Paul Fregeau had just finished his first year as a full-time teacher in Quincy, Illinois, and he was starting to wonder if he had made a huge mistake.
He’d chosen to give up a career in law enforcement to start down the education track but, after his first experience in his own classroom following his certification from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, he was having some doubts.
“I had a lot of frustration and was wondering if I could do this,” Fregeau said.
That’s when he got a letter from himself. Well, not himself, exactly.
At the beginning of his MEd coursework, one of Fregeau’s UMSL professors had asked all of her students to write on a sheet of paper why they wanted to get into education. She collected their responses but didn’t tell them why.
She mailed the notes to her students after their first years teaching.
“I wrote down that I wanted to make a positive difference in kids’ lives so they could be productive citizens in society,” Fregeau said. “That was so impactful on me at that point. That bump I got from her was just tremendous.”
Fregeau, who earned an MEd in secondary education from UMSL in 1994, is now in his second year as superintendent of Decatur School District 61 in Illinois. He oversees 19 schools, around 8,900 students and 1,400 staff members and an annual budget of $120 million.
He worked his way up the ranks after that frustrating first year of teaching, becoming principal at Mountain Grove High School – about 70 miles east of Springfield, Missouri – superintendent of Midway Schools about 40 miles south of Kansas City and assistant superintendent of the larger North Kansas City School District for a decade before taking the job in Decatur.
Fregeau is already turning heads with bold, wide-ranging changes he has planned for the district. The Decatur Herald & Review newspaper named him its Newsmaker of the Year in December.
“Decatur has a lot of room for improvement,” Fregeau said. “I had been part of a team that brought a lot of positive change to North Kansas City academically and in other ways. I wanted to take that approach, (bringing) theories and philosophies to help Decatur experience the same kind of improvements we had in North Kansas City.”
For one of his first acts in Decatur, Fregeau convened a group of 30 community representatives to come up with a five-year strategic plan for the district. The group identified five main areas of concern for the plan, and Fregeau organized five committees comprising a total of 300 people to address them all.
The district formally approved the plan last spring. During the first year, it calls for prioritizing five areas: learning experiences; learning environments; serving the “whole student”; staff recruitment and retention; and community partnerships.
Decatur is also in the early stages of a $60 million facilities restructuring that seeks to shrink the number of district buildings from 22 to 17 for more efficiency.
“Other than that, we’re not doing much,” Fregeau said, with a laugh.
All of these enhancements play into the goal of making Decatur a “destination district”: a place people want to move because of the quality of the schools. Fregeau said that when he was researching the job he found that real-estate listings for houses in rural districts surrounding Decatur were sure to include the fact that the lot was in, say, Mount Zion school district.
Not so for listings zoned for Decatur.
“We want to be the choice destination for people when they move to Macon County,” Fregeau said. “We want to be to the point where realtors are willing to put our district in the listing as well, just like our competitors around us.”
Fregeau chose UMSL as his destination nearly 30 years ago. He was working as a police officer in north St. Louis County and realizing that the interactions he had with the youth he encountered – in juvenile court or through referrals to Children and Family Services – were not the kind he wanted.
Now they are, thanks to UMSL and a timely pep talk from his past self.
“UMSL changed the direction of my life,” Fregeau said. “Without UMSL, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”