“Ohana” is a Hawaiian word that means family, but in the island spirit, ohana means more than just blood relations, it includes all people who are bound together in life. Rizzo uses the word to describe the relationship between the people who come together to support a child’s education; teachers, administrators, parents, the community, and the students themselves.
Rizzo took the helm at WSSU early this summer, replacing longtime superintendent Dr. M. Peter Wright. He brings what he calls “the aloha spirit” to Vermont from his last post as a private school superintendent at a prep school on Maui. “The aloha spirit is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It’s a truly loving spirit. Ohana, family, is everything, and anyone who has anything to do with the kids is part of ohana. We really love that.”
Rizzo says the job in Hawaii was a dream come true, as well as a promise kept to his family. “My wife Annie lived in Hawaii and had connections there, so we’ve been going back and forth since the kids were little,” he says. “I promised that, when I finished my doctorate we would move to Hawaii. But I never thought I would finish.”
Although it might seem like the transition from the Aloha State to the Green Mountain State might be a little tough, at least in January, Rizzo says he knew what he was getting into when he applied for the job at WSSU. He and his wife are skiers, and have owned a studio apartment at Killington for a number of years. Although the couple are currently looking to purchase a lake property on Spofford Lake in New Hampshire, Rizzo says he’s looking forward to learning about the local area. “I’ve always loved Vermont,” he says. “It’s incumbent on anyone coming into a new place to learn about the people, the kama’aina (native residents), and respect the culture and history. It’s important to respect Vermont and its culture and history.”
Rizzo was born and raised in western Massachusetts, one of five sons in an Italian-American working class family. He says he knew at the age of 13 that he wanted to be a teacher. When he became a teacher, he thought he might be a principal by the time he was in his 40s. “I became a principal at 26,” he notes
Before taking the position as headmaster in Hawaii, Rizzo was principal in Ludlow, MA, and in West Springfield, MA.
Rizzo is bringing his aloha spirit and his student-centered educational philosophy to WSSU classrooms. “It’s all about unconditional love,” he says. “It means loving them enough to challenge them to do their best every day; loving them enough to support their dreams. We’re supposed to be dream catchers, not dream busters.”
But Rizzo is no pushover – he says unconditional love also means holding kids accountable. “I’m old school about that, I don’t lose any sleep over it,” he says. “Teenagers are awesome, but when they make mistakes, we have to hold them accountable with a lessons-learned approach. They have to know there are consequences.”
And his philosophy also extends to the staff, as well. “We have to hire and train a solid faculty and staff,” he says. “That means helping our teachers grow, nurturing them.”
Rizzo has asked his principals to walk through every classroom every day and see every child every day. Practicing what he preaches, he visits every school at least once per week. He’s also conducting structured interviews with stakeholders in the school, every paid faculty and staff member, board members, and other people. He even invites to the public to make an appointment for a structured interview if they have any concerns.
“Right now my head is on a swivel,” Rizzo says. “I’m listening and learning. One thing that has jumped out at me is how different school governance is in Vermont. That is going to be a challenge.”
Rizzo is promoting “ohana” and a sense of community in the schools. He has asked all of the principals to celebrate community on a weekly basis. “Good things happen when kids feel good about coming to school,” he says. “I don’t think any high school student is going to remember how much contact time they had in AP calculus, so that fun time is important.”
At the same time, Rizzo says he will concentrate on improving instruction at WSSU schools. “When you improve instruction, everything else improves,” he says. “It’s not rocket science, it’s about teachers coming from an approach of understanding different learning types.”
Rizzo says he supports consolidation and streamlining of governance – things he says will save money and improve education. And when it comes to improving education, he says the sooner, the better. “Look, for these kids, their future is now.”