Expected new state superintendent will focus on grad rates, achievement

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By Mackenzie Mays 
The Charleston Gazette

The man expected to be West Virginia’s next schools superintendent says his primary focus will not only be graduating more students but closing the achievement gap shown by poor and minority students.

In West Virginia, more than half of all students live at or below the poverty line, while the 10 percent of students who are minorities score lower on tests than their classmates.

In Southern Maryland’s St. Mary’s County, the school district Michael Martirano has overseen as superintendent for nearly a decade, the childhood poverty rate is much lower, around 10 percent. About one in three students qualify for free or discounted meals, and about 20 percent are minorities.

Martirano said those students who struggle have been a main focus of his all along, and they will continue to be in West Virginia.

“We’ve been able to close the achievement gap here tremendously. When I first got here, the graduation rate was 82 percent. Now I’m leaving at 91.5 percent — an all-time high for the district. It’s that intentionality of, ‘what gets measured, gets done.’ And it can be done — I’ve been able to do it in every position I’ve been in,” Martirano said in a telephone interview with the Gazette.

“But it needs laser focus. It just can’t be everybody doing random acts. It charges me up tremendously to come into the state, and I hope to replicate a lot of the work that I’ve done in Maryland in West Virginia.”

Martirano, who is from Frostburg, Maryland, and has a doctorate in education and school management, said West Virginia’s consistently low national rankings in student achievement don’t worry him, they motivate him. The solution, he said, is a larger focus on early intervention, quality pre-kindergarten programs and more opportunities for struggling students to recover.

Working cooperatively with the state’s 55 county superintendents also is important, said Martirano, who is president of the Public School Superintendent Association of Maryland.

“I want the whole state galvanized around improving reading and numeracy. If you have curriculum that is aligned with instructional pieces, then the assessments, in theory, should take care of themselves. But you can’t leave that to chance,” he said. “I’m very eager to work with county superintendents. They are critical in achievement.

“If all of that is done in the correct way, then, in many ways, the rankings take care of themselves. But it’s not just for the sake of improving rankings.”

When asked about major educational issues — such as Common Core — Martirano said he’s very supportive but concerned about the amount of misinformation out there among parents, communities and even teachers. In his district, Common Core regulations were implemented a year in advance, with all schools participating and also offering several informational sessions for parents.

“I’m a very assertive communicator. One of the primary ways to handle this barrier and combat fear is through communication about what the Common Core actually is. It’s a more rigorous curriculum that’s going deeper, instead of being an inch deep and a mile long,” he said. “I was, quite frankly, taken aback by the misunderstanding out there, but once we were able to provide communication and show exactly how it plays out, then people became extremely calm and understood the need for it.

Martirano said he has fond childhood memories of West Virginia, and said his grandfather worked as a coal miner .

“It’s close to home. It’s basically home to me, in many ways,” he said. “The job just really appealed to me in terms of compatibility, and I’ve been so impressed with the level of commitment from the state Board of Education that appears to be there. They really seem to have gone in and tried to change the focus and really go after improving student achievement. I am just truly honored and humbled to be selected for this position. I’m all about kids. I recognize adult agendas, but every job I’ve had has been to provide more assistance to kids, and I really want the citizens of West Virginia to be improving the quality of education.”

Martirano said he is only slightly aware of the wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by former superintendent Jorea Marple.

“That’s not a part of my history. I’ll be looking to the future, as opposed to the past. That’s where my focus will be,” he said. “My enthusiasm is about moving the state of West Virginia forward, and that’s the charge the state board has communicated to me.”

The board will vote on Martirano’s employment Tuesday at the state Capitol. He is likely to officially assume the job in the fall.