Making a Difference as a School Administrator

Does the current educational model in our K-12 schools still work? To answer this question, Robert Travaglini spoke with College Talks & More hosts Hanna and Cari about the future of education. Robert is a student focused administrator with over 20 years of experience in quality school districts.

Robert is an experienced public educator who has led both individual schools and school systems to increase student academic and social emotional growth through collaboration and system based design. Robert, could you please take a moment to introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your professional and educational background?

Robert Travaglini

I pursued music performance for my undergraduate degree, and I would say probably from the time that I was in sixth grade, I knew that music was going to be something that I would pursue seriously. I got a number of scholarships that had to do with music. I decided to attend both San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to pursue that degree. And at San Francisco State University, they had hired all of the San Francisco Symphony members teach privately. So many of us that also were part of the conservatory, obviously gravitated towards San Francisco State University so we could take advantage of the San Francisco Symphony members and their instruction. I ended up with a degree in music performance, but I was a double major. I also ended up with a degree in clinical psychology.

I performed for about 10 years on the West coast, doing mostly pit work for musicals and Marin Center light opera. I love playing jazz, so I did a lot of club work: playing jazz, quartets, quintets, etc. During my playing, I found that I really enjoyed working with people in the learning process. Ultimately, I moved to the East coast and decided I wanted to not only continue my performing, but also to continue my pursuit of education. I was performing in various places in New York and Boston, and Hartford, CT. I connected with a number of people, including Jackie McLean at the Hartt School of Music. I kept my performing component going while I started working at the preschool level in education.

That is a big jump from music to preschool. How did that transition come about?

There was a six month grant position. This particular preschool was looking to integrate music into their classrooms. We integrated a music component into the pre-K class. I knew then that I really wanted to use music, because I could see the impact it had on the pre-K kids. Music impacted them both social-emotionally and cognitively.

Did you continue your education on your way to becoming a school administrator?

I obtained a teaching certificate in Connecticut and started teaching in Torrington, CT for 11 years. Because of budget cuts and reduced funding, they had us not only at one school, but many of us who were in the music component were itinerant, meaning we were traveling from school to school to be able to keep the program running and building the program. All of us took on teaching multiple aspects of music in Torrington at that time, because we were trying to keep the program going and trying to build it. So we were all teaching strings, instrumental components, general music, chorus, et cetera, all aspects of music at the educational level, pr-K to 12.

Did you always have to travel to so many schools while working in music education?

As the program began to build, we were able to stay in one or two schools . This was because we were able to hire additional staff. I was eventually placed at Torrington High School full time. We decided to build a music program, not only with our string orchestra program, but also our band. In addition to that, we began to incorporate technology into our chorus program. We began to expand to allow other students within the high school have an experience of music by offering guitar lessons, music technology, etc. This really opened up opportunities for students.

Horace W Porter School, Columbia, CT

After working in Torrington for 11 years, I decided to go into administration. I wanted to see if I could make a bigger impact, especially in the arts. I was hired by the Columbia public school district here in Connecticut to be an assistant principal at Horace W. Porter school. It was a pre-K to eighth grade school. At that time, education was looking more closely at data, data analysis, and basing decisions on data. This particular district did not have the funding to put in a data warehouse. Data warehouses were being put in larger school districts. So I developed, as part of my coursework at UCONN, an Excel program that was a data warehouse. The statistical analysis component of Microsoft Excel at that time was a little clunky, but it worked, and it served our purpose.

Using the Excel data, were able to really look at literacy, math, science and the arts. We were able to really start to accumulate data in regards to making correlations in regards to learning. It allowed us to see where we needed to put our efforts and resources. At that point, I was also pursuing my 093 certification for superintendency. I was at UCONN at the time. I decided to intern with Robert Henry, who was superintendent of Hartford, CT. It was a year long internship. I was still practicing as an assistant principal. I lived in the South End of Hartford. I knew the community. I knew the neighborhoods. I knew the city. The internship was a great match. I interned for a year, and then I asked if I could stay on one additional year, because there was so much to learn in a city like Hartford.

I completed four years as assistant principle at the Horace W. Porter school. And then Robert Henry asked if I wanted to take on principalship in Hartford. I interviewed for the position and was offered the job. I was fortunate enough to get my neighborhood school, which was Naylor School, located in the South end of Hartford. I was principal there for over eight years.

