Struggling Schools Call on Gil Traverso When It’s Time for a Turnaround

Low test scores. High numbers of fights and suspensions. High dropout rates. Low graduation rates. Metrics like these are symptoms of larger problems within a school, but can often feel like insurmountable hurdles to overcome in turning things around. But for educational leader Gil Traverso, implementing policies and procedures to combat these symptoms is just another day at the office.

With more than 20 years of experience in school leadership roles throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts, Traverso has made a name for himself as the man to call when a school has hit rock bottom. He brings a no-nonsense rationale and a step-by-step approach to carrying out changes that create real, long-term results.

For the past three years, Traverso has served as the Executive Director of the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Prior to his time at Paulo Freire, he was at New Haven Public Schools, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Connecticut Technical High School. During his tenures, he has executed some of the most impressive school turnarounds of the past two decades.

Through a systematic process of analysis, identification, and then creation of supports and interventions, Traverso keeps the root cause of problems front and center, rather than focusing on superficial or nominal changes.

Inquiry and Understanding are Key

Before anything else, Traverso begins with an effective data analysis. Performance outcomes cannot be improved without making informed decisions based on the facts of the situation. Only then can Traverso begin to get to the root of the problem and devise a plan of action.

“The next critical step [after data analysis] is understanding the root causes of the data results, which requires inquiry for understanding,” Traverso elaborates. “This needs to be followed by providing tiered supports and interventions that will positively impact the present performance data.”

This is when the majority of changes occur, including engaging parents in their children’s educations, assigning counselors to at-risk students, and even evaluating the effectiveness of administered standardized tests. For Traverso, no potential change is off-limits; in order for the students and the school to be effective, they often need a major overhaul in more than one area.

“After careful examination of data, climate, and resources it is imperative that strategic planning addresses the specific areas in need of improvement,” he continues. “Building teams that support the strategic planning goals is required for shared leadership. Timelines, alignment of resources and supports need to be followed by accountability measures to measure effectiveness.”

By never losing sight of the children as the key focus of his efforts, listening to the data, identifying the root cause of all problems, and bringing a creative no-holds-barred approach to his work, Traverso is always able to turn things around. Given that as principal, he is also responsible for overseeing and balancing budgets, this can sometimes be a tall order, and require prioritization.

“As a leader, I prioritize based on equitable access, individual and group needs, and creating viable and measured interventions,” Traverso says.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Despite his incredible track record, there are times that Traverso faces adversity based on his unorthodox approach to his work. As he builds and unites a school staff, engages a school board, balances a budget, and answers to parents, not everyone agrees on how and what should be done by a lead administrator. Traverso gets results, but he sometimes has to fight for the changes he deems necessary, and he is under constant scrutiny.

In spite of these challenges, he enters each new position with the same plan, attitude, and professional demeanor. If staff members need to be replaced, he doesn’t shy away from the task, and he rebuilds workplace morale starting with himself.

“First and foremost, modeling integrity and clear expectations is critical to establish any credibility,” Traverso says of motivating his new coworkers. “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 everyone understands the magnitude of the changes that need to be made, the real, day-to-day work can begin. For Traverso, the proof that his approach works is well-documented.

While at Putnam Academy, the school was voted Best Technical High School in Western Massachusetts for three subsequent years, and four-year cohort graduation rates increased from 60.4% to 85% in three years. Putnam saw huge improvements in standardized test scores and tied for the lowest dropout rate at .7 statewide.

As a result, in 2014 Traverso was nominated for Principal of The Year for Massachusetts. 

While awards don’t give the same validation as a successful school with a satisfied staff and motivated students do, they certainly don’t hurt – especially as Gil Traverso eyes his next move to Superintendent.

Having found his calling in school leadership, Gil Traverso is a perfect choice for district-wide planning and supervision. And after his years of gracefully and tactfully handling challenges at every level, it’s safe to say he’s ready for this next step in serving the students of New England.

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