TRURO — According to Patrick Riley, Truro Central School’s new principal, directing an elementary school band is an undertaking that requires patience — and, when a headache strikes, “a fair amount of aspirin.”
Before he became an administrator, Riley was a music instructor in the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District, where he guided fourth and fifth graders through their first forays with wind instruments. That role involved enduring the squawk of a mishandled oboe and the scream of trumpets, but the “a-ha!” moments made everything worth it. For Riley, it’s when a student puffs and sputters at the flute, making hardly a peep for days, then, finally, manages to whistle out a note. Or when antsy kids can, at long last, take a bow under bright lights, having “totally rocked it,” he said.
Riley made the leap from music to administration in 2013, when he was offered the position of dean of students at the Station Avenue Elementary School. “I really enjoyed working with different people across the school district,” he said. By 2015, he was Station Avenue’s assistant principal, and, in 2016, he became principal of Marguerite E. Small Elementary in Yarmouth. When the principal’s job at Truro Central School (TCS) was posted on the Dennis-Yarmouth district’s website, he applied. “I was really interested in getting to know a new part of Cape Cod,” Riley said. “I’d been in the Mid Cape for my whole career.”
“I have always thought music educators, conductors really, made the best school administrators,” said Michelle Conover, a former member of the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School Committee who worked closely with Riley when he was an assistant principal. “Conductors have mastered the ability to get every individual invested in their part, every instrument invested in their section, and every section invested in the whole.”
Conover also happens to play the clarinet in the Barnstable Town Band, where Riley maintains his connection to music by serving as conductor. “Nothing rattles him,” Conover said. “At a recent concert, all his music scores blew away, and the show went on.”
Riley has also directed the Cape Cod New Horizons Band, which includes many older adults looking to dust off instruments that have gone untouched for decades. Some members are newcomers to music. A band dominated by seniors, however, comes with a different set of challenges. “We’re a bit hard of hearing,” said Corey Russo, who joined New Horizons in her mid-40s as a clarinet rookie. “I could imagine that it’d be easy for older folks to give up, but Patrick was so patient.”
Even the formidable Letty Russo, Corey’s self-taught clarinetist of an aunt, couldn’t faze Riley. Letty played with New Horizons throughout her 80s, until her passing in 2019. “She was prickly and opinionated,” said Corey. “If she had something to say, she could be — I don’t want to say rude — well, okay, she could be rude! But Patrick would just let it roll off his back.”
Sept. 7 marks the first day of school, and TCS has hammered out a mask policy and stocked up on PPE. Riley has had more than a year’s worth of experience tackling pandemic policy. When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, M. E. Small Elementary scrambled to move online. For families without internet, Riley and his staff worked with Comcast to order mobile hotspots. While they waited for sluggish deliveries, they posted a drop-box outside the school, filling it with paper copies of teaching materials.
In the fall of 2020, 80 percent of M. E. Small students went back in person, but some immunocompromised teachers had to continue working remotely. Others needed impromptu days off when medical concerns arose. In the classrooms, windows occasionally wouldn’t open. The ventilation system refused to cooperate. Even worse: positive Covid-19 tests would send entire classes into quarantine. “It was a situation where you had to take care of people first,” Riley said.
Some Truro parents question whether Riley is the right pick for principal. “Despite requests for diversity, Mr. Riley is a white man from Dennis,” wrote parents Beth Dietz and Christine Markowski to the school committee. They complained that he wasn’t a Truro native — unlike Megan O’Leary, the school’s veteran fifth-grade teacher who applied for the principal’s job and was one of four finalists for the position. Supt. Stephanie Costigan picked Riley.
Under state law, the superintendent appoints the principal. To assist her, Costigan appointed a screening committee of teachers, parents, and community members who read applications, interviewed finalists, and provided their advice. Their discussions were not public because advisory committees appointed by the superintendent are not subject to the Open Meeting Law. Riley and Costigan are currently drafting their respective job descriptions, which they expect will be finalized by October.
“I’m trying to jump right into community building, recognizing that relationships matter,” Riley replied when the Independent asked about Dietz’s and Markowski’s concerns. “The first day of school is too late for the kids to meet their principal.” Two weeks ago, he held a “meet and greet” with families at Puma Park, “which was attended by many, evidenced by the 150 popsicles he gave out,” said Costigan.
Riley was doubtful. “We certainly didn’t have 150 kids there,” he remarked. “Some of them were going back for seconds or thirds. The record, I heard, was five.”