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Mark Speno, a former teacher and most recently principal of Green Street School in Brattleboro, has been named interim superintendent of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

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Figuring it out

Mark Speno, a former district teacher and an award-winning principal, takes helm of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union for the school year

BRATTLEBORO—The Windham Southeast Supervisory Union begins its new fiscal year with a new leader: Green Street School Principal Mark Speno, who will serve as the WSESU’s interim superintendent.

“I’m embracing the challenge,” Speno said on July 2 from his office at Green Street School, where he has served for seven years and where he is preparing to lead schools serving Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, Putney, through June 30, 2022.

While the role of superintendent is new for him, finding ways to serve students is why he chose education as a career.

Speno said he started as a teacher because he wanted to help kids, and, with each stage of his career, he refined how to achieve this goal.

“I figured it out as a teacher,” he continued. “Then, in 12 years as a principal, I really figured it out.”

As a principal, Speno said he remained student-centric but that he revised his focus from building a strong classroom community to developing a healthy and supportive school climate.

Now, as the interim superintendent, Speno said he is modifying his mindset once again.

“How can I utilize this role to improve the school experience for children?” he said. “I will figure it out.”

Speno said he is excited to work with all the WSESU principals and staff at the central office on Green Street to enhance existing education programs and systems.

“I’m excited to see how we can grow the schools, increase student engagement, and continue to create schools students love going to,” he said.

A principal prepares for a new challenge

Recognized in 2020 as a National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, Speno started his career in education as a teacher in 1999.

Since 2008, he served as principal of the Vernon Elementary School for five years and as an administrator in the Chesterfield, N.H., school system.

He takes over from outgoing Superintendent Andy Skarzynski, who announced last month that plans to step down after approximately a year in the position to take a job in Connecticut.

The timing of Skarzynski’s departure meant that the WSESU board needed to find someone to take the helm before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

Speno described the last three weeks while the board decided whom to appoint as “an interesting process.”

“Interesting” might be an understatement given the recent requirements for educators and their students.

In March 2020, Gov. Phil Scott ordered schools to change to remote teaching as part of Vermont’s attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.

What followed for educators and students was a school life of immediately shifting gears, adapting, learning new technologies, rebuilding systems, and connecting — sometimes in person, but mostly via the internet.

Now, Speno steps into new role as interim superintendent as Vermont’s schools prepare for another shift: returning to in-person teaching in a post-pandemic world, building their new normal as they go.

Rebuilding a school community

Speno said that the WSESU community must take a thoughtful approach — that returning to the old normal won’t work.

At Green Street, for example, 35 percent of the kids were fully remote and have not set foot in the school building for 16 months, he said.

With the start of the 2021–22 school year just a few weeks away, it will be incumbent on educators to build community, set expectations for the school day, and establish routines for students.

After all that time away, teachers can’t expect that students will have the same approach to learning and the school day.

“We will need to be explicit and teach everything we do and not expect them to know,” he said. “Re-teach, re-teach, re-teach.”

“And then have some grace,” he added with a chuckle.

Everyone will mess up, including the adults, he said.

Speno envisions a day in August where students who have been fully remote can visit the school and reacquaint themselves with the building and the teachers.

“[Students] need to know we care about them, [that] we will take care of them, and that safety is our number one concern,” he said.

Over the summer, the supervisory union will continue to develop its Covid recovery plan, WSESU Board Chair Kerry Amidon said.

According to the Vermont Department of Health’s website, the federal Food and Drug Administration in May authorized the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in people ages 12–15.

But the WSESU serves students younger than 12, creating an environment where pandemic precautions can’t be abandoned.

‘A winning combination’

“As we enter the new-normal of a post-pandemic school year in the fall, we look forward to Mark’s leadership and innovation,” said Amidon.

“He is known by the educational leadership team as having a student-centered approach and belief in a distributive leadership model,” she said. “Parents have been amazed at the foundation he provides that allows students and families to navigate their educational journeys with success and confidence.”

“This is a winning combination,” Amidon said.

Amidon explained that Speno’s name came up often in the board’s discussions around appointing an interim superintendent.

“We are thrilled with the outcome,” she said.

The supervisory union has experienced multiple changes in leadership. Prior to Skarzynski, Lyle Holiday served for three years, retiring in 2020.

“This has been a difficult year for everybody,” said Amidon, who also serves as the chair of the Vernon School Board and looks forward to the creativity and innovation Speno will bring to the superintendent’s office.

He will help move the WSESU into its new normal, she said.

Over the past year, Amidon said she watched how school staff solved hard problems and supported students as they educated them through the whole pandemic.

She wants the Vernon and the supervisory union boards to provide the administration, teachers, and staff with the same level of focus and support the school faculty and staff gave to their students.

By focusing on student outcomes, student achievements, and remaining student-centered, the board can help build a more successful school system, Amidon added.

“I’m excited to see what Mark can do,” she said.

Continuously evaluating goals

As the supervisory union prepares for students’ return, Speno said he will work with colleagues — including an interim principal for the Green Street School, one of his first new hires — to create a playbook for how to approach the new academic year.

He believes the WSESU will benefit from having a framework for the year that contains collective goals and that outlines how the community will reach them. The district will identify action steps throughout the year, he added.

Meanwhile, on Speno’s own to-do list is establishing new routines and structures for himself.

“We have to continuously improve,” he said. “We can never settle for where we are.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #620 (Wednesday, July 7, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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