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Perspective is Everything

HCPSS School Superintendent Dr. Martirano shares the importance of innovation and inclusion

Article by Gabrielle Lewis

Photography by Howard County Public School System

Originally published in Columbia Lifestyle

Dr. Michael J. Martirano is intimately acquainted with the necessity of growth in a painful environment. Experiencing heartache after the death of his mother at a young age and living with foster families throughout his adolescence, Dr. Martirano has developed empathy for students in unstable environments, developing into a mission of providing equity and safety to the students of Howard County.

He began serving as the Superintendent in July of 2018 after serving in various education and administrative roles over the course of an expansive three-decade career.  A naturally extroverted and exuberant soul, Dr. Martirano views himself as an educator first and foremost and is most invigorated when he is able to interact with the students and staff of Howard County. However, with the necessity of closing schools, the Howard County school system has had to dramatically adjust to meet the needs of their students and families.

The enforcement of social distancing came with unexpected complications. Although Columbia is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, roughly 23 percent of students that attend Howard County schools are eligible to receive free and reduced lunches and have inconsistent income. During the closure the striking disparity of resources among students caused Dr. Martirano to take note of the divide. “I view these kids [as] not only students but like my own children,” he said, continuing, “Twenty-three percent is roughly 13,000 students. Thirteen thousand of my kids are struggling to have access to basic resources, and we’re working to fix that.” As daunting as the number may be, Dr. Martirano and Howard County schools have turned an unprecedented event into a transformational moment, seeking to evaluate and improve on the systems in place. Along with the transition from physical to digital classes for students, Howard County Public School System has created fourteen different food banks located throughout the county. With this food assistance in place, over a million meals have been distributed to the residents of Columbia.

Dr. Martirano also recognized a significant need for more access to technology. After consulting the school board, Dr. Martirano was able to secure over 20,000 Chromebooks for students in order for them to continue their education. Likewise, the educators of Howard County participated in a training course designed to assist the transition from traditional classroom settings to solely online. Although there has been a period of adjustments for the schools, Dr. Martirano is extremely proud of the flexibility of the community.

After the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African-Americans, Dr. Martirano knew that it was paramount to use his platform to speak against systemic racism. He had a speech prepared before the news of Floyd’s death. However after learning of the news he knew it was his responsibility to include a direct discussion of discrimination and racism in our country.

During the Class of 2020's Online Commencement, Dr. Martirano addressed the 4,200 graduating students and the 39,000 viewers stating:

“As we grapple with the social-emotional impacts of a pandemic that may have forever changed our daily lives, we have recently witnessed another senseless killing of an African American, George Floyd. It is important that we acknowledge this event, reflect on the hurt and pain we are feeling and resolve together to do our part to eradicate hate, condemn violence, and stand up to acts of racism within our own communities.”

Dr. Martirano proceeded to call the community to lead with empathy and openness while not falling into the role of bystander. Emphasizing the necessity for open communication and honest conversation, Dr. Martirano advises any student feeling overwhelmed with the current societal climate to not be afraid of reaching out. Acknowledging that this year has produced unexpected and fear-inducing changes to the country, he urges young people to seek someone they trust— himself included—and build strong community relationships to create change. “Change comes when thoughtful groups of people take action,” he said, expressing his hope and excitement of witnessing that in the future. 

In spite of the past months of tumultuous events, Dr. Martirano is inspired by the growth opportunity that the pandemic has provided for the county, challenging Howard County schools to evolve with more holistic resources for the community. With the beginning of the school year quickly approaching, Howard County has been working to create plans for the schools reopening. Keeping safety at the forefront, Dr. Martirano notes that the main focus is providing quality education in the healthiest environment possible. The priorities include student and staff safety, transportation operations, and providing quality instruction for the children. Although the incoming months are in a state of flux, the Howard County School System is dedicated to being prepared for the upcoming school year, becoming more inclusive and stronger than ever before.

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