Twin Valley Middle/High School will be Fitzgerald’s fourth job as a principal in his 20-year education career. Before taking the job at TVMHS, Fitzgerald served as principal of Poultney High School, as well as stints as a principal at the middle and kindergarten through eighth-grade levels. Fitzgerald is a native of New York City who has lived in New England since 1976. Following a business career, Fitzgerald decided to go back to school and become a teacher and began his career teaching seventh- through 12th -grade English in Hinsdale, NH. Fitzgerald took the job at Twin Valley because he saw an opportunity to build a school from the ground up.
“I liked the idea that they’re bringing these two schools together and the challenge of being able to build on that,” said Fitzgerald. “With all of the consolidation the state has been pushing, Twin Valley has positioned itself to be vital and vibrant. I really believe in small schools and I believe this size school is perfect.”
While changing his wardrobe from gold and blue to red and black was the easy part, Fitzgerald understands that this amount of change in one school year can create challenges for everyone involved. As the new principal, he has been unable to meet most of his staff due to continuing construction, and one-on-one meetings he usually holds with parents and students have not come to fruition. But he also sees the challenges that parents and students face in both the merger and the movement of a high school from one town to another.
“The high school kids have had traditions in Wilmington they don’t necessarily want to let go of, even creature comforts like being able to walk downtown and get something to eat at the store,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s the same thing with teachers. The old high school was pretty tired, but there were people who were comfortable in their spaces there and are not necessarily thrilled with moving here.
“It’s high anxiety for sixth-grade parents putting their babies in a building with 11th-and 12th-graders, buses are going in different ways, and school is in Whitingham now. So it’s about how we get everyone to look at this and say ‘We’re not a high school, we’re not a middle school, we have these kids for seven years and we need to build a plan that addresses their needs.’”
Fitzgerald believes in a hands-on approach to education as well as administration. Building relationships with students is an ability he takes pride in, and he believes in being seen and heard in all corners of a school, roaming the halls, sitting in on classes, and performing lunch duty. He has an open-door policy for students, parents, and staff, and believes that a school must be a place where teachers want to come and teach and students want to come and learn. “If people are not excited about coming in these doors, whether adults or kids, we won’t achieve our mission,” said Fitzgerald. “You have to lead with what’s best for the kid in front of you, work to put the best education program we can in front of them, and get teachers to see that’s the mission, to get the kids ready for life outside of Whitingham and Wilmington.”
Even discipline is a learning tool for Fitzgerald. He doesn’t believe that “hammering” someone is the right approach, instead, it’s about teaching a new strategy or tactic to deal with a specific situation. Otherwise, he believes situations will have a higher risk of repeating themselves.
Fitzgerald said that he is also well-versed in special education and believes that those with learning disabilities need to spend as much time in the classroom as possible. He believes that those with troubles in learning may need to work harder in some areas, so the task is to remedy situations and create strategies earlier in the process to facilitate learning. For those with emotional and social disorders, Fitzgerald believes that relationship building is key, and every student should feel like they have an adult in the building they can seek out for help with a problem.
While TVMHS is in a rural location, Fitzgerald believes that his charge from the school board is to give students a 21st century education to match their 21st century building. As a former English teacher, he believes that reading and writing are the two most critical elements of problem solving as they provide the tools for a student to explain how they approach and arrive at a conclusion.
Fitzgerald said students can expect a principal who is fair and a “straight shooter,” one who means and does what he says. “What I expect these kids to do is come to school and give us their best effort and we’ll meet them where they are. If they do that, we’ll get them where they need to be. Parents can expect a partner in their kids’ education, and someone they can use as a resource,” said Fitzgerald. “They can expect me to be visible, too. I live at school; sports, drama, music, all of that is important and important that I support it, and I’m going to do what is right for their kids. I make sixth-grade parents three promises: Their kids will survive TVMHS, it will be harder on them than it is on their kids, and that while they’re here I’ll treat them like they’re my own kids.”
Through all of the changes and all of the uncertainties and excitement, Fitzgerald believes the most important part of the new educational landscape of Twin Valley is the ability for the teachers to create a seven-year education for local students. “It’s an unbelievable developmental span from sixth to 12th grade,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s a positive that we are getting these kids for seven years because we get to develop relationships, and relationship building is everything. So being able to start that in sixth grade and carry it through 12th is key to whether or not they will be successful.”