What came next in your career in school administration?

I got an opportunity after those eight plus years to do some statewide work under the Ford Foundation and with the National Center on Time and Learning that’s based in Boston, Massachusetts. I began to take a statewide look at redesigning schools and looking into expanding the student day to eight hours. The redesign component included academics, social-emotional enrichment, and extending that eight hour day. We use various strategies to be able to avoid impacting teacher contract.

We worked closely with two Unions in Connecticut. We were able to put through three cohorts of districts and schools here in the state. They were Alliance districts with incredible results. We really changed the entire component of those schools and the number of those schools as we speak today. Because of choice, we have waiting lists to get in, because of the redesign and the experiences that we were able to provide for students and the support for students in those redesigned situations. Once the Ford Foundation funding ended, Governor Malloy decided not to continue. He saw my data that I had collected over the years at the schools. I thought we would get the support to continue. Unfortunately, on February 16th of that year, when governor Malloy announced his budget, we weren’t included. The Ford Foundation ended that three-year funding. So, unfortunately, we had to end the process after three cohorts.

Central Connecticut State University then asked me to take on a adjunct position, both in education leadership and special education. That’s what I’ve been doing since – teaching classes in those areas. And I recently just picked up a position at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London as a Intervention Specialist. So I’m going to help them with intervention components, both academically and social emotionally.

You created a professional development / school development plan. What is that used for exactly, and can you go into a little bit more detail it?

This was a very powerful component when I was principal at Naylor School in Hartford, in regards to how it supported staff. And I mean all staff, not just teachers and administrators, but secretaries, custodians, everyone that was in the building, students, families. I work with frameworks.

Naylor School, Hartford CT

What is a framework when it comes to working with schools?

So what I do is I create a framework based on the needs that are presented and components we have identified. And from that framework, we develop systems that help support those various components. We did this in partnership with CCSU. When I came on board as principal at Naylor, they had just started making connections with Central Connecticut State University. It was the beginning stages of trying to develop a partnership with them. We sat down and we developed a framework that surrounded the school with the focus on community, students, family and staff. We implemented a mutually beneficial plan on how we could use the university not only to support us, but how we could support CCSU.

We developed this framework, and it started out with teacher education and the education department. After we started to expand, we realized that a lot of our students were coming in with high levels of trauma. We had students coming in who were from broken families, who had parents that were in prison or drug related issues. The list goes on. It was also at a time when there was a resurrection of some of the gang activity that had started many years ago in Hartford, such as the Latin Kings and Los Solidos. Members of the gangs, at that time, were being released from prison. Well, that wasn’t good. They obviously had children. They began to use their children to recruit other people into their gang and try to resurrect this whole gang situation.

Community Involvement

I lived in the South End, it’s my neighborhood school. I was aware of the gang situation. We built this framework around community to begin to connect to the various community components of the city. We wanted to be able to address and change the dynamic of what was going on here in the South End. CCSU was a huge part of that plan, because a professional development framework has a learning component. It’s a component where you include all of your staff and the university staff where both organizations form a reciprocal relationship. How do you begin to work together and partner organically to develop these support systems and move and change the environment? We began to develop this framework, starting with CCSU. All the departments at Central Connecticut State University eventually became part of the framework.

At the height of the partnership, we had anywhere from 150 to 200 university students in our building each semester. We also developed a micro society component. The micro society component basically mirrors the community: we had a banking system, a monetary system, a court system, a constitution that the middle school students drew up and participated in developing, a beautification system. We had multiple areas that mirrored the community. The students, based on a number of variables and components that we had put in place, could earn the monetary piece – the Naylor dollar.

What exactly could the students spend their Naylor dollars on?

We held auctions where the students could use their Naylor dollars to purchase things. We contacted located businesses and asked them to donate movie tickets and other items for the auction. The students earned their dollars through certain criteria that we developed, but we mirrored that community component. I connected with the Franklin Avenue Merchants Association and the Maple Avenue Merchants Association in the South end, and I said, “Our kids are too young for you to hire and pay them. What if you were able to bring them on board and have them do whatever you needed done, like cleaning, organizing, or whatever you needed to have happen. And then the school would pay them with our monetary system.”

