Superintendent's letters add the personal touch
Superintendent of schools James Weiss is making a list and checking it twice. When students in Martha's Vineyard Public Schools do good work, he makes sure they hear from him about it.
During school committee meetings, Mr. Weiss may be observed listening intently and writing students' names down carefully when they are read off in connection with awards or other accomplishments. As soon as his busy schedule permits, and with the help of his dedicated administrative assistant, Edith Rousseau, Mr. Weiss sends personal letters out to his latest list of students, congratulating them on their efforts.
"From my point of view, I don't have that many interactions with individual kids," Mr. Weiss explained in a recent phone call. "So what I try to do is reach out whenever anybody does something that's exciting. Whether it's all-stars for the sports teams, students who win some award for our literary magazine, or participants in the science fair, I try to send out letters of congratulation to all of those folks."
The list doesn't end there. Mr. Weiss also sends letters to all students who achieve academic success and qualify for scholarships, take part in sports, art and music competitions and performances, and participate in a wide range of activities, from the spelling bee to the linguini bridge contest to the science fair.
For example, in a letter to sophomore Eva Farber, the grand prize winner of the MVRHS science fair on February 6, Mr. Weiss wrote, "Participation, in terms of your time, talents, and support is a means of continued investment in who you are for the rest of your life. The district is truly pleased to have participated in your scientific endeavors." (See sample letters on mvtimes.com.)
Mr. Weiss, however, does not limit his letters to those who take home prizes. "What I've done in the past with the spelling bee, is when it's over, I've sent letters to all the people who participated in the Island-wide one, whether they were first or last - it doesn't matter," he said.
Ms. Rousseau said about 80 letters went out recently to students in all grades who participated in spelling bees in their individual schools and in the high school science fair.
Mr. Weiss also occasionally sends letters to MVRHS graduates. "I don't always hear about everything, but when someone gives me the information, I'll write a letter," he said, adding that he welcomes the opportunity to reconnect with former students.
MVRHS school committee chairman Susan Mercier of Edgartown said that Mr. Weiss "goes beyond the beyond" in reaching out to students. "I don't think you could talk to any school on the Island that does not see him at every event," she pointed out.
As the mother of three daughters - Carol, Emily, and Celia - who have attended the regional high school, Ms. Mercier said, "He really has sent lovely notes to them for different achievements, each and every time they've had any type of accomplishment." She added that she often sees Mr. Weiss's letters proudly displayed on refrigerators in her friends' homes.
Mr. Weiss said he started writing letters to Island students as soon as he began his job as superintendent in July 2005. "I had done this for a long time, even in other positions, to reach out to people," he said. "It's the right thing to do."
In addition to students, Mr. Weiss also writes to school personnel to congratulate them on the births of their children and grandchildren, express sympathy for deaths in their families, or offer get well wishes for illnesses or hospitalizations.
"He is such a caring person," Ms. Rousseau said. "I feel very privileged working for him."