BRATTLEBORO—Students entering Green Street Elementary School on their first day of classes Aug. 28 were greeted by a new face: that of Principal Mark Speno, who says he wants “to see great things happen” there.
For Speno, Green Street marks a homecoming. He grew up in Brattleboro, started his teaching career at Green Street, and taught there for nine years.
“It’s a special place for me,” said Speno.
Speno took over from outgoing Principal John Reed, who stepped down at the end of the 2013-14 school year.
Before returning to Green Street, Speno served for five years as principal at Vernon Elementary School and was an assistant principal for one year at Chesterfield School in New Hampshire.
He decided to shift from Vernon to Green Street because Brattleboro is his home town. His two daughters also attend Academy School.
Although serving as an educational leader in his hometown appeals to him, Speno spoke highly of his years at Vernon and the people he worked with, saying the school was a wonderful opportunity.
A fast start
Speno officially started at Green Street on July 1. That said, he explained, smiling, “I basically started the day I left Vernon.”
He said it was very important he have a strong grasp of the school and what was going on in the building.
He set a goal to meet with each staff member before the start of the new school year.
“That’s about 50 people,” he said.
As of one week before the start of the new school year, he said he had met with about 90 percent of staff members, who serve approximately 250 students in kindergarten through grade six.
He said a goal of the meetings was to establish working relationships with staff members before the school year started.
Speno wants to make a program he calls “the social curriculum” a focus for this year. He worked with teachers over the summer to start the program.
There are also a few new initiatives that he will roll out throughout the school year. These will be announced at a later date, he said.
Social curriculum refers to a national education model called Positive Behavior Integration and Support (PBIS), said Speno.
According to Speno, many Vermont schools use PBIS. He said he established the program in Vernon.
Working the PBIS program takes energy and focus, he said. But it can help create a great environment for students.
Building the school’s master schedule also took up a chunk of the summer.
Speno said that, even as he met with individuals and learned about the multiple aspects of Green Street, the new information changed what he had planned in the schedule.
He added that he hopes to help Green Street teachers better collect and analyze academic data so that they can use it to implement initiatives and enrichment opportunities for their students.
Speno said that some of the lessons he learned in Vernon revolved around leadership.
Vernon had three major student leadership programs, said Speno.
The first, an active student council. The second, a restorative justice and conflict resolution program. The third, a peer mentoring program that matched older kids with younger kids to help with such things as advocating for younger children, and homework support.
These types of initiatives do not happen overnight, said Speno.
Vernon students, he said, proved that leadership programs can have very positive impacts.
He said he hopes to continue the student leadership work at Green Street.
Along with student leadership programs, Speno said he hopes to strengthen the teaching teams at Green Street.
“Teaching is really difficult,” said Speno.
In their classrooms, teachers work with a wide range of learners and a wide range of abilities, he said.
Building stronger teaching teams will enable teachers to collaborate and support each other while helping their students.
“Everything should always come back to students,” he said.
A career shift
The joy of working with kids, coupled with the desire to be a positive role model, brought Speno to the education field.
He started his college career as a business major. Within the first semester, however, he noticed that taking business courses did not feel like the right fit. He thought back to his days in high school where he worked with a number of youth sports programs.
In response to these happy memories, Speno took his first education class and in his words “got hooked.”
Speno decided to make the leap from teacher to principal because he wanted to lead. It’s not uncommon to find him reading books by and about leaders.
Hallmarks of a good leader, said Speno, are holding a vision for the organization, good communication skills, helping bring people together to achieve common goals, listening actively, and not being afraid to make difficult decisions.
“I love being an elementary school principal, “said Speno.
He said he loves that every day is different and that he enjoys working with teachers and fostering an environment that helps kids reach their goals.
“There is nothing an educator enjoys more than witnessing their students achieve something,” he said.
Speno said he is aware that money is tight for Brattleboro and its schools. He knows property owners are concerned about local taxes.
He said that the school’s focus must always center on students and provide them with the skills they will need to move forward in the world.
As an administrator, Speno said he always looks for the most cost-effective strategies.
“The most important [priority] is that we have to meet the needs of our kids, “said Speno.
The students at Green Street can expect Speno to be very visible in the building and very interested in their academic and social success and growth.
Speno said he expects to gain a more nuanced understanding of the advantages and challenges facing Green Street throughout the school year.
He said, however, that no matter the pluses and minuses heading his way during the academic year, his commitment is to building good educational teams that can identify solutions to students’ challenges, and gathering and making the best us of academic data to help integrate or evaluate programs and initiatives.
He said that when a school community routinely nurtures the academic, social, and emotional climate of school, “we’re going to have happy people."
Teachers and students working in tandem create success, he said. Over time these collaborations and successes build a supportive school culture.
And as educators, Speno added, when we clearly communicate to our students what we expect of them, that creates a very comforting and reliable set of routines and structures for our students.
Speno is the father of two daughters: Aliza, who is entering third grade, and Kayli, who is entering second grade, both at Academy School. His wife, Brandy, is an operating room nurse at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.
Speno said he’s passionate about working with elementary school children. He said he hopes to work closely with all the members of the school community this coming year.
With a slight smile, he added that he has a slight competitive streak and so will also strive to help Green Street become the best school in town.
“I’m ready to start the year, “said Speno.