New Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School principal resigns

Hired last July, Gil Traverso cited the Vineyard’s high cost of living and housing challenge as factors in his decision.

Principal Gil Traverso had kind words for the senior class and encouraged them to excel. — Photo by Michael Cummo

One month before the start of the new school year, Island school officials face the task of replacing Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) principal Gil Traverso, who resigned this week. Mr. Traverso had just completed the first year of a three-year contract that was effective August 1, 2014 and paid him $140,000 annually.

In a telephone conversation Thursday, Mr. Traverso cited the high cost of Island living, in particular housing, and the strain of maintaining a household in Connecticut where his family continued to make their home.

Mr. Traverso will leave the Vineyard to take a job with the New Haven, Connecticut school district central office that he described as a promotion and a career step he could not turn down, with the added benefit of a lower cost of living and a short fifteen minute commute.

“I will be supervising a cohort of principals and a college career readiness program for a district that is really progressive and moving forward,” Mr. Traverso said, “and I’m really excited about working with a superintendent who has a good reputation and has a shared leadership style.”

Mr. Traverso said he recently learned of the job through word of mouth and decided to formally apply for it.

Mr. Traverso said he only received a potential job offer Monday from the New Haven superintendent pending a discussion with new Superintendent of Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools Matt D’Andrea. That discussion took place Tuesday followed by an official offer, which he accepted.

“I went through many interviews in a short amount of time,” Mr. Traverso said. “It all happened in a matter of days.”

Mr. Traverso said he has assured Mr. D’Andrea that he will assist in the transition. “I think that we have momentum and we really want to make sure we don’t lose those things we put into place,” he said.

New leaders, new challenge

The sudden departure of Mr. Traverso comes at a time of transition for the public school system.

On June 30, Superintendent of Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools James Weiss retired after a ten year tenure. He was replaced by former assistant superintendent Mr. D’Andrea.

Former Oak Bluffs School principal Richie Smith, a finalist for the job of superintendent, has stepped into the role of assistant superintendent of schools.

“It is a great loss, he’s done tremendous work at the high school,” Mr. D’Andrea told The Times in a telephone conversation Friday following a morning of meetings. “It’s unfortunate.”

Mr. D’Andrea said he and Mr. Smith are working on the short and long term options going forward. He said once they formulate a plan they would describe it to school staff and parents.

He said he could not provide any details at the moment as he only just learned that Mr. Traverso planned to depart.

“This is very fresh for me too,” he said. “I just found out three days ago.”

Year of progress cited

As he drove to his home and family in Connecticut late Thursday afternoon, a commute he made often the past year, Mr. Traverso cited gains and achievement made in the Island’s only high school over the course of his 11 month tenure.

He said those included a redesign of the therapeutic support program, a group of initiatives for the alternative education program, a redesign of the special education program and “a non-threatening, non-evaluative method” of enhancing teacher skills.

“I think we improved the student climate, and actually made students feel very comfortable and very connected to the school,” he said.

Asked to name some challenges that remain, Mr. Traverso said, “I think a true model — and I say true in capital letters — a true process of developmental guidance certainly needs to be established. I think reaching the needs of all students in terms of success plans from the guidance department needs to be put in place in an effective way because I think that some of the kids were shoved off into the career technical education prior to me coming there without an appropriate plan.”

Mr. Traverso said all students learn differently and at a different pace. “So we need to make sure we meet those challenges in a competent and effective manner,” he said.

Warm welcome, high costs

Mr. Traverso said that housing and the high cost of Island living is a barrier to maintaining high standards. “The district has to say, if we want new, innovative and really competent people leading our district, or participating in our district, then we really need to see what we can do to offset some of the obstacles that they’re going to incur such as housing, the cost of living, things of that nature.”

Mr. Traverso said there has to be a strategic and concerted effort to provide some type of assistance or buffer.

He said he was renting an apartment from wonderful and generous people. “But I have to tell you, the cost of living out here, my expenses were over $32,000.”

Mr. Traverso said he has been amazed at the willingness of Islanders to invest in the school system. “That is a real testament to the people on the Island in terms of what they want, they really want to invest in the kids,” he said.

Mr. Traverso said constant transitions are not healthy for a school system. He said he did not arrive on Martha’s Vineyard expecting to leave one year later but circumstances dictated otherwise. Soon after he took the job his wife was offered free entry into a doctorate program at the University of Connecticut. As a result, he was commuting regularly to spend time with his wife and children.

“I was well received on the Island, the intentions were all good,” he said.

Mr. Traverso had high praise for the quality of Island students.

“I have been a leader for over 20 years. This Island has the best children I have ever met in terms of its student population. This is by far the nicest and most talented student population that I have ever met. And then to complement that, you have a staff at the high school that had so many talents and provided so many opportunities for kids to expand their interests. It’s a bittersweet move for me.”

Many of the students will be sorry to see Mr. Traverso depart, said senior Chris Aring of West Tisbury, who learned about his departure on Thursday.

“All of the students that I’ve talked to so far, after we heard about it, said that it’s a big blow to the high school and to them because everyone was just so inspired by him,” Mr. Aring said. “He’s only been here for a year but in just the amount that he’d done so much that students noticed.”

Mr. Aring said most noticeable was the way Mr. Traverso reached out to all the students. A stark contrast, he said, to former principal Stephen Nixon.

“We’d all see him on a daily basis interacting with kids which we weren’t used to before, sadly,” Mr. Aring said. “He’s been an inspiring principal and from what I’ve seen I think he accomplished so much.”

He replaced Nixon

Prior to arriving on the Vineyard Mr. Traverso was principal of the Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield.

In announcing the selection of Mr. Traverso last July, superintendent Weiss described him as “a seasoned principal with a proven track record of leadership.”

Prior to accepting the Vineyard job Mr. Traverso had been principal of the Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield since 2010 where he was credited with transforming the school from one with serious discipline problems and struggling academic performance to a school with dramatically improved behavior and rising test scores and graduation rates.

The selection of Mr. Traverso concluded a process that began in May, 2014 following the resignation in April of former principal Stephen Nixon amid a cloud of controversy, principal since 2008.

Mr. Weiss appointed then Assistant Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea as acting principal to fill in until a new principal was hired.

A nine-member search committee that included Mr. Weiss, several teachers, a parent, a student, an administrator from the high school, an elementary school principal, and a representative from the NAACP selected 10 candidates for interviews, and six came to Martha’s Vineyard for interviews during the first week of June.

Ultimately the choice came down to Mr. Traverso and David Maxwell, assistant principal of Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, who had family connections to the Vineyard.