It’s no secret that teaching is one of the most difficult yet rewarding fields to work in, with school administration a logical next step that offers its own unique challenges. For educational leadership veteran Gil Traverso, serving as Principal in three entirely different school systems has given him the opportunity to show just how important high-caliber leadership is.
Credited with guiding the failing Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts from high dropout rates and low graduation rates to a new era of excellence, Traverso has spent the last three years as Executive Director of the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School (PFSJCS) in Chicopee, Massachusetts. With goals to “prepare students to attend and succeed in college, increase community and global understanding and involvement, and inspire future leaders for our society,” PFSJC offers grades 9-12 with a maximum enrollment of 320 students.
Traverso’s career began with a B.S. in Workforce Education from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, followed by a Master of Science in Educational Leadership from Central Connecticut State University. Upon graduation, he became an assistant principal of the State Department of Education-Connecticut Technical High School, where he stayed for 14 years until his tenure as principal at Putnam. He then moved on to Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and New Haven Public Schools before ending up at PFSJCS.
With a long career punctuated by increases in test scores, unification amongst staff and those in leadership roles, and improved graduation rates, Traverso is an expert in his field. He is currently earning his Superintendent Certificate at Central Connecticut State University while supervising and mentoring High School Principals.
Passionate about educational leadership and the positive (and negative) impact that it can have on a school community, Traverso is dedicating his career to improving not only students’ lives but entire schools. This requires a thorough understanding of training and supporting leaders; overseeing budgets; implementing systems that improve climate, culture, and performance outcomes; and aligning resources, professional development, instructional practice, and student achievement. It is no small feat, and Traverso speaks openly about how he achieves what looks to be impossible from the outside.
Starting out as a teacher in what he describes as a “dysfunctional” school, Traverso quickly found success in the classroom; it inspired him to take on a larger role.
“My success in the classroom motivated me to expand my area of influence throughout the school by being a leader,” he says. “I learned from the mistakes of those leaders that I watched to ensure that I did not repeat the same detrimental actions.”
Instead, he sought to lead by example while supporting and celebrating his staff, which he says leads to motivation and excellence amongst teachers and other staff members.
“First and foremost, modeling integrity and [setting] clear expectations is critical to establish any credibility,” he begins. “These need to be followed by succinct action planning, strategic alignment, and support for improvement. Staff needs effective support and tools in order to achieve the expected outcomes. Additionally, championing their accomplishments and exhibiting empathy during challenging times are essential in building a trusting workplace environment.”
Once the professional and school learning environment have been improved, only then can Traverso get to work on improving student outcomes, like test score increases, suspension and fight decreases, and graduation rate increases:
“After careful examination of data, climate, and resources it is imperative that strategic planning addresses the specific areas in need of improvement. Building teams that support strategic planning goals is required for shared leadership. Timelines, alignment of resources, and support need to be followed by accountability measures to measure effectiveness.”
Stressing the importance of data analysis as a first step, Traverso then seeks to understand the root cause of the data results. Wanting to know and understand why certain things are happening is critical to finding solutions that will change the outcomes. Providing tiers of support and intervention are what ultimately leads to improvements in student performance.
It was at Putnam that Traverso’s work received the most attention and praise, with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges citing the school’s reorganization and commitment to fiscal integrity. Traverso’s deep dive into each vocational department uncovered accounting problems and issues in several shops that he remedied.
During his tenure, Putnam moved into a state-of-the-art facility and placed new emphasis on academics, including the addition of Advanced Placement (AP) courses and measures to improve MCAS scores. The results speak for themselves:
- Putnam Academy was voted Best Technical High School in Western Massachusetts for three subsequent years.
- Four-year cohort graduation rates increased from 60.4% to 85% in three years.
- Greatest district gains in all measurable indicators:
- Second in standardized test gains in the entire state of Massachusetts.
- Tied for lowest dropout rate at .7 statewide.
- 17% increase in graduation rate in 2 years.
In 2014, Traverso was nominated for Principal of The Year for Massachusetts.
So how did he do it?
Traverso implemented the use of a Daily Grade Sheet with a common rubric across all of the Putnam programs that measured competency, employability skills, and common soft skills that are required by employers. A college and career readiness program was put into place.
A drop-out early warning system was set up and parents were shown a matrix of remediation measures that could be used to keep kids in school. Students were assigned a drop-out coach and a counselor, who offered free training from April through summer.
What’s more, Traverso started to address how Putnam was perceived and the challenges stemming from those perceptions.
“Due to misperceptions, students who are not academically strong are placed in vocational schools, which, in fact, actually require stronger skills. This could be very damaging to a student’s self-esteem if the student was improperly placed in this setting,” he previously told The Republican.
Because some guidance counselors only have limited exposure to vocational schools, Traverso launched the “Lesson and Luncheon” program, where eighth-grade counselors learned what Putnam could offer by being paired up with students from the manufacturing, culinary arts, and allied health programs.
Traverso also honed in on the fact that Putnam students are expected to meet the same standards for (the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests) as public school students not attending a vo-tech program. Putnam students have 90 days of preparation, as compared to the 180 days in non-vocational schools; this is because their time is split between academics and their trade shops.
“The MCAS is one-size-fits-all when it should be percentage-based for the vocational schools,” Traverso had explained. “For example, an alternative testing program more in line with vocational and technical school proficiencies is the NOCTI assessment.”
NOCTI is the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute and their program is currently used in nine states, including Connecticut.
Gil Traverso has big plans for his future as a School Superintendent. In addition to his current role providing ongoing leadership training for school principals in strategic planning, operations, goal setting, resource, and priority alignment, his intention is to oversee the daily operations and long-term planning of an entire school district.
With a proven track record of success brought about by thoughtful, actionable steps leading to long-term change, he’s well on his way.