Q&A with Leslie Ricciardelli, interim superintendent of Collier County Schools

Naples Daily News | By Nikki Ross | January 23, 2023

Last month, the Collier County School Board parted ways with longtime superintendent Kamala Patton in what was described as a mutual transition agreement.

The board immediately named deputy superintendent Leslie Ricciardelli as the interim to helm the school district, which has 63 schools, 48,000 students and nearly 7,000 employees.

Ricciardelli — who has worked in education for over 20 years in Brevard, Orange and Collier counties — has been a classroom assistant for special education students, a teacher, an ESE specialist, principal of Golden Gate Middle School, principal at Lely High School, dean of students for discipline, then assistant principal for discipline, assistant principal of curriculum and finally deputy superintendent.

In college, Ricciardelli studied teaching for social studies. But upon graduation, she wasn’t able to get a job as a social studies teacher. Instead she became the classroom assistant for a special education class and never looked back.

When she was just a toddler, Ricciardelli’s parents moved the family of seven from Philadelphia to Naples to run the Anchorage motel in Naples. When she wasn’t in school, she said, she and her four siblings helped their parents with chores, making reservations and the overall operation of the family business.

Ricciardelli, who worked closely with Patton for the past eight years, sat down with the Naples Daily News to talk about her experience, priorities and vision for the district and her desire to have the position permanently.

Collier County School District interim superintendent Leslie Ricciardelli poses at the Collier County School District Office in Naples on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.
Collier County School District interim superintendent Leslie Ricciardelli poses at the Collier County School District Office in Naples on Tuesday, Jan. 17. 2023. Jonah Hinebaugh/Naples Daily News

Did you have any advance warning before the meeting when you were named interim superintendent?

No. That was a little overwhelming.

How were you feeling in that moment?

It was very overwhelming. I can’t tell you today what I said that night. I know, I thanked Dr. Patton, but I don’t really remember much after that. That’s a big position and it’s truly an honor. You hope that they did it because your work speaks for itself and your commitment to education and to the county speaks for itself.

What is the difference in your day-to-day job now that you are interim superintendent?

The community. A lot of people want me to come to meetings, be a part of organizations, be a part of events. So now the direct invites come to me. So I would say the community piece is larger for me. I’m still very involved with meeting with everybody here in the district office and go into schools.

What does a day in your life as interim superintendent look like?

I think it’s just been trying to really look at where we are as a district, where we are with staffing, where we are with plans to move forward and really maximize every opportunity to increase student achievement. It’s really kind of taking a look at everything, not making major changes, but we really need to evaluate what are we doing well and what could we do better.

What are your priorities for the district during your time as interim superintendent?

  1. Elementary literacy. Just to make sure that with the new standards, with the new assessments, with new materials, that the students are getting what they need, and that the teachers are getting as much support as they need to prepare the students and to get them back on track.
  2. This year’s seniors. The requirements to graduate with the state tests are much higher than they were for last year. Those students have had a lot of disruptive learning. Getting them to the point where they meet the graduation requirements for the state assessments is a priority. I’ve run that data easily every other week to see where students are, if they pass either the state reading assessment or the SAT or ACT to meet those scores.
  3. Budget. We’re getting ready to go through the budgeting process for the 2023-24 school year. That is a huge piece. So that is something I am working on with our chief financial officer and departments in the district to figure out how we’ll budget different programs and how we’ll look at the return on investment and various programs, and even certain positions.
  4. Climate. We’re doing this big climate survey right now. We’ll get those responses back at the end of the month and we’ll publish them on Feb. 14. Right now in Collier County, the cost of living is very high and we know it’s a struggle for many people. If people are happy coming to work, and people are happy with their children in school, and kids are happy, they will keep their kids here, they will keep their jobs here. Teachers are an absolute commodity right now. Everybody is clamoring to get teachers. So they could go anywhere else. What do we need to do to keep them? What do we need to do to keep really great administrators and really great teachers? That is my biggest priority.

What is your philosophy?

My philosophy is you be the teacher you would want your own child to have. You should be the coach you would want your child to have. I was the principal I would want my own child to have. I want to be the superintendent I would want for my own child to have. So that’s how I look at things.

What has been your favorite job in education?

I think the best job in the world is being a high school principal. High school kids are fabulous. High school athletics, fabulous. It’s so much fun to be a high school principal. I could never do the elementary, sweet as they are, I love high school.

When you transitioned out of being in the school setting to work for the district, what was that like for you?

It’s hard because kids are so much fun. They’re so inquisitive. They’re just so energetic. You’re really dealing with mostly adults at this point. So that was the hard part. However, I liked being able to impact what will they do with their future? What will the courses look like? How are we best supporting them? That was my big thing is how do we get them to the next level? We have to remember, we’re just trying to get them to the next level to be gainfully employed adults.

If you had to explain to someone who doesn’t know, what does your job as interim superintendent involve?

There’s uncertainty when you’re an interim, so there’s uncertainty for staff, in the schools and in the district office. One thing I tried to share with parents is business is going to continue. We are a really successful district, we’ve put in place a lot of really great things, those things aren’t going to go away, people aren’t going to lose their jobs.

I’m just really looking to make sure people understand that this is my home. I want the best for this district. This is not a stepping stone place for me. A lot of times, people move places because they want to go there, and then they will go to the next larger district, but that’s not my goal. My goal is to continue with things that are going great and make them better. Then look at the things that maybe aren’t working so well, and either enhance them to make them work better or maybe we look at making some changes in different areas.

Are you facing any challenges with this position?

Right now things are going really well. The challenge is, there’s probably not enough hours in my day. But I’m really excited to come to work every day, which is, you know, are there things that I’m doing differently? Are there things that I’ve had to revamp in my daily schedule? Yes. Could it be overwhelming? Yes. But it’s really exciting.

How do you think your previous experiences have helped you with the role you are currently in?

With every single job I’ve taken on, I’ve learned a different aspect of the overall workings and responsibilities from the district perspective. It’s been an incremental growth. You learn with every job. The more experiences you have, the better off you are and you can pull from when you’re trying to figure out and solve problems.

Do you plan to apply to be superintendent of the Collier County School District?

We’ve talked about it quite a bit. Full disclosure, I haven’t put in my application yet. Do I want to do this job? Do I want to be a superintendent? Yes. Have I looked at other counties? Yes. Will I need to look at other counties? Possibly. I’m not ready to retire yet. Whatever the district decides to do I fully support and if I get to stay that’s wonderful. If it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

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