By Samuel Speciale, Education reporter
Michael Martirano, West Virginia’s “soon-to-be” superintendent of schools, is all about first impressions.
In a press conference Tuesday where Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and state Board of Education President Gayle Manchin introduced him to the public, Martirano said he encourages his students to make lasting impressions on the world.
He used his first appearance in West Virgina to make several promises he knows will be challenging to accomplish.
“We will make West Virginia the top state in education,” he said. “We will provide every child with a world-class education and make certain they are college and career ready.”
Martirano’s statements were met with applause, but he has his work cut out for him as West Virginia would have to climb from the bottom half of most education rankings for his promises to become reality.
But Martirano isn’t discouraged by that. He said he is “energized by challenges.”
When discussing how he will go about making such changes in West Virginia, Martirano pulled from his experience as superintendent of St. Mary’s County Public Schools in Maryland.
There, Martirano was tasked with improving a lackluster graduation rate despite several socioeconomic factors that held the system back for years.
In his nine years in St. Mary’s County, Martirano was able to improve the graduation rate at his 26 schools by 10 percent. Now, nearly 92 percent of students receive their diploma.
Martirano sees a similar number in West Virginia’s future.
When asked what his first order of business will be, Martirano said he will make sure West Virginia has the best teachers in its classrooms.
“We need to make sure our policies support having the best teachers,” he said, later adding that his administration will also work with universities to get student-teachers better prepared for teaching in West Virginia.
“We won’t compromise our standards of only accepting the very best and highly effective teachers in our classrooms.”
Martirano also will focus on improving graduation rates by reaching out to students at an early age.
“Improving the graduation rate takes strengthening structures,” Martirano said. “We do that by making sure all children are ready to learn, that they are in school on time, and when they aren’t performing well, we intervene and make sure they can achieve.”
Martirano will oversee the education of about 282,000 students, which is considerably more than the 18,000 in St. Mary’s County.
Martirano said his lofty goals can only be achieved with the help of West Virginia’s 55 county superintendents, as well as principals and teachers.
“This work has to be achieved at the local level,” he said. “It’s about partnering and bringing all groups together because everyone is going to have a role in this.”
Martirano ended his comments with another promise.
“If we do all these things, wonderful things can happen.”
Tomblin, who stumbled over the pronunciation of Martirano’s name, which prompted him to nickname him “Dr. Mike,” said he is impressed with Martirano and his vision for West Virginia’s students.
“We must invest in our future by providing our children with the best education possible,” he said.
Representing the Board of Education, Manchin briefly spoke about the national search to find Martirano, which cost $43,000 and brought in 64 applicants from 43 states.
“We were looking for a visionary and transformational leader,” she said. “A person that can be the voice of education in West Virginia. We, the board, feel we found everything we were looking for.”
Martirano won’t officially start until later this fall due to a contractual obligation that will require him to remain in Maryland until September.
Because of this and the retirement of Jim Phares last month, the board hired then-Deputy Superintendent Charles Heinlein to serve as superintendent until Martirano comes to West Virginia.