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All His Children: Schools Superintendent Anthony Amato's Family Is Rapidly Expanding
First The Students Of New Orleans Became His Professional Responsibility. And Now He And His Wife, Iris, Are Welcoming Three Adopted Youngsters To Their New Home.
Story by Maria Montoya / Staff writer
November 30, 2003
The flight was running ahead of schedule and Iris Amato, the wife of New Orleans Schools Superintendent Anthony Amato, was a ball of nerves. Would her husband make it to the airport in time for the biggest moment of their married life?
"Antonio had to work until the very last minute," she said, "so that he could take off tomorrow morning."
Amato would need the day off. Because when he woke up "tomorrow morning," the 56-year-old Amato would be the new father of the three adopted children arriving on that mid-afternoon flight from Connecticut: Ciara, 3; Chassity, 10; and Justin, 11.
"This year, I've decided to do many more things than I ever expected to do in my life -- it's a lot, I know," Amato had said earlier. "Over the summer, I tried to map out with my wife what type of life balance we will have. But it's a plan that's basically a work in progress, and we know that."
Since he accepted the superintendent's position in mid-February, the couple has spent much of their "together time" preparing for the children's arrival.
Iris first met Ciara a year ago in Connecticut when the little girl's baby sitter, a volunteer at the school where Iris worked, brought her to class. Charmed by the toddler who she later learned was in a foster home, Iris arranged to see her again at the church her foster mother attended.
"Ciara was wearing one of those Puerto Rican dresses that looks like a wedding cake," Iris said.
"When she saw me, she waved and said, 'Hi, Mommy.' And then she looked at Antonio and said, 'Hi, Poppy.' "
She later learned that Ciara had two older siblings, Justin and Chassity, who were living in a different foster home in Stanford, but in the same building as their baby sister.
"The first Christmas that we met the children I asked each one of them what they wanted and Chassity said she just wanted the three of them never to be separated again . . . that they would never be apart again," Amato said. "We knew then that we had to adopt them as a group or not at all."
The adoption process was days away from completion when Amato was offered the school superintendent's position in New Orleans. At that point the couple had to decide whether to turn down the job or proceed with the adoption as an interstate procedure, which is known to be a far more complex and lengthier process for prospective parents.
Their wait for the children lasted eight months, but the Amatos have no regrets.
"I've always thought of all the children, wherever it is I am, as my own. As a result of that, I've never really had time to have my own kids," Amato said at his Lakeview home on a recent Saturday afternoon. "But now everything is falling into place and it's wonderful."
Amato made it to the airport minutes before the plane touched down. The couple embraced, held hands and headed toward the gate.
"So, who are we meeting again?" Amato deadpanned as they waited, arms linked, for the children to deplane.
The Amatos watched nervously as people streamed out of the gate. When the children appeared, the couple enveloped them with hugs. Iris lavished kisses on Ciara, who has never called her anything but "Mommy."
Leaving the terminal, Amato draped one arm around 10-year-old Chassity and held Ciara's hand. His wife held the toddler's other hand and put her other arm around Justin, 11. The new family rode home together in a black limousine hired by friends of the couple.
"I know it isn't going be easy adjusting to everything being so new," Amato had said. "I live for a challenge, though, especially when it involves helping kids."
In a business like Amato's there is no such thing as leaving work at the office. He wakes as early as 6 a.m. and rarely finishes working before 8 p.m. on any given weekday.
Even then, however, his day is not done.
"It is hard because I am on 24/7 -- I never stop thinking about the kids in our schools," Amato said. "When I go to sleep I am thinking about how to make things work. And 99.9 percent of the time when I wake up it's with ideas that have been percolating in my head all night."
Iris, whom he married two months ago in a civil ceremony in New Orleans, can vouch for the administrator's immersion in his work. Since meeting through an acquaintance in Hartford more than two years ago, Iris said, she has been fascinated by her husband's drive to rescue troubled school systems.
When they met, he was the superintendent of the Hartford school system and she was working as an elementary school teacher. Though she has "temporarily" retired while the family adjusts to its new life, Iris considers herself well aware of the problems that face many of today's public school students. While the situation does upset the native Puerto Rican, she's quick to admit that her anger does not run as deeply as her husband's.
"What people don't know about Antonio is that this isn't just a job for him, he really cares," Iris said. "He feels personally angry at adults for the way the children are being treated. He worries that they will be unprepared for the world without the right education, and it concerns him deeply."
It isn't too easy to remain angry in Iris' presence, however. Amato's wife has a calm aura and a penetrating smile. When the 51- year-old enters the room, Amato's whole demeanor changes. His smile opens up, his posture relaxes and his tone is far less serious.
She forces him to unwind, relax and enjoy a few laughs even on his toughest days. The couple enjoys taking walks in Audubon Park or along the lake, taking in the sights and sounds of the French Quarter and visiting Audubon Zoo.
But mostly, the Amatos admit to being homebodies.
