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Howard Superintendent Michael Martirano strives for 'student voice to be very much alive'

As superintendent of the Howard County Public School System, Michael Martirano has to talk to many people each day.

However, the conversations where he learns the most about whether he is fulfilling his role as superintendent of the 77-school district don’t come from fellow school system employees or even parents, but from the students who walk the hallways of those schools.

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Martirano has gotten information about what happens on school bus rides, concerns about school start times and sleep, and has advanced initiatives centering on mental health issues all from conversations with students.

“If we are having a higher level of suspensions, I want to know the root cause of that. And if students say, ‘Well there is a level of bias being presented by our teachers or we don’t feel welcomed,’ those could be contributing factors and if we don’t talk to our students, we wouldn't know,” Martirano said.

He looks at his job as somewhat of a business model, with the nearly 58,000 students being his customers.

Martirano said the school system is here to serve the students.

“Everywhere I go in the community, kids know me and I’ll find opportunities to talk to them,” Martirano said. “It’s creating a true community where everybody is valued, everyone has a say and we put at the center of our decision-making, our children.”

In the eyes of a student

On a Wednesday in May, Martirano swapped out his normal suit and tie for a more casual look; he wore blue jeans, sneakers and a royal blue T-shirt with “Wilde Lake Middle School” across the front.

Instead of being superintendent for the day, Martirano was taking on the role of a Wilde Lake Middle student.

In his second year of becoming a student for the day, Martirano shadowed two students, splitting his time between sixth-grader Raquel Rookwood and eighth-grader Tariq McRae. Last year, Martirano followed a senior at Hammond High School.

As an eighth-grader, Martirano went to three classes — English language arts, reading and gym — with Tariq, who is 14.

During gym class, the students ran a 50-meter and a 100-meter dash. Martirano opted to help some of the students track the time of their peers at the finish line.

After one of Tariq’s races, Martirano asked him, “How did you do?”

Tariq, wearing a red Deadpool T-shirt tucked into his navy Wilde Lake Middle shorts, enthusiastically replied, “I won!” The two high-fived.

After gym, they went to lunch, where Martirano bought lunch in line with Tariq, including buying the eighth-grader a kiwi strawberry-flavored ice. Then the two took their trays of chicken nuggets, fries and a salad, and sat with Tariq’s friends.

During lunch, Martirano said he learned much from talking with Tariq and his friends because “they were excited to tell me things.”

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Martirano also observed the rest of the students in the lunchroom since on that day he was “experiencing [school life] through the eyes of a student.”

Tariq said he hoped that he showed Martirano “that middle school is actually pretty fun.”

“He’s a nice guy,” Tariq said of Martirano. “He cheers people up when they’re having a bad day.”

During a break in the afternoon, Martirano walked the hallways and stopped in on a Gifted and Talented resource class and a seventh-grade algebra class.

He ended the day at a student roundtable with three students from each grade level, and Tariq also joined in. The students for the roundtable were randomly chosen after putting their names in a bin during lunch.

Martirano opened the roundtable saying, “This is your time with me. You can ask whatever you want. You got my ear.”

Students expressed concerns and wishes, including wanting more authors of color in literature for the Gifted and Talented programs and that detention as a method of disciplining students doesn’t work.

Martirano also was asked three times how much money he makes. (He laughed each time but declined to tell the students that day. As of May 2018, his contract with Howard County schools lists his annual salary as $285,000.)

At the end of the roundtable, Martirano said, “I am overly impressed. Your voices have penetrated my brain and my heart.”

Roles of student voice

Student voice doesn’t only come from students in leadership positions — such as class presidents, high school sport captains, and those who are involved in their school’s Student Government Association — and it’s not only the student member of the county Board of Education.

“We bring all groups of students together, not just high-achieving students but as many students as you can to get a wide variety of voices,” said Kevin Gilbert, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Howard schools.

In 2016, the school system established a committee on diversity and inclusion and one area that was highlighted as a need was student voice, according to Gilbert.

“Since Martirano has arrived, there has been an intentionality placed on areas in making sure students have opportunities to exercise their voice in terms of talking about issues or things that concern them,” Gilbert said.

“Recognizing they have a voice, [and] elevating that they are part of their entire learning experience, that is the crux why student voice is important.”

Martirano became Howard’s interim superintendent in 2017 and then assumed the role the following year.

Gilbert said dignity workshops, bringing students and staff together for a period of time, have been implemented in schools. The purpose of the workshops is for administrators and teachers to have conversations with students to understand what is happening in their respective schools and ensure they are providing what the students need.

Outside of school walls, students can still be heard. For example, when the school system begins to review policies or create new ones, there is student representation on those committees. They also have representation on advisory councils and in work groups.

Martirano said he feels more confident about a policy when students are part of it.

He said the school system can’t be “up here in the ivory tower, creating policy and we are not listening to the people we serve.”

Doing so would have the school system miss the mark, he added.

“A classic example” of benefiting from student’s input, he said, was the recent elimination of class ranks in high school.

“If that creates a better experience for our children and eliminates some stress, it is my responsibility to do that and take that stance,” Martirano said.

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The outgoing student board member, 18-year-old Ambika Siddabathula, said the school system “100% values student voice. There are so many different ways that students can get involved and the amazing part is the support that the staff provides to the students in order to see our ideas turn into reality.”

Siddabathula was the student member for the 2018-19 school year. She graduated from River Hill High in June and is attending the New York Institute of Technology’s seven-year medical program and aspires to be a child psychiatrist. Allison Alston, an incoming senior at Reservoir High School, was selected as the 2019-20 student member.

Martirano said, “This is the most important part of my work. Interacting with kids and listening to the thoughts of children.”

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