Change Agent

A Dynamic Principal Has Given New Meaning to the Phrase ‘Putnam Pride’

Gilbert Traverso

Gilbert Traverso, principal of Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy

There’s an axiom printed in bold black marker, and in capital letters, on a whiteboard in the principal’s office of the new Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy. It reads, “DO NOT ACCEPT, NOR BE PART OF, INSTITUTIONAL MEDIOCRITY.”

That last phrase is among many, most all of them with negative connotations, that have been summoned over the past decade or so in reference to the State Street institution. But those words and others like them are now used almost exclusively in the past tense.

Ray Lapite helped explained why. A Putnam Collision Department repair technician for 12 years, he points to Gilbert Traverso, principal at the school since July 2010, as the impetus behind a foundation-shaking and unwavering plan to trigger a positive cultural shift that has given new meaning to the phrase ‘Putnam Pride,’ a chant that is quoted often in the halls and on the playing fields.

The change in attitude is so profound that it actually dwarfs, in scope, the transition from the old Putnam high school to the sparkling, $114 million facility that opened its doors in the fall of 2012.

“Chaos reigned; it was a free-for-all, and the morale was so bad, there just wasn’t any at all,” said Lapite as he reflected, somewhat regrettably, on conditions before Traverso arrived. “But Gil came in, and he held us all accountable, because we’re here to do a job, and some people were acting back then like it was their retirement.”

The story of Putnam’s radical and swift turnaround has very little to do with the new school, said Lapite and others we spoke with. Its construction simply served as a rapidly looming deadline for Traverso in his new role making sweeping changes in every facet of a school that had low morale, low student scores, and little attention paid to the few policies and procedures that were in place.

“The majority of the change had to take place in the old school, because I didn’t want to bring old or negative habits into a new setting,” Traverso explained. “I don’t care what the façade is; it’s what the internal mechanisms are, and they have to be sound and effective.”

When Traverso arrived just before the 2010-11 school year was to begin, he was told that employees at neighboring MassMutual across the street were used to the regular sounds of sirens arriving at Putnam due to fights in the hallways and the 52 false fire-alarm calls in the previous year alone.

“I was not really welcomed by too many people when I came on board, and I had no connections here,” Traverso said, recalling that first school year. “I uncovered some issues, and then I was the bad guy.”

The issues that Traverso unearthed went far beyond weekly police calls. Indeed, he’d inherited a school with an internal systemic breakdown that prompted him — with seven unions to deal with — to restructure the grading policy and daily class schedules, and request an audit of his school’s books and procedures, which led to numerous lawsuits and hearings. He fully expected, and indeed received, tremendous pressure from administrators, teachers, parents, and students to essentially back off.

But he never did.

Peter Salerno

Peter Salerno supported Gil Traverso’s aggressive plan for Putnam’s culture change, with investment in students, not the new building, as the number-one goal.

What became an emotionally draining two-year reconstruction process required unwavering encouragement outside his supportive family, which he found with Superintendent Daniel Warwick and his office, and Peter Salerno, executive director of the Roger L. Putnam Technical Fund Inc.

“I told him that, five to seven years from now, nobody’s going to be talking about the new building; that’s not the story,” said Salerno. “The story is you and the kids, and the children are going to be new each and every year; we’ve got to reinvest in ourselves in making it work for them.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what Traverso has accomplished and, more importantly, how. In doing so, we’ll shed light on how the phrase ‘new Putnam’ isn’t used exclusively in reference to the building.

Culture Clash

Traverso, an Hispanic, said he “came out of the ‘hood’” and had to work hard for everything he earned, a reality that has shaped his career, management style, and outlook on education.

Echoing Salerno, he said his mission is to provide a safe, fair, and equitable vocational and educational experience for those who are the intended beneficiaries — the students.

A former assistant principal of the Connecticut Department of Education’s Technical High School system, he was appointed to the Putnam position just two years before the opening of the new school. A visit early in the hiring process prompted some trepidation; he saw kids “hanging around,” and found little evidence to support the fact that there was a dress code in place.

