Denise Patterson lovingly describes the encyclopedia set her grandparents bought for her in the late 1970s, when she was 4.
She remembers the rich feel of the covers, the glossy pages and the vivid photos of places she wanted to visit.
The books made her feel able to reach out and touch the world and enticed her to learn more and more.
“Learning became my first passion, my life,” says Patterson, who took over as superintendent of Asheville City Schools in July. “I just think I was born to do this.”
Sitting at the conference table in her office, Patterson ticks off the names of the teachers who guided her and who became the inspiration for her career in education.
She usually has a notebook open in front of her, pen in hand, so that she can jot down ideas and process her thoughts.
“I don’t sit still very well,” she says. “I need to be moving, doing.”
As a student in the 1970s, she remembers the straight rows of desks, where students were required to sit quietly. She often became the teacher’s helper, which allowed her to be out of her seat more than most of the other children.
She still spends as much time as she can away from her desk and with the students in her care.
“I’m lucky enough to have more than 4,000 children,” she says. “And each one is unique. … We can group children according to their needs, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that each one is a unique individual.”
Patterson’s appointment came after a national search, says Board of Education Vice Chair Martha Geitner.
“We wanted someone who would come in and be a part of our community,” Geitner says. “She wants this to be her home, and so do we.”
The board set up a committee of volunteer educators, parents and community members. The committee was given the resumes of a number of candidates with personal information redacted.
The committee held several public meetings to allow people to express what they wanted in a superintendent and presented the board with a report, along with a few of the redacted resumes. Patterson’s was one of the resumes they selected to be a finalist.
“We are very, very, very, very excited about her,” Geitner says.
Patterson grew up in Cherryville — she was an honors graduate of the schools there.
She received her bachelor of science degree from UNC Greensboro in 1994, a master’s degree in elementary education from UNC Charlotte in 2000, a master’s in arts from Gardner-Webb University in 2002 and her doctorate of educational leadership from UNC Charlotte in 2007.
She began her career in 1994 in Lincoln County and spent 13 years there as a teacher, assistant principal and principal at Battleground Elementary School, North Brook Elementary and as the first principal of the Norris S. Childers Elementary School. She also worked as a districtwide academically gifted program teacher. Her honors in that district include county teacher of the year, assistant principal of the year and principal of the year.
She went on to work as associate superintendent for auxiliary services in Union County Public Schools, where she oversaw transportation, after-school care, child nutrition, federal programs and gifted education. Her most recent job was as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Hickory Public Schools.
Patterson never questioned whether she would become an educator, and even after leaving the classroom to become an administrator, she spent as much time as she could with students. Already, she has visited and spent time with students at each of Asheville’s nine schools.
Patterson says she expects to work to complete the strategic plan developed in 2015, “Excellence with Equity,” and its vision to “empower and engage every child to learn, discover and thrive.”
The plan calls for expanded access to preschool programs and to ensure that these programs meet district achievement goals; for strengthening of the core curriculum to ensure students are successful without the need for supplemental instruction and ensure systems address the needs of the whole child so that all students graduate “resilient, adaptive and successful.”
Patterson understands the challenges of education in the 21st century. Children have access to unlimited information via the internet, and the challenge, she says, is to help them sort and process what they learn independently.
“Before the internet, adults had more control over what children learned,” she says. “Today, we as adults have to be able to talk to them about what they’ve seen and heard.”
Educators also have to see each child as a sum of his or her environment, abilities, family, and emotional and physical health, Patterson says. Education can’t be accomplished by considering only a child’s academic ability; it is holistic.
“My vision is for all of our students to learn and become productive adults,” she says. “We give them our best here because their parents and families send us their best.”