Professional Development Plan

The local business involvement was a huge piece, because our middle school students were not looked upon very highly in the neighborhood. Creating a community in the school that mirrored the community and neighborhood of the South end was incredible. We also created a mentorship program in partnership with Central Connecticut State University. Every middle school student had a CCSU college mentor that worked with them, and they were assigned a project that they had to complete together. It wasn’t just meeting and talking. They had to work together to complete the project, which was afterwards presented at the university campus.

Two additional components of the framework we created at Naylor were:

  1. Bring in licensed Marriage and Family Therapists to help address some of the issues that kids were experiencing at home.
  2. Utilize the services of Clinicians and on-call Psychologists to help address the severe mental health problems some students were struggling with, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

What is it about special education that interested you to further your education and then start teaching about it? And what improvements do you see that need to be made in the special education system in Connecticut?

Special education for me is about student needs and looking at how you meet those needs. It’s one of the reasons why I ended up leaving the principalship and taking on the statewide Ford Foundation work of redesigning schools and extending the student day to eight hours. I took that on because public education needs to change. Public education is structured in an industrial period model. We designate kids and grade by age. Unfortunately, with that industrial model, if a student, regardless of grade level, isn’t meeting the necessary requirements for that grade level to move on to the next grade, teachers are only left with the option of retention. The student is retained, and they repeat the same grade again.

There’s many problems with the retention strategy. To make the student go through the same thing again, without any change in the educational process for that student, isn’t going to change the outcome at the end of that second year. The worst part of retention is if you retain the kid for one year, the chance of him or her graduating from high school drops dramatically. If you retain that same child again for a second year, the chance of him or her graduating from high school is very unlikely. “Retention is not a strategy”, has been my motto throughout my career. But we still operate on this sort of industrial model, moving kids by age and grade.

How does the industrial model affect special education?

There is a more harmful impact when it comes to special education. If we stay in our industrial model structure, it means that a teacher in a classroom of 25 students is going to have to develop lesson plans and learning components for all the students. Obviously there’s going to be a certain number of those students that are identified special-ed with various needs and who have Individual Education Plans, IEPs. There are various requirements that the teacher has to meet for those kids, in addition to the needs of the rest of the class. It’s a very complex process, and with this process you teach to the “middle”. The students in the middle will receive and understand the information. The students who are above middle (the advanced kids) will understand the information regardless of instruction. Unfortunately, the students at the other end will lose out, because you were teaching to the middle and weren’t providing for those other students. It’s not the fault of the teacher, but the way our education structure is set up. What I propose to change this is to not move children by age and grade, but to have a more Montessori type of instruction. The teachers, depending on what they feel their strengths are in various content areas, would begin to work with the students, and the students would move around based on their needs.

Student’s IEP TEam

Some other problems with the way special education is structured in the USA is that the federal government has never fully funded the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Local governments struggle to fund their special education programs, as special education is one of the most expensive parts of their education budget. The federal government never followed through with the funding. Another problem is districts not following through with Individual Education Plans. A student is identified as needing special education during a Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meeting. Based on that meeting an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is drafted up for that student. Unfortunately, the IEP is not always followed in the classroom. It’s not necessarily the teacher’s fault, because you got 25 students in your classroom and you’re trying to meet all of those needs. The fault lies with the way our educational system is structured.

What is the solution to changing the industrial model of education?

We need to redesign our system. The industrial model does not work, and it will never meet all the needs of students. We need to redesign the educational model. When I’ve presented to districts, and I’ve worked with districts and redesign, one of the things I tell them is, “If you don’t seriously look at how you redesign your instructional process and meet student needs, public education may become obsolete because of technology, and because we’ve got companies that are already offering pre-K through 12 schooling through online classes.” We really need to change how we instruct students, and we need to change the structure and system of how we operate.

Currently, most schools operate on a 6-7 hour school day. But when you take that amount of time and break it down in regards to transitions from various class to class, time at the drinking fountain, time going to the bathroom, lunch, recess, arrivals, dismissions, etc, all of a sudden instructional time is reduced to almost nothing. We need to change the model. It’s not an individual problem. We need to change the design of how we educate students. For example, what I’ve found when travelling statewide to different schools is some schools, when core instruction begins, pull out the special ed students for instruction into a separate arena. I disagree with that. Again, I am a supporter of inclusion. Core instruction should include all students. The teacher needs to find a way to differentiate for those students, and the schools needs to provide additional support if needed. We also need to change to an 8 hour school day for all students.

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