April 18, 2013
Misty Volaski, email@example.com
For five decades, sick students in Ojai’s public schools have depended upon Charlene Fitzgerald to help them keep up with their classwork.
Five days a week for an hour a day, the “home teacher” instructs students — who are unable to attend class with their peers due to medical conditions — in their homes and hospital beds. “Sometimes it’s a cancer patient, or mono (mononucleosis), even something emotional like bipolar (disorder). Sometimes it’s only for a few weeks, sometimes it for a year,” Fitzgerald said. “It just depends on the situation.”
The veteran teacher was honored by the Ojai Unified School District’s board of education Tuesday night for her 50 years of service. The Board presented Fitzgerald with a necklace to commemorate the occasion.
“Charlene is emblematic of a teacher who has a heart for students, especially teenagers,” said Marilyn Smith, a longtime OUSD teacher and current director of elementary education. “She thoroughly enjoys connecting with students.”
Emily Mostovoy, an OUSD graduate who is now the District’s director of special education and student services, agreed with Smith. “Charlene has played such an integral role in educating so many youths within the Ojai Valley. She is a champion for our students and is dedicated to supporting each student’s academic and social emotional growth.”
Many of Fitzgerald’s former students have fond memories of their time with her. Lacey Noble, who underwent treatment for cancer while she was attending junior high school, exclaimed, “Oh she was amazing! There were points where I would be too sick to actually work, and she would just come and sit with me. She was always super easy going, such an awesome lady! She made my school experience super positive.”
A Nordhoff graduate herself (class of 1956), Fitzgerald moved to Ojai from Walnut Creek when she was 13. Excepting the years she spent in college at UC-Santa Barbara, she has lived in Ojai ever since.
She began her career as a teacher at Isbell Middle School in Santa Paula. After taking a year off to have her first child, she moved on to Matilija Junior High School, where she taught physical education.
A few years into her career at Matilija, a freshman girl at Nordhoff High School got pregnant, and Fitzgerald made the transition from in-class teacher to the job she’s held for the majority of her 50 years with the OUSD.
“They wanted a female to teach the pregnant girl at home, and asked if I would be interested. I said yes,” Fitzgerald remembered. “So I did that, and I started doing more and more (home teaching), and decided I liked it and wanted to stick with it.”
Because she only has one hour per day per student, she’s got her work cut out for her. “That’s only 15 minutes per subject — English, history, math and science. That’s not a lot,” she said. Add in elective classes and things get tricky. Fitzgerald’s students still use the same textbooks and follow the same basic syllabus as their peers, but Fitzgerald has the ability to be a bit more flexible in order to cover everything.
The years since her first home teaching job, Fitzgerald said, have taught her much and shaped her into the person she is today. “Especially the kids with cancer, cystic fibrosis, leukemia, liver transplants — from all of it, it’s made me a stronger person, a better person,” Fitzgerald said. “These children have never complained … they just want to keep life as normal as possible.”
She’s experienced a number of triumphs as well as several tragedies.
“Four of my students have died,” she sighed. “Thats’ what makes this job really hard. But those kids really taught me that you just have to take what life gives you.”
She’s attended sports games, weddings, funerals and quinceañeras for her students. One teenage mom made Fitzgerald her son’s godmother.
Fitzgerald has also taught multiple generations of students — “I’m now teaching the children and grandchildren of kids I went to school with!” she laughed.
One girl, who had a baby when she was just 14, had two more children later in life — one of whom required Fitzgerald’s assistance after being hit by a car. “It’s so interesting who you run into,” she said.
More than helping students keep up with their schoolwork, Fitzgerald said, “I think the thing I give them more than anything else is stability. They know I am coming every day, and I’m going to check their homework and I’m going to grade it.”
Jodi Heath, OUSD coordinator of certificated personnel services, said, “Charlene is the fairy godmother we all wish we had in our lives. She’s just a wonderful person.”