Education

After 36 years of educating in South Florida, Kris Charlton is set to retire

MIAMI HERALD STAFF

In Kris Matteson Charlton’s office, there’s a framed picture of a lemonade stand.

There are the usual elements — lemonade, cookies, five 4-year-old faces not quite looking at the camera — but what Charlton finds most delightful about the photo is the sign that promises all funds will go to Haiti.

“We see things in children that they don’t always see in themselves,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how little you are, you can make a difference.”

It’s this passion for education and character that students and faculty at St. Thomas Episcopal Parish School in Coral Gables will miss as Charlton’s 13 years as head of school come to an end on June 30, capping a 36 year career in Episcopal education in South Florida.

“Kris wears many hats,” said Fran Rosen, a fifth grade science teacher who began her St. Thomas career the same year as Charlton. “Her legacy will be the development of a whole child, morally and socially, in a 21st century school.”

Charlton, a self-described cradle Episcopalian, taught public school in Long Island, Boston and Connecticut before she took time off to be with her two daughters, Alison and Meghan. After her family moved to Miami in 1978, her daughters began school at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School in Coconut Grove and she soon joined them as a lab instructor.

“It’s the greatest profession,” she said. “We help people raise their children, and I think it’s a privilege to be there for people and be there for others.”

Charlton speaks endlessly about her love for education — a stream of conversation she’ll pause every few minutes to poke fun at herself for still talking.

After 10 years at St. Stephen’s, Charlton spent 13 years as head of school at St. Philip’s Episcopal School in Coral Gables before she moved to St. Thomas.

When Kim Vinas visited St. Thomas as a prospective school for her children, she knew her old St. Stephens computer lab teacher was somewhere in the school. But she didn’t know the bubbly teacher who taught her how to type in second grade was now head of school.

“She greeted me in the hallway,” Vinas, now the head of the parent’s association, said. “I heard “Kimmy” in her voice and it made me feel like I was the little girl again. I knew I was home.”

At St. Thomas, Charlton pushed the school to keep up with academic trends. She helped redesign curriculum and lead the construction of new buildings to facilitate technology and art classes.

But perhaps her biggest administrative accomplishment was the creation of the school’s endowment fund, which is still growing toward its $2.5 million limit.

“She was always thinking strategically for where the school would be in three or five years,” said Beth Johnson, the chair of the St. Thomas Board of Trustees. “I’ll miss just talking generally about education and her visions of constantly improving the school.”

While academics were always a priority for Charlton, she also focused on ensuring the students would receive more than a textbook education.

“Young children are open,” she said. “You can create so much for them and help open up their world of wonders. They’re empowered.”

Every morning, all 425 students and staff would gather around the American flag for the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem and words from Charlton.

“The values of the Episcopal schools are very close to her heart — honesty, treating others as you want to,” said the Rev. Mario Milian, the rector at St. Thomas. “It’s the values that we have promised to respect as human beings.”

Her “Kris-isms” about kindness, love and friendship and her words of support about the military each morning made the flag pole assembly an important part of the St. Thomas routine.

Her eyes crinkle with laughter as she pictures the 3-year-olds, her little “peanuts,” trying to mouth along to the Star Spangled Banner with the rest of the school.

“I believe very strongly in raising a generation that believes in God and country,” Charlton said. “These are the years we can have an impact. They’re ripe for leading by example.”

For Megan Maguire, 10, leaving St. Thomas at the same time as Charlton made her fifth grade graduation even more meaningful.

“She was so special and she’s touched so many of our lives,” Maguire said. “She’s leaving her impact while we’re leaving ours.”

While Maguire and the rest of the fifth-graders will now focus on middle school, Charlton is looking forward to spending time with her friends and family and enjoying the flexibility of retirement.

However, she said she will miss the family she found at St. Thomas.

“It’s been such a privilege to be here, and I’m so proud of being a family member,” she said. “I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to live out the passion God gave me.”

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