By Samuel Speciale
Charleston Daily Mail Staff
It has only been a week since Michael Martirano became state superintendent, but the schools chief already has his sights set on improving student achievement in West Virginia.
In a Daily Mail editorial board meeting Friday, Martirano said he wants to see drastic improvements, but acknowledges that change doesn’t happen overnight.
“I’ve always said it’s a journey, not a sprint,” he said. “But we have to think with the end goals in mind.”
Some of those goals, like improved achievement, attendance and graduation rates, were accomplished by Martirano during his nine years as superintendent of St. Mary’s County Schools in Maryland. During his time there, Martirano oversaw a 10 percent improvement in graduation rates — from 82 percent to 92 percent.
Now, he comes with similar goals to West Virginia where student achievement rankings are in the bottom half nationally and the graduation rates fall well below 80 percent.
Despite facing socioeconomic challenges hindering progress in some areas — student poverty in West Virginia is one of the highest in the nation — Martirano believes great things can be done when a community commits to providing quality education for its children.
“I’m very optimistic and very hopeful,” he said. “I sense a can-do and must-do attitude here. People in West Virginia want to do education right.”
He said it starts with getting parents involved because those who are committed often have successful children.
Parental involvement can vary greatly from school to school though. For years, Kenna Elementary was considered one of the best schools in the state, while five miles away Watts Elementary — which has since been consolidated into Edgewood Elementary — was considered one of the worst.
Martirano likes to see education as an equalizer, not something that divides.
“All young people don’t come from supportive backgrounds,” he said. “That’s why my philosophy is predicated on all children can and will learn and that parents be involved.”
In instances where parents can’t be involved, it’s the job of the school and the teacher to provide additional support, Martirano said, and that’s why he has pledged to put a quality teacher in every classroom.
“I want teachers to have a mindset that this is a mission, not a job,” he said. “They need to work on behalf of the kids because we are all changing lives.”
To do this, Martirano will take a multi-pronged approach. “There’s no silver bullet here,” he said.
Teacher pay is one component and is sure to be the most talked about and most contested.
Despite the Legislature approving an across-the-board $1,000 raise for teachers earlier this year, their salaries remain about $4,000 below the national average for teachers. This has led to a higher-than-normal rate of attrition.
“I’m very concerned about the level of competitiveness with neighboring states because I want to recruit teachers who will make a lifelong commitment to our children,” Martirano said.
The issue of teachers leaving one district or state for higher pay is not foreign to Martirano. In Maryland, he faced similar problems when teachers would hop from county to county for more money.
“We invest a lot of time and energy on training good people who end up leaving us,” Martirano said. “We want to stop that and have people come and stay.”
Martirano said he has already spoken to union leaders about making teacher pay more competitive, but there are other factors to consider. He plans to release his strategic plan in the coming months.
Part of that plan will be Martirano’s goals for working with county superintendents and providing more opportunities for local control over education — a recommendation in the 2012 audit of the state Department of Education.
“There has to be a balance,” Martirano said. “There are federal and state mandates counties must follow, but I want to encourage innovation and creativity.”
Martirano, who has held leadership positions in several levels of education, said he understands how to work with every player.
“It all comes back to communication,” he said while pointing to a poster in his office that says “Communicate, communicate, communicate and when in doubt communicate more.”
“If you communicate effectively and you explain to people why we are doing what we are doing and not just come down with the hammer, usually rational-minded, educated and intelligent people understand.”
Martirano’s hire is just one of many moves the state Board of Education has taken to overhaul West Virginia’s education system.
“To begin to move in a new direction, we can’t continue to do the same things,” Martirano said.
Born and raised in the small western Maryland town of Frostberg, Martirano is familiar with the regional challenges West Virginia faces. He said his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who worked in coal mines, helped him form his work ethic.
“I was raised on similar values as those in West Virginia,” he said. “The mountains are in my blood.”
Martirano was a teacher, principal and district superintendent in Maryland, where he was named state superintendent of the year in 2009 and the 2010 innovator of the year.
Martirano will earn an annual salary of $230,000.