The year ahead for Island public schools

The Times sat down with Superintendent Richard Smith to talk about his first year in the position and the year ahead.

Martha's Vineyard superintendent Richie Smith, shown here during this spring's West Tisbury annual town meeting, prepares for the new school year. —Eunki Seonwoo


As of Sept. 5, school is officially underway on the Island. 

Administrators have many issues on their plates, including major building projects at the Tisbury School and the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School; the schools are also working with a rise in English language learners, and increasing behavioral health challenges following the trauma of a global pandemic. 

The Times sat down with district Superintendent Richie Smith to talk about the year ahead, but also to catch up on his first year as superintendent.

The 2022-2023 school year came with several unprecedented occurrences: a bomb threat at the Edgartown School, Spanish-speaking migrants sent from Texas by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an Island-wide school lockdown in response to the Rockland Trust bank robbery, and arbitration to reach an agreement with the teachers and Education Support Professionals union. Add the ongoing track and field project — which the state land court just ruled on in the high school’s favor — and building construction plans. The schools in a sense have been in conflict from inside and out. 

“First off, I am extremely proud of last year. We adeptly handled a lot of things that came our way,” Smith said. The superintendent commended the community for coming together to support the migrants in their time of need, particularly the AP Spanish students at the high school.

In some ways, as an educator of 35 years and an Islander for 22 years, Smith has been long preparing for the role. He completed his first full year last year, taking the reins from Matt D’Andrea in 2022. 

Heading into his second year as superintendent, Smith continues to highlight and prioritize the value of trust and relationships as critical building blocks to the school — and the Island — community. 

 Going into the new year, there are 27 new staff across the Island schools. Last year the schools felt the stretch of short-staffing across the district, and there are still open positions Smith is looking to fill, but he feels they are in good shape for the start of school. “We still are feeling it, but it feels like we’ve pivoted,” Smith said. 

Enrollment in Island schools has stayed strong. The regional high school is in its second year numbering over 700 students. This year it’s 775. The Chilmark School usually hosts four dozen students, and this school year they’re starting out with more than 70 students. Some families are also sending students from Tisbury to other Island schools, like West Tisbury and Oak Bluffs; according to Smith, that’s to avoid the Tisbury School’s major construction, with classes being held in modular buildings. Because the Island practices “school choice,” student movement between schools is allowed as long as there is sufficient room in the class.

Last year 5th and 7th grades were packed across Island schools. The Tisbury School usually comes in with around 325 or 330 students, but due to the construction, students have opted for other options. Tisbury School’s enrollment is 260-275 students for this year. Renovations to the K-8 are still underway, and students will complete the 2023-2024 school year in modular buildings. 

“When the building opens up, you’ll see a difference,” said Smith. “What people don’t think about with the Tisbury School is that the soul of that school is the amazing staff.” 

Building projects will be significant going into the year. Smith said when he first considered moving into the role of superintendent, he knew what the school system would be facing. “We haven’t had major building projects on this Island since I’ve been here.” 

Smith shared that over the past year, two representatives from each town met to look at an amendment to the district’s funding formula in the face of needing to address the major renovation or possible rebuild of the high school, which is currently in the feasibility study phase of development. “The towns came together and compromised, truly inspiring,” said the superintendent of the work done around the education budget. 

Last spring all towns passed the high school budget. Smith shared they were able to keep the operating budget for the high school below a 2.5 percent increase. “We brought in a 2.1 percent increase for the budget and the towns were happy with that. We had great unsolicited feedback from them,” said Smith. With education taking up such a large part of the national and local budget (upwards of 40 percent of the town operating budgets support Island education, according to Smith), Smith shared his gratitude that the teachers and ESPs were able to come to an agreement with the high school committee in negotiating the upcoming three-year contract last year. 

Apart from the major construction at Tisbury School and the high school entering the feasibility study to prepare for another major construction project, Chilmark had a new HVAC system installed over the summer, and West Tisbury also renovated its kitchen. They start the year with a new kitchen and food trailer. The Edgartown School is also embarking on the development of an Outdoor Learning Campus and Playground project, and will be welcoming six new teachers, who will be co-teaching. The Oak Bluffs School made some updates over the summer as well; they repainted the interior and exterior of the building, wifi has been upgraded, and the middle school playground is being refurbished.

While there were several goals around the high school project in collaboration with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, Superintendent Smith’s biggest concern and top priority is taking care of the students. “Nationally and locally, we are seeing the impact of the emotional trauma that took place,” he said of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smith prioritizes supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of kids — and staff. “Kids don’t perform well if they are not emotionally supported,” said Smith. 

As a result of last year’s events and the pandemic years, Smith has prioritized student wellbeing through implementing emergency training programs school-wide, which gives school staff proper instruction on how to proceed and guide students in the case of certain crisis events. The first phases of the training have already been completed. 

He also highlighted the full-time hire of a behavioral health coordinator, Kim Garrison. After conducting an evaluation through student surveys, administrators discovered there was a need for a consistent health curriculum and behavioral health services available to students. Garrison has implemented a mental health first aid program, and a program to support newcomers in the English Language Learners (ELL) program. 

The Collaborative Problem Solving program Think:Kids, which aims to support students struggling with behavioral challenges, has also been implemented at the high school. The Department of Education endorses the program. The training educates staff in how to best respond to students who have faced trauma and crisis, which can occur in a variety of ways. Some ways this distress manifests in students is through attendance (or lack thereof) and acting out in school. There is also a health and safety team in place, in the case of a continued uptick of COVID cases. 

“I think we are being forward thinking and strategic in putting these into place,” Smith said. He shared that Hope McLeod has been key to helping students in crisis. Thirty-eight teachers and administrators participated in training last school year and will continue to advance their training into the upcoming school year. 

Another critical element of student support is for newcomer English Language Learners. The schools have implemented a co-teaching model aimed not just at special education students or students who require educational support, but also for newcomers taking content courses like literature or history, to assist them in understanding and integrating the material. It comes as the ELL population at the high school is growing. 

In 2022 there were 420 ELL students, exactly double the 210 ELL students identified in 2016. That means that 19 percent of the 2,200 students need support in the English language across Island schools. Smith said that they are expanding a co-teaching model that has shown promise.

Overall, Smith looks forward to a productive year in the school system. “We had so much work that happened over the summer. I just want to recognize the hard work that’s been going,” said Smith. 

At school convocation last week, Smith welcomed and encouraged school staff Island-wide ahead of the first day. “There is deep gratitude that I feel for all the work that you all do. I wish you all the best as we start the school year,” he said.

A previous version of this story stated the migrants were sent from Florida. 


  1. As a parent with a child in the school system there should be some acknowledgment of how the schools failed our children during Covid. While most businesses had everybody up and running after a few weeks of interruption the schools took over a year to get back in action. And children were the least vulnerable to the virus. What they did was shameful and embarrassing. My child had a total of 2.5 hours a week of instruction over zoom during that period. I will never forgive the school administrators for their failure regardless of how often they pat themselves on the back.

    • Our schools did not fail our children.
      Only a fool would think that a pandemic would have no impact on education.
      And teachers and administrators are the among the most vulnerable to the virus.
      Show our school administrators their failure. Move to Arkansas, Covid had little effect on education in Arkansas, the base line is so low.
      Be good to your child, move some place better, where pandemic protocols are non existent,
      and the Covid death rate is high, Like Texas or Oklahoma.
      They will be taught that slavery was was good for the Blacks, it was the only way to civilize them. Make them patriotic heroes. Ownership and Conjugal Rights were part of the deal.

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