Priscilla Sylvia of Oak Bluffs reflects on her years of public service

Her work and contributions as a teacher and a school committee member spanned almost five decades.

Retiring school committee member Priscilla Sylvia, a former teacher, received a bouquet of flowers and hearty applause for her many years of service at the Oak Bluffs annual town meeting on April 8. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

After 13 years, Priscilla Sylvia now has a lot of spaces on her calendar where she used to write “school committee meeting.” Ms. Sylvia did not seek reelection to the Oak Bluffs School school committee, on which she served since 2001.

The end to her longtime service did not go unrecognized, however, as over the past few weeks school committee members, Oak Bluffs School officials, and voters at town meeting paid tribute to Ms. Sylvia’s many contributions and her many years of service.

“When people die, eulogies are written about them,” Ms. Sylvia told The Times in a phone conversation last week. “Fortunately for me, they didn’t wait,” she added with a laugh.

As an Oak Bluffs School committee member, Ms. Sylvia also served on the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee, and as its chairman for two years, as well as several of its subcommittees. In addition, she attended All-Island School Committee (AISC) meetings and represented the high school committee during two bouts of teacher contract negotiations.

“It was a huge commitment, with a lot of meetings, but I loved it,” Ms. Sylvia said.

All of the school committees expressed their thanks and appreciation to her at her last meetings with them. The Oak Bluffs School school committee featured Ms. Sylvia in a recent meeting’s “Student Spotlight.” The MVRHS school committee treated her with a luncheon. Superintendent of schools James Weiss thanked her for her service at the AISC’s April 3 meeting. The Oak Bluffs annual town meeting last week opened with a tribute to Ms. Sylvia from Oak Bluffs school principal Richie Smith, who noted that the former teacher used to bring her fifth-graders to the meeting.

Ms. Sylvia’s involvement with the Oak Bluffs School, first as a teacher and then as a school committee member, spanned 49 years. “I had a wonderful career, and the school committee just added to it,” she said.

Speaking from experience

Ms. Sylvia began teaching fifth grade at Oak Bluffs School in 1965. “Boys had gym separately from the girls,” she recalled. “And I learned to crochet when a parent came in and taught my fifth grade girls. Talk about changes in education since then.”

Ms. Sylvia said she received the best advice in her entire career in the second year she taught, while discussing a problem student with principal Harry Dorr.

“You know, your punishment doesn’t have to be severe; it has to be consistent,” he told her.

“I used that my whole teaching career,” Ms. Sylvia said. ”You need to be fair and consistent, in order to survive teaching.”

Her classroom style earned her a reputation for being a tough teacher — and a nickname.

“All my kids remember me as ‘Priscilla the Kill’a,’” she admitted, with a laugh. “I was an old-fashioned school marm. I had high expectations.”

Ms. Sylvia retired from teaching in November of 2000. She said she has seen many changes in education since then, particularly over the last 12 to 15 years.

“I have to say, I’m so glad I’m not teaching school anymore because there have been so many changes in expectations of teachers since I retired from teaching and became a school committee member,” she said. “They were just beginning MCAS tests the last couple of years I taught.”

Ms. Sylvia said the development of statewide curriculum, and new teacher regulations, requirements, and testing are among the biggest changes she’s seen. “I never had to take the teacher test to become a teacher, which all teachers have to take now,” she said.

After retiring, Ms. Sylvia’s separation from Oak Bluffs School lasted only five months. In April 2001, with no one on the ballot for a vacant seat on the school committee, several Oak Bluffs teachers convinced Ms. Sylvia to run as a write-in candidate and helped her campaign. She was elected and has served ever since.

From classroom to school committee

“I always felt coming from a teaching background was a real asset on the school committee,” Ms. Sylvia said. And so was her reputation for being tough.

“I know there are times when I’ve spoken out at school committee meetings and budget hearings and on town meeting floor, when I’ve been less than persuasive and more demanding,” she said. “People generally knew what I thought. “

In reflecting on her years on the Oak Bluffs School committee, Ms. Sylvia noted, “One of the unfortunate aspects is you’re always trying to protect the educational system you have, and we’ve lost a lot of ground over the last five to six years.”

“Since 2008, we’ve had to cut so many things,” she explained. “It’s hard not to make comparisons to other Island elementary schools, that have bigger budgets and fewer taxpayers than Oak Bluffs has.”

Ms. Sylvia said she decided not to run again for the school committee after battling a bad bout of bronchitis over the winter. Mr. Weiss’s upcoming retirement as superintendent in 2015 is another factor that weighed heavily in her decision.

“He’s the best thing that ever happened to us,” said Ms. Sylvia, who served on the search committee that selected him as a final candidate. “I don’t want to try to choose another superintendent. It’s going to be hard; I’ll leave that to someone else.”

Ms. Sylvia said she thinks everyone should take part in their community, and she practices what she preaches. In addition to the school committee, she served on the Oak Bluffs Planning Board from 1978 to 1986. She continues to serve on the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission, as she has since 1984, and as treasurer of the Friends of Oak Bluffs.

Ms. Sylvia moved to the Vineyard from Amherst in 1965 with her three-year old son, Carl Hjelm, and built a home in Oak Bluffs in 1968. Carl and his wife Kirsten, who have two daughters, live in Hailey, Idaho, where he works for a tree company and she manages a nursery. Ms. Sylvia said she is looking forward to visits from them.