The façade of the original Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy

The façade of the original Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy now serves as a grand entrance to the new, $114 million school.

“All I saw was that these urban kids weren’t being treated in an equitable manner, and I’m all about equality,” Traverso said as he pointed to a poster in his office printed with the Golden Rule. “I teach diversity training throughout Connecticut for the Anti-Defamation League, and if I want to live by that premise, why would I turn my back on an opportunity to address a situation that needed to be addressed?”

Elaborating, Traverso explained that many who are teaching these urban youths don’t live among them. “So there’s that misperception that maybe those kids can’t do it. But it’s not about lowering standards; it’s about providing multiple opportunities.”

It all starts with a belief gap, he went on, adding that there is a widely held belief that the students who don’t want to learn academically should be put in a vocational setting. “That doesn’t work,” Traverso stated.  “What that ultimately does is ruin their self-esteem.”

And it’s untrue to begin with, he said, because Putnam has 90 days of trade education and 90 days of academic classes, but with the latter, students have to cover the same amount of required content that other comprehensive high schools stretch over 180 days.

That initial visit just before he was hired convinced Traverso that very few within the school walls seemed to recognize the value in a quality vocational-educational setting; a balance between academics and trades had to be found.

But creating this balance, and inspiring change, would prove to be a challenging assignment, he said, adding that, from the start, there was animosity stemming from the perception that he was “the new guy that was coming in to fix us,” with the ‘us’ referring to both students and faculty alike.

In that environment, he decided there was no way he was going to get up, assembly-style, in front of 400 or more students at a time, as well as their equally skeptical teachers.

His method to change the perception of him was to “divide and conquer.” His class-by-class conversations and gatherings in very small groups of students, he can jokingly say now, had less chance of turning into a “synergistic meltdown.”

In his first year, Traverso found that several students had earned enough academic credits to qualify as 10th graders, but were recorded as seniors, or were making the grade in their academics but not in their vocational classes, and were still being passed upward. Making more friends by the day, Traverso and the teachers met with 60 quite upset parents, one on one, and explained that the credits would have to be made up, with the help of the school, or the student in question would have to transfer. But the recommendation was to stay at Putnam, and most students did.

With students randomly hanging out in the hallways, Traverso also had to make sure all could be easily accounted for at any given time of day. Two significant scheduling changes he made were to divide the lunch times by grade level, due to the many fights, and to split grade levels for academic and vocational classes. Previously, half the school’s students across all four grades (9-12) were in academic classes one week, known as A Week, while the other half was in vocations during B Week, a system that made it difficult to track where students were at any given time.  Traverso split the schedule to have ninth- and 11th-grade students traveling together to academics and 10th- and 12th-graders traveling together to their trades for the full five days of A Week, with both groups switching the next week.

Traverso and his team also created competencies for each grade level in each vocation, which provided more structure for the instructors and more accountability for the students, he said. During that analysis, he uncovered another alarming issue: each of Putnam’s 18 vocational programs, funded through Chapter 74 (Massachusetts Vocational Technical Education Regulations), are required to have advisory committees of two to 12 industry leaders from across the region. But most programs had no committee or, at best, one that was barely functioning.

The goal of each trade-advisory committee should be to identify new trends, skills, and technology required by the industry, and for those advisors to work with faculty and administrators to ensure that graduates are positioned for success in the workplace. When Traverso requested a meeting of all the advisory committees and vocational chairs, hardly anybody showed up to the first meeting.

“And I said, ‘that will not happen again,’” he told BusinessWest, adding that funding would stop for any trade without a fully functioning advisory committee. “From that day forward, we’ve had nothing but perfect attendance with active advisory committees.”

Looking back at the changes, Salerno added, “there’s a trait in Gil — he faces the brutal facts. Even if it’s a bad thing, you’ve got to face it courageously. You may not be applauded for every win, but you’ll know that you’ve won.”

