Dr. Michael Salvatore is Superintendent of Long Branch Public Schools in New Jersey. Mike firmly believes affording children access to modern technology and high-quality content creates learning opportunities far beyond the school walls. In 2014, the Long Branch Public Schools were recognized as the first cohort of innovative schools by the New Jersey Office of Innovation. Mike was selected as New Jersey’s 2019 Superintendent of the Year by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
Your background and where you grew up
I grew up in New Jersey, one of those Jersey shore kids growing up in a small urban community in an underprivileged area. I went onto to college not too far from my home at Monmouth University. It was quite the culture shock from where I grew up to a private school setting with an affluent student body. I did a lot of reflection on why I was there and what I was set out to do. I also work there as a Teaching Fellow on Saturdays working with their doctoral program for Ed Leaders teaching a course called: “Contemporary Issues in Education.”
Here’s a picture of Mike having this conversation with me over Zoom.
What it was like for you as a student
I was an average student through middle grades. I look at my twin boys who are 13 and realize now why I acted as I did as a student in middle school. It is because your body is going through so many different changes, and you’re trying to figure yourself out. The interesting thing for me as a student is that I enjoyed school, but I liked to have a lot of fun, too. That doesn’t always mix well when your mother is the secretary of the school. I had plenty of visits to the principal’s office, and there was my mom sitting right there at the front desk. As a student, I tried to be on my best behavior, but enjoying myself was paramount in middle school.
High school was a great experience as a student-athlete. I went onto Monmouth and played football there for four years as a wide receiver. Most people don’t know that about me because when they look at me now they don’t see me as a football player. That was an interesting journey in itself because I set out as a math major.
2019 New Jersey Superintendent of the Year Dr. Michael Salvatore
Why you went into education
I loved math in high school so I went to college with the idea is that I would be an actuary. Being from a humble background, I was looking for a pathway where I could make a decent living. My pathway changed midway through college. I was working on campus as a student helper at a school for children with special needs for very little money. I didn’t know that at the time that would change my entire life. I started having those moments when you realize that you were meant to do something different than play with numbers. There was something about the spark when a child understood a concept and that you helped guide them there. Especially when a child who was nonverbal suddenly learn how to communicate with you or a child who was physically disabled learn to courageously overcome their fear of stepping out of a chair or walking. It was moments like those that changed the course of my college career. Changing my major to special education meant that it would add a full year to my studies, and I would have to pay for it. I realized that I wouldn’t make the same amount of money but it was more important that I was working in a profession where I was making a difference.
It led to me where I am today. I taught in my city of Long Branch. I wanted to be a high school special ed teacher maybe teach some math. I ended up student teaching in pre-school special ed and, even though I had kids hug me and drool on me, they eventually loved me. That made me want to stay there. I got offered to work as a pre-school teacher in the morning for disabled children who were bilingual and then in the afternoon, to work with children who had mild to moderate disabilities. That was my journey into teaching.
The most effective educators and leaders we have throughout the world are those who are deeply connected and care about the well-being and the education of the children and their families. Education has to change and I look forward to it. Our social system is too complex to think that technology can replace teachers or that robots can teach children. We are always going to need people.
When I was a senior at Monmouth University, at the school I was working at that I mentioned, I met someone who changed my life forever: my future wife, Christine. She was teaching in a class for children with autism. Our first year together, when I was teaching at Long Branch and she was at a private school, we would talk late into the night about lesson plans, nursery rhymes, and more. Today with have an awesome family with twin 13-year-old boys, Carmen and Luciana, and my 11-year-old daughter, Rosabella.
Why you went into administration
I had a lot of positions in between. I always wanted to be a principal and loved the influence the principal had. The people around me are the ones who pushed me into that pathway. It was in my third year of teaching, senior staff members came up to me to tell me about a job posting for a vice-principal at this school next year. I was aware of what I didn’t know as a third-year teacher and was in line for this interview along with another position for principal at an elementary school among many educators with much more experience in teaching and in leadership. I did get the job, not the vice-principal for the preschool. I got the position of principal for Gregory Elementary School that I didn’t even consider. I started a week later as principal at 26-years-old.
