Search for Martha’s Vineyard high school principal is down to two 

The finalists include a member of the Wampanoag tribe from Iowa and a Springfield man credited with turning around a troubled vocational school.

Gil Traverso visited Martha's Vineyard Regional High School on Wednesday. — Photo by Janet Hefler

Martha’s Vineyard school officials have turned to the mainland to fill the job of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) principal left vacant by the departure of Stephen Nixon this spring.

Superintendent of schools James Weiss and a search committee have narrowed the field of candidates to Gilbert Traverso, principal of the Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield, and David Maxwell, assistant principal of Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Although born and raised in Iowa, Mr. Maxwell has ties to Martha’s Vineyard as a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head. His mother, Arenda “Bunny” Maxwell, who goes by the last name Randolph, and aunt, Charity Randolph, live in Oak Bluffs.

Both men are scheduled to visit the high school this week to meet with the administrative staff, the faculty, school committee members, and students.

The final decision of who to hire rests with Mr. Weiss.

Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical High School provides academic and vocational instruction to students in grades nine through twelve for approximately 1,632 throughout the Springfield area. The school offers 19 trades.

Valley High School is a three-year comprehensive high school with an enrollment of approximately 1,900 students, according to the school website. The campus is located in West Des Moines, Iowa’s largest suburb, a community of approximately 55,000 residents bordering the western city limits of Des Moines.

Gilbert Traverso

Mr. Traverso, 55, was appointed principal at Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in 2010, according to a copy of his resumé provided to The Times. Previously, he worked for 14 years as as a technical high school administrator in Connecticut Technical High Schools, supervising and leading staff in the areas of teaching and learning. Mr. Traverso also has served since 2007 as a diversity and inclusion trainer for the Anti-Defamation League.

“My extensive knowledge of instruction, supervision, diversity, procurement, policy-making and data driven decision-making make me an excellent candidate for the position of Principal of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School,” Mr. Traverso wrote in his cover letter.

He noted that under his leadership, Putnam Vocational Technical Academy has been transformed from a failing school into a credible educational resource for students. In addition, Mr. Traverso said, “I have had to navigate successfully through seven different union contracts while effectively creating a positive culture of change.”

An editorial published January 12, 2014 in The Republican highlighted Mr. Traverso as one of three Springfield high school principals responsible for successful turnarounds at their schools.

The change at Putnam has been, perhaps, the most dramatic,” the Republican said. “In the span of four years, the old ‘trade’ school has been transformed from a school with serious discipline problems and struggling academic performance to a school with dramatically improved behavior and rising test scores and graduation rates.”

At the high school on Wednesday, Mr. Traverso spoke briefly with The Times. He said he was really enjoying his visit so far, having met with students and the faculty in the morning.

It’s a great school,” Mr. Traverso said. “The students are wonderful; I love their questions. The staff has been asking very pertinent questions, which I would ask if I was a staff member. And they should, because the staff is keeping this place at the level it is, and they deserve the credit.”

Asked what attracted him to apply for the job, Mr. Traverso said, I wasn’t looking for a principal’s job, but this one got both my wife and myself intrigued.” He said now that Putnam Vocational Technical Academy is operating so successfully, he is ready for a change.

Mr. Traverso and his wife have two biological children and took in another boy when he was a child. Since they are grown, Mr. Traverso said, “The only thing I have to worry about are two dogs, and they will adjust to having a lot of runs and room to roam.”

David Maxwell

Mr. Maxwell, 43, has served as associate principal at Valley High School since 2005, according to his resume. Previously, he worked three years as dean of students at Hoover High School in Des Moines, after earning his master’s of education degree in 2002.

Mr. Maxwell began his career in education as a language arts instructor. He spent eight years teaching ninth and eleventh grade language arts and African-American Studies.

“The most important aspect of my role as associate principal, of my role as a public educator, is creating, fostering, and sustaining meaningful relationships with all stakeholders, most importantly students,” Mr. Maxwell wrote in his cover letter. “After serving nine years in this role, I feel I am ready to lead a building and continue to grow as a public school administrator.”

Mr. Maxwell received news of an opening the old-fashioned way. “My mother informed me of this position when it was first posted, and I thought, ‘I’ll throw my name in the ring and see what happens,’” Mr. Maxwell told The Times in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I had a good interview and was fortunate enough to be invited for a visit this week.”

During his interview with the search committee, Mr. Maxwell said Mr. Weiss asked him how realistic it would be for him to move to Martha’s Vineyard.

I said I’ll be honest with you, it would have to be a perfect alignment of the stars,” Mr. Maxwell said. “Even though I have Island ties, I was born and raised in Iowa, and I work in a fabulous school district. So it’s a win-win situation for me. If it doesn’t work out, I’m able to work in a wonderful district, and if the stars do align perfectly, I’ll look forward to the opportunity to work on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Relocating his family is a big consideration, he added, as he and his wife have three children, ages 15, 11 and 8.

The search process

Mr. Weiss announced the resignation of former principal Stephen Nixon, principal since 2008, on April 28. Mr. Weiss granted Mr. Nixon a leave of absence for health reasons. The next day, Mr. Weiss appointed Assistant Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea as acting principal to fill in until a new principal was hired.

At a meeting on May 5, the MVRHS school committeeaccepted Mr. Nixon’s resignation, effective at the end of the school year. Mr. Weiss gave the committee a copy of a principal search timeline, which he said would be a relatively quick process.

He had already posted the job on, an online site for teaching and school jobs.

Mr. Weiss put together a search committee that included several teachers, a parent, a student, an administrator from the high school, an elementary school principal, and a representative from the NAACP by mid May.

We ended up with eight on the committee, in addition to me,” he told The Times after an Up-Island school committee meeting Monday night. “We did not get a representative from the Tribe, although we did ask them.”

Mr. Weiss said the search committee received about 35 No in-house candidates applied.

Mr. Maxwell was one of several off-Island candidates who had ties to Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. Weiss said that factor did not weigh into the search committee’s decision on the finalists.

Although the committee worked very quickly, Mr. Weiss said it was still late in the year as far as the educator hiring process goes. We approached the interviews with ten candidates, and by the time we actually had that date, we only had six,” he said. “Four had already gotten jobs and withdrew. So that’s what you face.”

The initial interviews with the six semi-finalists were conducted on Martha’s Vineyard during the first week in June, with the exception of Mr. Maxwell, who was interviewed via Skype. The search committee then selected three finalists to return for visits this week, but one withdrew, leaving Mr. Traverso and Mr. Maxwell.

When asked what made them rise to the top, Mr. Weiss said, “These two were the most qualified of those interested, and had the best experience and interviews.”