Accountability Measures

But winning meant everyone had to feel that win.

Traverso recalled a teacher with many years of experience at Putnam who came to him at the beginning of this past school year, beaming and saying, “these kids are the best kids that I’ve ever taught,” an opinion he found intriguing.

“They’re the same kids — the same kids they’ve always been,” Traverso said with a laugh, adding that this episode is just one example of how much the attitudes, from the top down, have positively affected the feeling of being at Putnam, enabling people to say ‘Putnam Pride’ with conviction.

Four years ago, the pride was dead, Traverso explained, and “integrity-filled” instructors were in the shadows, lost in the shuffle during the audit phase. But as the smoke cleared, he created what became known as the Instructional Leadership Team for the purpose of giving more volume to those quiet voices throughout the old building to talk about the positive reality of Putnam’s transformation, as well as to learn what colleagues were doing in their core areas. Instructional rounds were formed, and teachers now run them every five weeks to observe, present feedback, and improve learning in the classroom.

Traverso also created an internal program called Implementation of Sustainable Change. It’s a simplistic flowchart of growth, showing where the school as a whole was in 2010, where it is at present, and where it is going as a team. His office whiteboard shows a graph in different-colored markers that breaks down the change process into four phases, all with traits that administrators, including Traverso, had to cultivate.

The phases include inception, incubation, inclusiveness, and interdependence.  Each phase closely follows each of the past four years of Traverso’s demanding schedule to right the sinking ship, including the few months of running room he needed that first fall. He told BusinessWest that Putnam is about 25% through the final phase, which is the chapter that speaks most to cohesive and consistent accountability, vision, and trust.

As they went through the phases, staff members were making data-driven decisions and analyzing, as a team, what was working, what was not, and how to make it all crystalize. By the inclusiveness phase around the start of 2013, the teachers were largely on board; there was far less pushback and far more teamwork, Traverso said.

“But it wasn’t me expanding; it was more people coming on board, and they were seeing change and facilitating these conversations themselves,” he recalled.

Turning his sights to Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores, Traverso launched an internal assessment to find out what areas the students were struggling with, which in turn would help teachers across the board in their teaching process. The assessment is done four times a year and has been a “game changer,” he said.

“It’s provided a professional recognition to the teachers about their input for the students and the assessment of their abilities in their own teaching method.”

Other grade-level exercises included tracking disciplinary data by teacher, attendance of students as well as teachers, out-of-school suspensions, and a tougher Dropout Early Warning System (DEWS) program, which is comprised of grade-level teams, allowing teachers to benchmark students through all four grades and intercept at the first signs of dropout behavior.

When all was said and done, in just over a two-year period of time, Traverso and the re-energized teachers at Putnam instituted more than 80 different policies and procedures.

Shared Victory

After the audit, a few “troublesome” teachers were either fired or left of their own accord, but those remaining, and any new instructors, have a found a place that they truly enjoy coming to each day.

A 22-year veteran at Putnam, John Kennedy, Collision Department head, saw the cultural change happen before his eyes, and both he and Lapite are still shocked at how fast the transformation happened.

“It’s a whole new atmosphere now, and the kids absolutely love the new building,” Kennedy said.  “The culture here now … it’s a new vibe.”

Feeling that new vibe, Traverso recently spoke to 10 new students accepted from a waiting list of 1,000, to tell them that Putnam is very structured; there are expectations, there’s no drama, and nobody bends the rules. “There was a big sigh, and some of the kids even clapped,” he recalled.

Salerno looks back at the disturbing number of false alarms that were pulled before Traverso’s leadership; now there are none, not because the halls are policed, but because the students don’t want to do it anymore.

“The peer-to-peer relationship is a major, positive change under Gil Traverso and all the team,” Salerno said, adding that “victory has many fathers; failure has none. Gil has created the architecture of a successful organization and created a systemic change — it’s not just dependent on Gil — that will be in place for many years.”

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at taras@businesswest.com

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