With passion and purpose

Nearing retirement, Debra Carlotti has helped empower children and parents for decades

Debora Timms | 10/5/2023, 6 p.m.
Richmond Public Schools educator Debra Carlotti was born in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., a place that is a ...
Debra Carlotti, center, is an instructional support and compliance coordinator at Mary Munford Elementary School in Richmond. After working more than four decades with students in special education programs and other areas of learning, she will retire at the end of the current school year. Ms. Carlotti is photographed Sept. 12 at the school with colleagues from left, Dr. Sametrian Miller, assistant principal, Greg Muzik, principal and Alezia Mason, instructional assistant. Photo by Regina H. Boone

Richmond Public Schools educator Debra Carlotti was born in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., a place that is a lot more trendy now than when she grew up there in the 1950s and 1960s, she said.

Her father, Carlo Carlotti, died when she was 2, so it was her mother, Leanora Carlotti and two older brothers who gave her what she calls a “very Italian upbringing.”

And she has former New York Mayor John Lindsay to thank for inspiring her future.

“Mayor Lindsay came out with all this money for teens and so I worked in a camp for children with disabilities,” Ms. Carlotti recalled during a recent telephone interview. “That was my first inkling that maybe this might be something fun to do.”

And while Ms. Carlotti’s time spent working with special needs children has been filled with challenges through the years, rarely has she complained about not having fun.

Describing herself as having “bounced around” through jobs in and out of RPS over the years, her purpose, she said, has always been to help others.

At the end of this academic school year, she will retire from the school system and her current job as an instructional compliance coordinator for special education at Mary Munford Elementary School.

Reflecting on her more than four decades career in education, Ms. Carlotti said that, in addition to her summer camp experience, she further was inspired by the Education for All Handicapped Children Act signed by President Gerald Ford in 1975. The act guaranteed free and appropriate public education to children with disabilities throughout the country.

After graduating from Brooklyn College and taking additional courses at New York University, she eventually started working with children with disabilities for Richmond Public Schools. This was in 1981 after moving to the city with her husband, Ken Kolb, who was enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University’s pharmacy program.

“I thought this was really innovative,” Ms. Carlotti said. “At the time, Richmond City was looked at nationwide for their services to young children with disabilities. To have a program in a regular day care center then was a big deal. There was collaborative work going on, mixing kids together a little bit - not enough, but I was excited.”

Richmond resident Dr. Patricia Brown is one of the parents she has helped and over the years she said the two became friends. She is even godmother to one of her sons, Chris. But it was her son, Patrick, that brought Ms. Carlotti into their lives.

Patrick was 4 years old when Ms. Carlotti became his teacher at Fairfield Day Care. Today he is 46 and lives in a group home. “He’s doing well and Debra was instrumental in that. She still sees him to this day for birthdays and such,” Dr. Brown said. “She was just a fabulous, fabulous teacher for him, calm and kind — always his cheerleader.”

This same praise of Ms. Carlotti was expressed by another parent, Lefonya Wallace.

Mrs. Wallace lives in Richmond’s 1st District and her 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter attend Mary Munford Elementary School.

She explained how her son began kindergarten in a COVID year, so he needed some extra help when he finally got into the classroom. The school’s resource officer connected her with Ms. Carlotti for tutoring.

“She has been instrumental in getting him where he needs to be,” Mrs. Wallace said in a recent telephone call.

This summer, Mrs. Wallace included her daughter who was about to enter kindergarten in the sessions.

“They love it! It definitely gives them more confidence,” Mrs. Wallace said. “She’s basically part of our family now. RPS is lucky to have her.”

Her colleagues at Mary Munford agree.

Dr. Sametrian Miller has been the school’s assistant principal for the past 17 years. During a recent telephone interview she enthused over Ms. Carlotti’s dedication and expertise, noting how she is always willing to share her knowledge and help out “whenever and wherever she is needed.

“I’m very emotional because I’ve been working with her for so long and now she won’t be with us,” Dr. Miller said. “I’m excited for her, but she is definitely going to be missed.”

Instructional assistant Alezia Mason has known Ms. Carlotti for some 20 years. She called her the “guru I reach out to when I need to know something.”

She also confided that the native New Yorker is a “real softie.”

“She’s Italian through and through — a great cook and a well-loved person,” Ms. Mason said. “Just a great lady.” When Ms. Carlotti thinks about retiring at the end of the current school year, she says she knows it’s time.

“The leadership I had over my years was fabulous,” she said. “I’m going to miss the kids. I love being around students, but it’s time to move on and get some young blood in here.”

Her retirement plans include spending time with her daughter, Cristina Leoni-Osion, and son-in-law who live in Berlin.

She said that her son, Alexander Kolb, enjoys a nomadic lifestyle while he works remotely.

For herself, she’d like to rent a Winnebago and drive across the country with her husband to visit national parks. She also plans to continue working with children — maybe continuing her tutoring as a volunteer in Richmond schools with a need.

“I love being in Richmond. I never thought I would say that, but here I am,” Ms. Carlotti said. “I always thought I would go back to New York, but I’ve adopted Richmond.”