent? “I think it does,” she said. “I welcome parents as advocates for their children. They can call me and go to the board meetings. Any kind of contact is welcome.”
Having an armed and uniformed police officer in the high school does not affect her. In the Pittsburgh schools, there is an entire police force, although they are all unarmed, dedicated to proving a safe environment.
In the 54 schools in the Pittsburgh school system, French said she worked with students living in extreme poverty and others living in extreme wealth.
In the Peters Township district, with five schools, French acknowledged extreme diversity is not an issue.
“Here, we can have more focus as there are not the extremes,” French said.
She does not intend to spend her days in the administration building.
“I want to be involved,” French said. “I plan on spending 60 percent (of my time) in the schools, and stay connected with the children and teachers.”
French is acclimating to the area and is “committed to getting lost” as she drives through the township.
In her spare time, French enjoys sitting in the back garden of her Mexican War Streets home in Pittsburgh, watching activity around a small pond and garden. Her parents still live in the Moon Township home where French grew up with her two brothers and one sister, a teacher.
And then there’s Hennessy, her beloved lab mix – the color of Hennessy cognac – whose’s been her best friend for the last 14 years.
Hennessy aside, French is devoted to the process of educating children. She is well aware of budgets and balancing the financial needs of a school district.
“I don’t want financial decisions made far away from the classrooms,” French said, her voice becoming more emotional. “We have to teach children how to survive beyond school.”
She plans to instill in the students skills like critical thinking that may be used to tackle life.
“The demands on these students in the future are more than we can imagine,” French said. “I want to provide children with the ability to think deeply and critically.”