BRATTLEBORO—Lyle Holiday enters the conference room carrying the excitement of a fresh school year, new school supplies, fresh textbooks, and back-to-school clothes.
“I always love the first day of school,” said Holiday, who recently assumed the role of superintendent of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union. “It’s always fun.”
“I was hired as a one-year to fill-in for a one year leave of absence,” said Holiday, who started her career as a teacher in Dummerston.
She went on to serve as a literacy teacher, a teaching assistant principal, and a curriculum coordinator.
For the past three years, she worked closely with her predecessor, Ron Stahley, as “assistant superintendent,” though, said Holiday, she never officially held the title.
And now, 37 years into her career, she finds herself sitting in the district’s main office at 53 Green St., leading a union that includes schools in Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, and until recently, Vernon.
Holiday, who started at the school district to fill a one-year contract, said that she has stayed for the people. She likes to tease new hires by warning them to be careful, for they might end up staying longer than they expect.
“You never know,” she said.
‘We need really good teachers in administration’
Holiday was born, raised, and schooled in Vermont, which she described as “just really a rich place to live.”
She said she is looking forward to the new school year, noting that she knows the schools, programs, and teachers — warts and all.
For the new superintendent, a successful school district revolves around relationships.
“I’ve loved the people I’ve worked with,” Holiday said, pointing out that colleagues have always made her feel welcomed and supported. She believes that as superintendent, her role is to repay everyone who helped her over the years.
“We would be nowhere without our quality teachers,” Holiday said.
Paraphrasing a presenter whom she heard speak recently, she said, “No one person is smarter than a group of people working together.”
And Holiday wholeheartedly believes that when people work together, they augment one another’s strengths and counteract one another’s weaknesses.
Holiday described herself as “detail oriented,” a trait that she values. But, she adds, she also values her “global-thinking” colleagues.
“Because I can get lost in the weeds,” she said playfully. “I need to be reined in.”
Holiday said she hears people bemoan strong teachers moving into administration positions, and she disputes the often-expressed fear that such promotions come at an expense to schools.
“We need really good teachers in administration, because really good teachers know what it takes to help kids,” she said.
“All of the district’s current principals started as really good teachers,” she said.
Promoted from within
As a Brattleboro Union High School Board member, Ricky Davidson has worked with Holiday on and off for 12 years.
Davidson, who now chairs the school board, said he looks forward to what Holiday will bring to her new role.
One strength, he said, is her knowledge of the district and the years she spent working next to Stahley. Yet, she is also creative and has her own ideas for the WSESU, he added.
“Those things added together are a really nice mix,” Davidson said.
Holiday’s promotion came with a little controversy, when she was promoted from within. Some community and board members had called for an open and nationwide search.
In Davidson’s opinion, there was nothing untoward about the hiring process.
“As a district, we always try to promote from within,” he said. “This has been true for many [of WSESU’s] principals.”
Through the years, Holiday has worked closely with principals Andy Paciulli of Academy School and Steve Perrin of Brattleboro Union High School.
Noting the handoff from Stahley to Holiday, “The district has gone from being in really good hands to being in really good hands,” Paciulli said. “We’re all very excited to work with her.”
Paciulli said that in each step of her career, Holiday has mastered each role. Her years of experience and the expertise she has accumulated provide a big bonus for the district, he said.
“If she says she’s going to do something, she’ll do it,” he said.
Perrin said he appreciates Holiday’s sense of humor and her pragmatism. She is meticulous about details, which “is so helpful,” he said.
He looks forward to working with Holiday on developing district-wide standards. According to Perrin, students arrive in middle school from the elementary schools in the four towns having been educated to very different academic standards.
Perrin said WSESU needs to be more uniform in its academic expectations to avoid that educational disparity.
“I think she’s going to do a fantastic job,” Perrin said.
Keeping the student connection
“Everything we do, we do it for our children,” said Holiday, who finds herself missing the day-to-day contact with kids.
