When the Mary Savioli Pallotta Educational Center at the Italian Home reopens for the new school year on September 4, Jane Zopatti-Lewis will be there as she has been for the past 29 years -- but two days later will be Jane’s last day at Italian Home.
Alan Jacobson, CEO of Italian Home, will be among the many who will be sad to see her go. Reflecting on her tenure, Jacobson says, “Jane has helped build one of the premier alternative schools in the state, and to think of the number of children that her work has helped is mind boggling. She has made a huge difference in many people’s lives as well as the organization as a whole.”
As Director of Educational Services at the Italian Home since 1990, Jane has seen the 12-month-a-year, K-8 program and its children through many changes and challenges. She has commuted each day from Sagamore Beach near Cape Cod -- “on the Boston side of the bridge, luckily” she notes wryly -- getting up at 5:30 a.m. every morning for the long drive to be on campus by 8 a.m.
As she retires, she knows her life will not be the same without the hundreds of children with special educational needs she has worked with over the years, as well as the dedicated staff, some of whom have been at the Italian Home even longer than she has.
Career with a detour
Jane started her career in education working with special needs adolescents in a small “storefront” school in Boston. She became that program’s Special Education Administrator. In an unexpected career switch, she spent much of the 1980s working for a temporary office staffing agency as its National Recruitment Manager.
“But my heart was always in education, and I had the special education credentials,” she notes, having received her Master’s Degree in Administration and Management from Cambridge College and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Education from Boston College. She also has Massachusetts Certification as an Administrator of Special Education and Teacher of Children with Moderate Special Needs.
Returning to her true love
Eventually she returned to her true love by taking the job at the Italian Home. When she arrived in 1990, the school was just five classrooms in the basement under the gym and residences. The forty students were also full-time residents at the Italian Home. Today the enrollment is quite different, with the school teaching about 35 day students and three residential students.
“In the early days, I could read the residential logs and know how the evening went for most of the students,” she observes. “Now most of the kids arrive by bus in the morning, and we don’t always know how their evenings and mornings went.”
State of the art then and now
When the programs moved into the new Pallotta school facility in 1994, it was “state of the art...one Mac per classroom” she laughs. “Today we have smartboards, and every student has a computer or tablet. All the children seem to have cellphones -- even the six year olds -- but they can’t bring them to school.”
Today, the children who attend the school have significant learning differences, mental health diagnoses, and social challenges. Under Jane’s leadership, the school is now working with more children on the autism spectrum, in some cases previously undiagnosed or misdiagnosed until getting to the school.
Jane worries that some of the children she and her team are working with today are much more reactive and impulsive than in earlier days. She says that a combination of increased substance abuse in families combined with exposure to more violence and trauma causes some children react with destructiveness. “We’ve had drainage rocks outside the building for 25 years, but it was only recently that children threw rocks at the windows and a car.”
Despite the challenges, Jane is upbeat about the successes the School has achieved with the students who have passed through its doors during her tenure, and its potential for continued success in the future. She mentions a young man who attended the Pallotta school for 6 years, graduated, finished high school and is now working at Italian Home while pursuing his studies at Boston College.
She smiles when she tells the story of a familiar voice she heard recently in Kohl’s Department store -- it turned out to be the sister of a former student. The sister invited her to come out to the car to talk with that (now college-bound) student, who had graduated and Jane hadn’t seen in several years. Jane is incredibly proud of the staff at the school – the school has the highest staff retention rate in the organization. Jane has always encouraged an individualized approach and quality therapeutic programming above all. She sees a bright future for the school.
Sorting through nearly 30 years
On a recent summer day, Jane was hard at work in her office going through nearly 30 years of paperwork that has accumulated in her file cabinets and on her desk, taking on the daunting task of deciding what needs to be archived in storage, what needs to be transferred to others, and what can simply be shredded.
“I have mixed feelings about retiring,” she says. “I’ve been working full-time since 1975 with only two summer breaks. It will be an adjustment, but I am looking forward to playing golf and traveling.”
“We’ve been really very fortunate to have some incredibly dedicated long-time staff at the school. I’m going to miss the students and the camaraderie at Italian Home.”
“But I’m not going to miss the commute.”