"We love to stay at home to just talk and eat," said Iris, as she prepared for an at-home dinner party for 30. The Amatos' dining room table was special-ordered to accommodate their growing family and increasingly long list of friends. "Our favorite restaurant is right here, in our own kitchen. We just enjoy each other's company so much that we often don't want to go out, but just be together."
Even before the adoption of their three children was complete, the couple had parenting responsibilities. Iris has two daughters from a previous marriage -- ages 19 and 20, one living in Connecticut and the other in Puerto Rico -- and Amato recently discovered that a 3-year-old girl he has supported since she was born while he was in a relationship with her mother is his biological child.
Despite the fact that he was uncertain until recently the child was his, he said, he felt it was important that until testing was an option he should remain financially responsible. Now it is the Amatos' wish that they'll be able to gain full or at least shared custody of the child in the near future.
While some people might feel overwhelmed by such a discovery, the Amatos said they're fully embracing the idea of having another child to call their own.
"We officially found out on Oct. 20 that this child was mine and we are absolutely overjoyed," Amato said. "It's a wonderful, wonderful thing for our whole family."
To a great extent, Amato's high standards regarding the public school system stem from his own childhood experiences growing up in the Bronx borough of New York City. Amato, who was raised solely by his mother, Lucille, said the situation children are facing in New Orleans public schools remind him of his days in the Bronx.
"(I feel like) I've been here before when I look around. New Orleans has many of the same problems I saw growing up and most of those that I've dealt with in New York and Hartford," said Amato, referring to cities where he held positions both as an administrator and as a teacher. "When I look at these children's faces, I know their problems; I've felt their pain. And what I want more than anything is for us to fix things, so school doesn't have to be one more worry on their minds."
Amato credits his mother for much of his passion for the educational system. He said he has seen how not having an education affected her life in the past, and how now having one has made such a difference to her. When she was 58, his mother returned to school to obtain her GED. When she turned 62, she decided to become a nurse. Before her 65th birthday she passed the New York City nurse's exam and she worked until she was 70.
Amato said his mother is retired but still a role model for continuing education: At 78, she is now traveling the world working to obtain a master's certificate in flamenco dancing.
His mother taught him some of the most important lessons about education, Amato said, and he regrets that he initially was not enthusiastic about her desire to return to school.
"When she came to me, I wasn't very supportive and I will never forget that because she has never discouraged me from anything I've ever tried to pursue," he said. "But her persistence and courage taught me that anything can be accomplished. It just comes down to pure will. If you have the will and the passion to change things, you can accomplish whatever it is you believe in."
Outside their modern Lakeview home, a colorful sign and balloons welcomed the new Amato children home.
"Come," Iris said to the children in Spanish, "come into your home!"
"Wow, a pool!" Justin said as all three made a beeline to the Amatos' indoor pool, which is surrounded by lush, tropical plants. "It looks like a jungle."
"That's what it's supposed to look like," Anthony said.
The Amatos took the children on a tour of their new home. Justin, who loves sports, was thrilled by his room, which has a bed covered with a team logo quilt and a baseball-shaped rug on the floor. There's a framed baseball card autographed by Miguel Jimenez on the night stand.
"I want to see my room, I want to see my room," Chassity said.
Both girls squealed when they saw the space they'll share. Iris had decorated it in soft pastels, with lots of pillows and stuffed animals on the bed and windows covered with frilly curtains caught at the middle with butterfly clasps. A tall bookcase held dozens of children's books. Each girl claimed a bed as her own.
No one witnessing this scene, or the daily scenes of Amato interacting with Orleans Parish public school students, would question the man's commitment to children. But some skeptics question his commitment to his current job. They doubt that Amato will stay around long enough to implement the progress he envisions. They question whether he will be able to conquer the chaos he has inherited.
Amato said he has every intention of settling down in New Orleans and riding out the tidal wave of change it will take to get the system back on track. But the veteran administrator adds that departure isn't necessarily a sign of failure.
"Good leadership is the type of leadership that leads itself out of a job," he said. "Not that I want to go anywhere, but if a system is truly running right, it can essentially run itself. That's what we're going for here."
In a home suddenly brimming with family, another goal has already been reached. As the children changed clothes for a dip in the pool, Amato waited in the sunny kitchen, where photographs of the three were posted on the refrigerator and magnetic letters spelled out Ciara's name.
"It's absolutely fabulous, like a lifelong goal," he said.
The night before his children's arrival ''was one of the more anxious nights of my life, probably even more so than before my first day in New Orleans public schools. Now that all the anticipation, the waiting and planning are over, the journey called family life begins."
It is a personal journey that quickly intersected with his professional one. Days after their plane touched down in New Orleans, the Amato children set off for their first day of school - - at an Orleans Parish public school.
"I wouldn't think," Amato said, "of sending them anywhere else."
Staff writer Siona LaFrance also contributed to this story.
Staff writer Maria Montoya can be reached at (504) 826-3446 or at email@example.com.