TRURO — Over four decades ago, Michael Gradone III accepted a job as the Wellfleet Elementary School principal. In June, Gradone, 73, will retire as superintendent of Truro’s one-school district.
A soft-spoken, white-bearded figure who looks as much like a child’s image of Santa Claus as is possible, Gradone thus comes to the end of his long Outer Cape school career. He served as the Wellfleet principal for 12 years. And though he has spent the last seven years leading Truro (a district so small that this has been a half-time job), his resume includes five years as the Nauset Regional Schools’ assistant superintendent and then 17 — from 1992 to 2009 — as the district’s superintendent.
“Mike is iconic on the Cape,” said Brian Davis, the retired principal-superintendent of Truro Central School. Gradone cares about students first, said Davis, and everything else stems from that. The two worked as superintendents side by side for years, then Gradone took over Davis’s position as superintendent in 2014. Stephanie Costigan was promoted to principal last year after Robert Beaudet retired unexpectedly. She will now replace Gradone as superintendent.
A Harvard graduate and the son of a Newton high school administrator, Gradone decided in college that he wanted to work directly with children. His first job was as a fourth-grade teacher for six years at Hardwick Elementary School. He came to Wellfleet from there.
At Hardwick, as he took on some administrative duties, he began to see “ways that great teachers could be brought together to increase their impact on kids,” Gradone said. “And that’s all I had hoped to do as a principal and then as a superintendent.”
Susan Hall Heinz, now the library and media specialist for the Provincetown Schools, was a student at Wellfleet Elementary School from 1975 to 1979. She remembers Gradone as a “kind, caring, and fair” principal.
Heinz said she herself was well behaved. “But I remember there were these two boys in the class who were always getting into it,” she said. “He would play the board game Uncle Wiggily with them in his office. I think that made it so he could talk to them about their behavior.”
Gradone became superintendent of the four-town Nauset district at the same time the Mass. Education Reform Act of 1993 was instituted. With it came the Mass. Comprehensive Assessment System or MCAS exams, including the requirement that all students pass the 10th-grade test to qualify for a high-school diploma.
Although the high-stakes uses of the MCAS were not popular with teachers (or with test researchers who questioned their statistical validity), Gradone supported the tests, arguing that while they were “far from a perfect measure,” they were “better than no measure.” He won praise for offering a “merit” raise to teachers if scores in the district rose. The outcome was predictable: scores go up when tests shape teaching.
Gradone’s approach turned out to give the district’s enrollment a boost. Since Nauset’s MCAS scores have annually topped all other Cape districts except for the Sturgis Charter School, school choice has attracted students to Nauset. Today, 24 percent of Nauset High’s population comes from school choice.
But improvements at the schools, Gradone explained, were “really a cultural change over a period of time and not test scores over two years.” Nauset’s drama club excelled at the same time, and the honors chorus sang at Carnegie Hall. “We wanted to nurture everyone,” Gradone said.
Amy Kandall, an art teacher at Nauset High School, said Gradone had good ideas. He once asked her to teach a professional development course on the use of art in academic classrooms. This validated her expertise, she said, and also helped teachers who constantly need to take such courses to keep up their certifications and find few options on the Cape.
“He’s a grandfather figure and a very sweet man,” Kandall said. “He was the rare kind of administrator you could go to with anything.”
Gradone said he learned a lot about his profession from his father, Michael Gradone Jr. He was a student at Newton North High School while his father was a house master there. He saw that his father cared a lot about his students. Rather than being a bureaucrat, he worked to make a difference in students’ lives. “He was a great role model,” Gradone said.