John Rizzo chosen to be new Oak Bluffs School principal

The two-month search, and a site visit to a Springfield elementary school, led to Mr. Rizzo’s selection

John Rizzo. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Superintendent-elect Matthew D’Andrea has selected John Rizzo to be the new principal of the Oak Bluffs School.
“Dr. Rizzo’s child-first philosophy made him the favorite for all the stakeholders who participated,” Mr. D’Andrea said in an email to parents and staff sent last Wednesday night following his decision.

Mr. Rizzo is currently the principal of Milton Bradley Elementary School in Springfield, where he leads a 600-student elementary school with 70 staff members. He has been in this position for one year, but has been in charge of four other schools as either principal or head. He has also been superintendent in Wilmington, Vt., and an adjunct professor at Westfield State University.

Mr. D’Andrea wrote that the new principal “was selected after a search process that included meeting with a search committee, parents, community members, and staff.”

Mr. Rizzo is expected to start on August 1.

In addition to Mr. Rizzo, Phyllis Dubina, most recently an assistant superintendent and consultant in Beverly, was one of two finalists to fill the job left vacant when Richie Smith was named assistant superintendent. Mr. Smith will take over for Mr. D’Andrea, who will replace Superintendent James Weiss, who retires at the end of this month.

Saying ‘aloha’ to Mr. Rizzo
On the phone Friday with Mr. Rizzo as he wrapped up a day at Milton Bradley, he was interrupted multiple times by student visitors. Once a first grade class rumbled in the background, and Mr. Rizzo put the phone down for a few minutes to greet them.

“They wanted to stop by and say ‘aloha,’” he said through laughter when he returned to the phone call.

Mr. Rizzo is not new to island life. He lived in Hawaii in spurts throughout his career, including as the founding head for Maui Preparatory Academy in 2005.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get island fever,” he said of himself and his wife, Anne Marie. Ms. Rizzo is a chief executive fundraiser, and will work in Oahu until she makes the move to the Vineyard.

As for Atlantic islands, Mr. Rizzo said he and his wife are familiar with Martha’s Vineyard.

“When our kids were younger, we came out so many times for hockey tournaments,” he said. “My wife and I would come out once every couple of years … I love everything about the Vineyard. Whenever I’m on the Cape and the Islands — I don’t know how to explain it — it sounds hokey, but it’s a great feeling just to be out there. You feel alive.”

Mr. Rizzo said that he taught for six years before he first became a school principal. He was in his mid-20s and working on his master’s, and thought he had the capacity to affect change on a greater scale.

“You know,” Mr. Rizzo said, “a family, a company, a business, a school, sometimes takes on the traits — good, bad, or indifferent — of a leader. And I thought, as a classroom teacher it’s the same thing. So why not a whole school?”

Mr. Rizzo acknowledged that he was very young when he first took over an entire school.

“I made so many mistakes; I still do. I’m learning every day,” he said.

However, Mr. Rizzo kept teaching. He worked as an adjunct professor at Westfield State University while he ran St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Ludlow, and then as assistant principal of West Springfield High School. He attributed this to his desire to show his peers that he was still a teacher, even as an administrator.

“I think I did it because I felt guilty, because our teachers were so good, and I at least wanted to show them that I could somehow, some way, try to hold my own in the classroom — our teachers were so good. It made me feel a little more secure in my boots,” Mr. Rizzo said. He taught both graduate and undergraduate classes at the university.

The three Rs
Mr. Rizzo said that when he walks through Milton Bradley, the kids know his name, and that “it’s important.” He said that he witnessed the same thing with the administration at Oak Bluffs School.

Mr. Rizzo said that relationships are the most important aspect of his leadership method. He cited what he calls three Rs: rigor, relevance, and relationships.

“Without hesitation, relationships have to come first,” Mr. Rizzo said. “I know it’s a results-oriented world. I’m a former head football coach — winning football games and results are important — but relationships have got to come first. That’s my primary job.”

Mr. Rizzo credits his success in part to what he described as servant leadership.

“As you lead, you keep in mind and in heart that you are the No. 1 servant. When you win, it’s never about the leader. It’s always about the teachers and the kids and the parents. And if you lose, i.e. you falter, you make a mistake, you stand out there alone, shoulders back and eyes up front and you take whatever comes your way. You don’t blame it on anyone else.”

Mr. Rizzo will visit Oak Bluffs School before the end of the month to meet more students and teachers. He told The Times that above all, he’s excited to meet the kids.

“I love people, and I think that’s why I became an educator. I love being out there in the morning greeting the buses, and the kids coming in in the car lane. That’s what it’s all about.”

A two-month search
The search for a new principal for Oak Bluffs School began in mid-April and lasted about two months, Mr. D’Andrea told The Times. The job was posted on the school spring recruiting website for two weeks, he said, before the first round of interviews took place. Mr. D’Andrea said it was not an expensive search, because no outside entity was hired to assist in the process.

Part of the candidacy evaluation included a site visit to Milton Bradley Elementary School. Mr. D’Andrea and Mr. Smith were pleased with what they found at the Springfield school.

“When we were out there, the teachers we talked to talked about how supportive he is of them, how often he is in the classrooms, and that he knows all the students by name. He gives them all a birthday card, and he’s very consistent with that. The kids feel welcomed and respected,” Mr. D’Andrea said.

Mr. D’Andrea said that he received no feedback, positive or negative, about hiring an off-Island educator to take over Oak Bluffs School, but that it was a concern during the search. “People are concerned that when you hire someone off-Island for any position, that they are aware of the challenges of moving out to the Island. That has been a part of the conversation in the search committee.”

Mr. D’Andrea added that “candidates were well aware that moving out here is challenging.”

Negotiations are still underway on the new principal’s contract. The school system has offered one-time financial assistance for relocation in the past, he said. Whether or not that will be part of Mr. Rizzo’s contract has yet to be determined.