Accordingly, she has set the personal goal for her first year as superintendent: to spend as much time as possible with students, fully aware that the reality of the job might not allow her as much time as she would like.
But spending time in the schools is important for maintaining perspective, Holiday said, noting that the best leader-teachers keep their on-the-ground perspective.
Holiday looks forward to building on Stahley’s successes and keeping the whole district moving forward.
She points to Act 46 as an example.
Holiday will not say where she stands on the controversial education consolidation bill. What she will say, however, is that the process of complying with the bill has been an opportunity to build more unity among the district’s schools.
In forming an Act 46 study committee, members from the district school boards in the WSESU member towns have had to sit down and listen to one another. They’ve heard about each school’s needs, struggles, and celebrations.
The most exciting aspect for Holiday is the opportunity to pull the different school boards into one unified board. She feels the students will benefit from this measure.
Holiday also plans to sit down with every administrator in the district. She wants to learn from district principals what visions they have for their respective schools and then develop a plan for how they can work with the central office to make those visions real.
Facing educational challenges
All is not rosy in the world of education.
“Everybody went to school, so everybody thinks they know what school is,” said Holiday. “But education changes.”
Holiday said the federal funding scene is a “a little scary for us right now.”
President Donald J. Trump’s administration has talked about cutting key funding the WSESU counts on for programs like Title I.
The federal government portions out Title I funding based on a school’s rate of poverty. Holiday said the district uses most of the money on teachers who provide academic support to students who don’t qualify for special education but who need extra help with mathematics and reading.
The bulk of the fund goes toward supporting younger students, Holiday said.
She believes the funding is critical because the longer a student goes without the necessary academic support, the wider the gap in their academic skills becomes and the harder it is for that gap to close.
It’s possible for children to show up for the first day of kindergarten, and already be behind in their learning, said Holiday.
Some children have challenges at home that lead to them lacking skills often taken for granted — like being potty trained, holding a pencil, or coloring, she said.
Yet, Holiday continued, the district operates with a philosophy of inclusion. This means that all students receive the best education with their peers, within one classroom.
It’s important for students to be with their peers, Holiday added: These are the people with whom they will travel through life.
And this concept illustrates one reason Holiday supports public schools: “Because it mirrors real life,” she said.
If the federal government cuts funding, then the district will need to find the money from somewhere else in the budget.
And there‘s “only so much a budget can bear,” Holiday said, acknowledging that the district wants to provide the best education without overburdening taxpayers.
Holiday said education has become more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. Schools also ensure all students are fed. Or the school nurse needs to work with families to make sure all children receive their immunizations.
“It’s called wrap-around services,” she said, noting that the school employs a social worker who goes into homes and talks to families about what they need.
So many kids arrive at school without routines or consistency, Holiday said — and teachers often become the consistent force in a child’s life.
Davidson echos Holiday.
“Education in the 21st century looks very different than even the 20th century,” he said.
Now schools provide social services along with academics, he said. Gone are the days he remembers in high school when students were labeled “problem” and “just went away to some remedial learning room in the basement.”
Paciulli noted that most of the students who attend Academy School arrive ready to learn. He points to poverty — often multigenerational — as one of the reasons why the others don’t.
Young children who have yet to develop the necessary coping mechanisms to respond to their situations are the most vulnerable to stress, he said.
It’s a school’s job to support, educate, and love “all of our children. All of our families,” Paciulli said.
Paciulli said that, as a result, the district has hired more support staff and has invested in professional development for teachers so they can create “trauma-informed” classrooms.
He said that Holiday’s relationships with teachers and her financial acumen will hold the district in good stead as it moves forward with supporting all its children.
For her part, Holiday looks forward to remaining one of the consistent influences in children’s lives, despite her being based outside the classroom.
“Did I ever know the superintendent when I was growing up?” Holiday asks rhetorically. Her answer: Not as well as she knew the teachers, and she suspects the same will hold for WSESU students.
“But they’ll know that I’m an adult who cares about them,” she said.