I really learned a tremendous amount about leadership but it was also like a baptism by fire. Anything that could happen that year happened. There were construction flaws to the building, a 24% literacy rate, among other issues. What I learned about the staff is that they really wanted the best for the children and were ready for someone to lead them.
Virtual Rounds (https://www.openmiconeducation.org/virtual-rounds)
Three years later, our literacy rates were over 90%. It was all about creating a culture of people who believed in what we were trying to do there. We tried creative ways like double-time for literacy and comprehension skills starting in kindergarten. We brought parents in to support reading as in the hall tutors. The teachers were so proud because we put the attention where it was needed and it worked. I got a call from the superintendent to apply for the supervisor of the elementary principals. So I did.
[This is Barbara: Listen to Mike share an important message on changing the culture from 23:00 to 27:00]
In 2004, I worked with elementary principals for 2 years. Then I was asked to oversee middle and high school principals. The idea was to weave in collaborative learning communities. Deep down I’m an artist and love the blank canvas. I loved the idea of being on the ground floor of this and to see where it goes. I became District Administrator from grades 6t through 12 and created small learning communities with great teachers who made this happen. We went to full block scheduling in both environments.
Innovative teaching and learning [from AASA:http://aasacentral.org/2019/07/08/nj/ ]
To this day when I walk into a high school class and it looks like preschool, I know we’ve all done our job. When kids are exploring and discovering and understand what they are there for, that’s always been my purpose.
Long Branch Public Schools Superintendent and Innovation
In 2010, I was appointed Assistant Superintendent for a year and a half. Then in April 2011, I became Superintendent of Long Branch Public Schools. The innovative things we are doing here is taking that model of early learning philosophy and spreading it throughout the district. In order for a classroom to meet the needs of children on where they are at, what they want to learn and how they learn it, it has to offer opportunities to discover, explore, and be engaged. If you want children to learn, then we’ve got to go back to some basic principles of engagement. A framework for engagement lends itself to some of the initiatives we have in Long Branch that can be perceived as innovative. Sustainable Living, Future Ready initiatives, and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) are the innovations we have been recognized for.
If you look at Sustainable Living embedded throughout school, then you have to have passionate people who understand sustainability. Then you have to have your framework allow for that to be explored and discovered. A Language Arts lesson can easily incorporate sustainable practices and keep learning personalized so kids love about being healthy and well-being.
The same thing goes for the Future Ready initiatives to make sure that kids have access not to just shiny new devices but how you are using those tools to leverage the things you want to learn and to enhance the skills you need to learn.
We used to focus on Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and now it’s back. I love hearing board members and superintendents talk about SEL. Everybody is realizing the impact SEL has not just on children but on the adults that are implementing those practices.
We have two recognized Green Ribbon Schools. One school includes sustainable living in everything they do. We are partners with many districts and higher ed. Monmouth University is on our border so we are fortunate to have a wonderful partnership with them and Brookdale Community College. We also have a new school of Social Justice where kids are putting research into practice.
I definitely will keep following Mike. He will be at the AASA National Conference on Education in San Diego, CA February 13-15, 2020 http://nce.aasa.org/
Michael Salvatore, superintendent of Long Branch Public Schools, was selected as New Jersey’s 2019 Superintendent of the Year by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (https://www.longbranch.k12.nj.us/domain/28).
Mike was appointed the superintendent of schools in the city of Long Branch on April 2011 and later expanded his leadership role through an intergovernmental agreement with neighboring Deal Borough School District (2014-2017). Over the course of leading widely varying districts, he has developed a reputation as a personable, forward-thinking instructional leader whose purpose is to ensure children matter most!
For all of the Conversations on Learning podcasts with Barbara Bray, click on the podcast tab at the top, the logo below, or go to https://barbarabray.net/podcasts/