BRATTLEBORO—College was not an option when Andy Paciulli graduated from high school.
His grades were too low for “regular” community college, said Paciulli, now principal of Academy School, one of the town’s three elementary schools.
Instead, he enrolled in a night-school program, which helped him raise his grade-point average to 3.0 so he could enroll in community college.
Whether students at Academy School go on to college or straight into a career, Paciulli said he wants all of them to know they have options.
Last month, Paciulli received the National Distinguished Principals award, given annually to elementary and middle-school administrators who are members of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
Paciulli attended two days of events and workshops in Washington, D.C., rubbing elbows and — in his word — “stealing” ideas of educators from across the 50 states.
“It was an honor” to spend time with excellent educators, said Paciulli. “It was humbling and great to be in the group.”
He said that although he received the award, the entire Academy School community deserves the accolades.
Paciulli appreciated seeing how Academy School, the ship he has captained for eight years, compared to other schools on the national level.
Put to the test
Paciulli has been credited with raising Academy School’s performance results and test scores on the standardized New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP).
Two years ago, he promised students he would kiss a cow if they raised their NECAP scores. They did.
In 2012, he confronted his extreme fear of heights — he doesn’t even like stepladders — and performed a flying trapeze act for the students.
Paciulli hoped that by facing his fears, he showed students that they can overcome theirs with support and perseverance.
“Work hard, be determined, persevere, and you can do anything,” said Paciulli, who credits that formula for achieving his own success.
Paciulli previously served 13 years at the Brattleboro Area Middle School (BAMS), first as the assistant principal and then as principal. He was charged with transforming the junior high school into the middle school.
Test scores like NECAP validate what Academy School is teaching, Paciulli said — but they aren’t a measure of a student’s lifelong values or success.
Paciulli admitted he isn’t “a huge fan” of NECAPs, required for students in grades 3-8 and in 11th grade, but said if used in a positive way, the tests could provide a backdoor for teachers to focus on imparting lifelong skills.
Paciulli is proud that, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind standards, Academy School has decreased the achievement gap between students from higher-income homes and those with either learning challenges or from lower-income homes.
In Washington, D.C., Paciulli shared two successful Academy programs with the other awardees: the Extended Day program and Supportive Teams for Educational Progress (STEP) program.
The Extended Day started five years ago as an education intervention program aimed at students struggling with reading or mathematics.
“All [students] can learn and be successful,” he said. “But some need more time.”
The day program expanded to include enrichment programs like chorus, yoga, Chinese language, a school newspaper, and a drama club.
Pacuilli said that the school learned that by focusing only on reading and math, the after-school program developed a stigma among students. By expanding the program to include enrichment activities, the Extended Day program “became cool to be after school,” he said.
Academy holds fall, winter, and spring after school sessions. In the last winter term, which usually has the highest participation because no sports are running, 212 of Academy’s 390 students took part. Paciulli estimates about 60 kids needed extra tutoring in reading or math.
Initially grant-funded, the Extended Day program is now funded through the school budget.
Paciulli described the STEP program as a behavior-support program that has become the statewide model.
Schools nationwide face increasing numbers of students with “extreme behavior” like anger, said Paciulli.
The STEP program helps address these swings in behavior that can prove disruptive to the classroom and often leave the kids acting out feeling “crummy” about themselves, he said.
Traditionally, Academy School would tuition the disruptive children, about two or three a year, to specialized schools outside the district. That measure could cost taxpayers as much as $60,000 a child, said Paciulli.
But the bigger problem is the kids never returned to Academy School, he said.
“It’s not good for the child,” he said. “The question always is, ‘Is this good for the kid?’”
The idea of behavior specialist Gregg Stoller and special educator Shelley Wilson, STEP helps kids learn more appropriate behaviors, said Paciulli.
Academy School hasn’t tuitioned any students outside the school district since STEP started four years ago, he said.
Paciulli said he was not a successful student. Many of his friends did not graduate from high school, and his experience ignited in him a passion to make a difference.
The job that taught Paciulli that he wanted to teach was his short stint out of college as a social worker in the Massachusetts correctional system.
Paciulli has a passion for criminology, which led him to a double major in sociology and education. When no teaching gigs came up, Paciulli took one of 13 new social-worker positions created in Massachusetts in 1976 as part of the national prisoners’ rights movement.
The job took him to MCI-Walpole (now called MCI-Cedar Junction at Walpole), the state’s only maximum-security prison.
“It was a great job for a short time,” said Paciulli.
Paciulli said he and another man made history as the first social workers in a Massachusetts prison when they stepped onto cell block B5 at Walpole.
He described the 45 inmates then in cell block B5 as among the most violent men in the United States. Twenty-six of them were serving life sentences for murder in the first degree.
Paciulli worked in the prison for a little under a year. He said that “after about the fifth inmate was killed in about six months,” he decided working in the prison was not the career for him and made the transition to education.
“I thought in a way I could be a teacher that could make a difference in kids’ lives,” he said.
Paciulli, who loves working with kids, said that early in his career in Boston, he wanted to create a school environment that kids enjoyed being at. Later, he worked with social activist and educator Geoffrey Canada, the founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, Inc. in New York City.
“I never thought I’d be a [school] principal,” said Paciulli.