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New London - After a decade in the corporate world, Terrence P. Carter used a yearlong sabbatical from his position as a training and organizational development executive to try his hand at substitute teaching in Paterson, N.J.
During his year filling in for a second-grade teacher who was out on maternity leave, "I fell in love with the kids and I fell in love with what I was doing," Carter said in a phone interview Friday from Chicago.
On Thursday, the New London Board of Education voted unanimously to appoint Carter, 49, as the city's next superintendent of schools.
When his sabbatical ended, Carter said, he called his boss and said he had "found (his) second calling" and wouldn't be returning to the company. His boss laughed and told him he could take one more year off to make sure he had his wits about him.
But Carter called back a few months later and made his resignation official.
On Aug. 1, he will take charge of New London's school system as it continues its transition to become the state's first all-magnet school district, embarks on a school construction project and strives to become a model of education reform.
"Most attractive to me was this concept of creating a regional magnet school district that's not been done anywhere, and I'm always up for the challenge of doing something that's never been done," Carter said. "We don't have a road map, and that excites me."
Currently, Carter is the director and chief academic officer of the Academy for Urban School Leadership, a Chicago-based nonprofit that functions as a division of the city school system and works to turn around poorly performing schools.
He said that when the city's school board assigns his organization with a school to turn around, every adult in the building has to reapply for his or her job. The agency does not use a lottery system, but enrolls the same children that attended the school prior to the takeover, he said.
The academy, which also runs a teacher-training program, reported about $11 million in grants and other contributions in 2012, according to the most recent tax records available. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed more than $10 million to the academy since 2008, according to the foundation's website.
The organization has drawn praise from political heavyweights such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who previously served as a U.S. Congressman and as chief of staff to President Barack Obama.
Indeed, Duncan handpicked Carter from the New Leaders for New Schools administrator training program, Carter said.
Duncan, who was CEO of Chicago Public Schools at the time, was on a panel that interviewed and evaluated Carter to determine whether he would be an effective urban school administrator.
"He saw my presentation and said, 'I need this guy in Chicago,'" Carter said of the impetus for his move to the Windy City. "I was supposed to go to New York."
In Chicago, Carter served as principal-in-residence at Chicago's Dodge Renaissance Academy before graduating from the program and then accepted a job as principal of a chronically low-performing elementary school there.
"Academic performance was low on every scale you can think of, test scores were in the toilet," Carter said. "But those are the challenges that I enjoy working with and turning around, and showing people how to turn them around."
Natasha Nichols, an elementary school teacher in the Atlanta area who worked with Carter in New Jersey, said Carter's nontraditional path to the classroom gave him a different perspective on education.
"Especially at a time when we weren't looking at data as much as we are now in education, that's definitely something he brought to our cohort of teachers," she said.
Nichols, who said she still talks to Carter monthly, described him as someone who is constantly learning and always wants to be at the top of his game.
"He prepared endlessly for class. Many days he was there before the start time and definitely stayed after our contracted time" at the end of the day, she said. "Preparation was key for him."
Given Carter's experience in Chicago, how does New London compare?
"I know it has its challenges, but it is all about a person's frame of reference," he said.
In New London, the challenge is academic performance of students. In Chicago, the school system struggles with academic performance and an exorbitant crime rate that too often affects its students.
"When I look at the data, I see that Dr. (Nicholas A.) Fischer has done a great job getting them on a trajectory of achievement; the numbers do show he has them on the right trajectory," Carter said. "For me it is going to be about keeping it moving in that direction and continuing to raise the bar."
While he was a candidate for the superintendent's job here, Carter visited New London to get a sense of its culture and its history.
As a self-described foodie, Carter said he made time to stop into a handful of local restaurants, like Mambo Bar & Restaurant on Bank Street and Pollos a la Brasa on Broad Street.
He also said he was fascinated by the city's vibrant arts culture and its diversity.
"It's a little pocket that you would never think of as having that cultural diversity and awareness," he said. "It's not metropolitan, but it is definitely cosmopolitan."
Carter is planning to spend more time in New London on July 2 and 3 to meet with city leaders, administrators, teachers, parents and community members to discuss ways he can work with those groups to improve the city's schools.