Island educators rally around a new school year


Summer vacation ended a little earlier than usual for Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) administration, teachers, and staff, who returned to school yesterday, instead of after Labor Day as in the past.

Superintendent of schools James Weiss kicked off a rousing back-to-school rally at 8:30 am in the Performing Arts Center at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

He called attention to a new learning statement adopted by MVPS. “It combines the three things that are so important to us — student learning, a passion for that learning, and the people who make it work,” Mr. Weiss said. “In most cases, that’s you folks right here in this room. So please give yourself a round of applause for the wonderful job you do.”

Guest speaker Connor Gifford of Nantucket, the author of “America According to Connor Gifford,” gave an inspirational speech about overcoming roadblocks as a special education student with Down’s syndrome.

Two years ago, at age 26, he achieved his dream of writing a book, with co-author Victoria Harris, which was published by Hargrave Press.

“Some people didn’t think I’d be able to read, let alone write a book about American history,” said Mr. Gifford.

In third grade, his parents Julie and Chuck Gifford, and other advocates fought to keep him and his other special needs friends in regular school, rather than allow them to be sent to a special education school in another town. He went on to graduate from high school in Ohio and learn skills in retail and computer technology to earn a two-year degree at Cape Cod Community College.

“As I stand here today, I wonder how different it would have been if I wasn’t included in school,” Mr. Gifford said.

Assistant superintendent Laurie Halt, who invited him to speak, said Mr. Gifford’s book will be used in MVRHS special education teacher Will Hunter’s history class.

Although Mr. Gifford’s speech was a hard act to follow, math teachers Jeannie Holenko, Eve Heyman, Mary Boyd, and Catherine DeGrandpre managed to engage the audience in a lively exercise on measurement tasks, to launch the new Island-wide Math Task Force (MTF) this year.

The MTF’s goal is to improve students’ measurement skills and apply them to real-life applications, Ms. Boyd explained. During the 2010-11 school year, the MTF plans to recruit teachers from every grade level and subject area to develop three to four assessment tasks for each grade.

Other highlights of the morning’s program included remarks by All-Island School Committee chairman Dan Cabot. A former teacher himself, Mr. Cabot got laughs from his audience when he talked about “school dreams,” actually nightmares, which he said recur for him every year about this time. Many in the audience raised their hands when he asked if they share the same experience.

Mr. Cabot attributed the nightmares to the difficult job teachers have and the impossible task of doing it right every time, every day. Also, because they care about their work, they strive for perfection. He encouraged teachers not to dwell on failures, but to remember them, learn from them, and move on.

Martha’s Vineyard Educators Association (MVEA) co-chair and Oak Bluffs School teacher Barbara Jones paid tribute to Edgartown School teacher Sandra Joyce, who stepped down as the other co-chair after serving 10 years.

The audience gave Ms. Joyce a standing ovation as she went onstage to receive a bouquet of flowers. Ms. Jones also thanked members of the teachers’ negotiation team for their work in reaching a new union contract agreement over the summer.

The team included members from MVEA, which represents teachers from the Edgartown, Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs schools, and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional Teachers and Educators Association, which represents teachers from the MVRHS school district and Up-Island Regional School District.

The program also included some musical numbers. Willy Nevin, an MVRHS senior, received a standing ovation after he sang a song to his own accompaniment on the piano.

“I think that’s an example of why we’re all here,” Mr. Weiss said afterwards.

The morning ended on a lively note with a performance by a band made up of active and retired educators from Tisbury School. The group formed a few years ago to entertain students during assemblies.

“We are the Tragic Mistakes, the band that put the ‘ick’ back into music,” bandleader Chris Abbot said in his warm-up remarks. “If you know the words… well, you’re one up on us.”

Many teachers jumped to their feet and danced as he and his fellow musicians Julie Schilling, Peter Boak, and Kevan Nichols rocked the house with “Take a load off Fannie” and “Twist and Shout.” Cathy Weiss, Greg Coogan, and Reuben Fitzgerald added some pizzazz —and laughs — as backup singers and dancers.

Mr. Weiss estimates about 550 employees work in the Island’s public schools, of which 250 are teachers.