Giovanni Virgiglio, the superintendent of schools, is entering his third year on the job.
Giovanni Virgiglio, the superintendent of schools, is entering his third year on the job.

The Evangelist continues its interview series with Giovanni Virgiglio, the diocesan chancellor and superintendent of schools. Virgiglio, 38 — born in Albany and who attended St. Teresa of Avila, Bishop Maginn High School and the College of St. Rose — talks with Mike Matvey about his upbringing, the greatest challenges to Catholic education and the importance of his Italian ¬≠heritage. Catholic Voices features a wide range of men and women in the Capital District and will appear periodically in the paper and online.

TE: What was your upbringing like in Albany?
GV: I am the first generation of grandchildren that was born here. My parents immigrated here from Italy with my grandparents. (It’s) the whole American dream situation where they started a family business (Sovrana Pizza in Albany); so growing up I was always involved in the family business … Growing up that was how I always learned about hard work and values and the importance of always giving your all to everything. And I never noticed the parallels between my upbringing and how that came into play as I now lead our system of schools.

TE: Did you always want to be a part of the Catholic educational world?
GV: It was not something I always wanted to do, interestingly enough. Growing up I had aspirations of being a meteorologist; I used to practice, have weather maps, you name it. As I grew older I realized that I enjoyed teaching so much so I used to have my cousins come to ‘school.’ I used to have a school in the back of my parents’ pizza store. And I would make my younger cousins come to school. I definitely knew that teaching was the way I wanted to go by the time I was a teenager. The whole idea of Catholic education, even though I went to Catholic education, I didn’t necessarily have aspirations to specifically be involved in Catholic education. Where that really  happened for me was in my student-teaching experience. As a student-teacher (at St. Rose), I taught at St. Casimir’s School on Sheridan Avenue. I instantly fell in love with the family atmosphere, the collegiality, the students, the families, the hallmarks of a Catholic education. And that was then my first job right out of student-teaching; I got a job at St. Casimir’s. I enjoyed my time there and it was there where someone saw leadership potential in me and tapped me on the shoulder to be a principal. I oftentimes say no one grows up saying they want to be a principal or a superintendent.  When I was really discerning the idea of leaving the classroom to go to be a principal and then leaving being a principal to be the associate superintendent and then eventually superintendent, I always looked at it as my impact that I could have. As a teacher, I knew that I could have an influence and impact within the four walls of my classroom. As a principal, that took it to a building level. And then now as superintendent to be able to have that kind of impact on an entire system of schools knowing that is something that helps to set the direction and making sure that people align with that direction.

TE: how did you became superintendent?
GV: While I was at St. Casimir and my principal at the time and some of the central office administration here at the Diocese recognized leadership potential in me, they supported my education to continue on and receive my master’s in Administration. And an opening became available much sooner than I anticipated at St. Mary’s Institute in Amsterdam. I was encouraged to apply and I did and it all happened so quickly and before I knew it, I was one of the youngest principals (26) in the Diocese of Albany and I was there for seven wonderful years. ... From St. Mary’s, again kind of that whole desire to want to effect change on a larger scale. As a principal I found myself getting involved in a lot of system initiatives, establishment of policy procedures, standards, curriculum, being that person that was on several committees that affected the larger system. And then that was where I started to get a sense for where I could possibly have an impact on a larger scale … it was that desire to want to advance the mission of Catholic education in a unique and different way. I came (to the Pastoral Center) in 2015 as the associate superintendent. I was the associate superintendent for two years. At the time our superintendent (Michael Pizzingrillo) had left mid-year, and I was appointed as interim superintendent. I was very lucky to have him as a mentor as associate superintendent because it surely prepared me for taking the superintendent role.

TE: what does it take to be a Catholic educator?
GV: I believe it truly has to be seen as a calling and not a career; a ministry, a vocation, that sense that you are being called to something and being able to impart that faith. That’s something that is hard to instill and yes, our environments do foster that, especially if teachers don’t necessarily imagine themselves in Catholic education. … Similar to myself, did I see myself in public education some day? Absolutely. But it was the environment, the climate that I really fell in love with and that’s where I started to see this more as a calling and not a career. And I think that is what distinguishes our teachers, they give of themselves tremendously. They have great sacrifice to do what they do. But there is a reason for that sacrifice because they are called to do something.

TE: What are the biggest challenges the schools face?
GV: I think the challenges help to make what we do so rewarding. Obviously, we have challenges with maintaining operational vitality and being financially solvent to enrollment. But I would think one of the most recent challenges and that is of great surprise to me and I think it is one of the biggest challenges because I worry where it goes, is this imposition on Catholic education. Never have I imagined the role of advocacy being so important in Catholic education. With the substantial equivalency component to having to advocate for dollars for which we are entitled through mandated services aid. The job is challenging enough with what we have to do to be able to ensure that our students have a Catholic education and then you add these layers of bureaucracy on to these challenges and that to me is what I perceive to be the greatest threat going forward. There really seems to be this imposition or this desire to want to … I feel like what we love is under fire. I don’t know how else to put it. I never would have imagined having to advocate to say that no, it’s not appropriate for our public school counterparts to evaluate our school system. I have no issue, and I want to make it clear, with the idea of demonstrating substantial equivalency, as a matter of fact, I think our schools constantly develop substantial equivalency, I just think we have to find an unbiased, impartial way of doing that. And coming to this role has definitely made that very clear to me. I would have never imagined the role that advocacy would play. Particularly because of these external threats that are potentially trying to jeopardize what we love so much.

TE: Why do you think that is?

GV: I don’t see it as one that is driven out of competition. I do think the intentions are pure. I do think there is a desire to want to ensure that what we are providing is an effective education but I think that … people tend to concern themselves with things that aren’t necessarily within their concern and I believe there are others that are much more qualified and equipped to make those same determinations. ... I truly want to believe there’s not an ulterior motive, but when you start to point out the potential pitfalls of such initiatives that should then be enough to force us to reevaluate those things. And I don’t think the substantial equivalency battle is over yet. … It seems as though we have to fight more than ever before to preserve what is good. 
I think you see it in every aspect of our Catholic values, whether it was the Reproductive Health Act … it seems like our faith is under fire … I don’t know how we can do the job we do of ensuring the future generations without being able to anchor that in our faith. How can you teach the standards without encompassing some element of faith development to ensure well-rounded learners?

TE: How do you retain students year to year?

GV: It’s something that a lot of our schools are plagued with; this idea of retaining students after these “transient” years, or years of transitions, whether it is pre-K to kindergarten or even from eighth to ninth grade, or fifth to middle school. I think why that is such a challenge … there are more alternatives that come along. We have such an opportunity, particularly at the pre-K (level); we capture them at that grade and they remain with us for a while. But then as tuition costs can rise as families find themselves in financial situations, then they start to look to some of those alternatives that exist. We have many strong public schools in our area and I think that underscores why we need to definitely put to the forefront what is the only distinguishing factor that sets us apart. I think that is the key to retaining students. You have to be able to demonstrate that what we’re providing is not available anywhere else. … I think as our Church suffers and as there are more and more families that are un-Churched it becomes something that affects our ability to retain families. ... I honestly believe one of our greatest challenges is making sure that we celebrate, we constantly strengthen and put in the forefront those distinguishing characteristics and those hallmarks that can’t be found anywhere else.

TE: Talk about the new programs for the coming school year?
GV: Again these are some of those great hallmarks that align with the mission of Catholic education.  Programs such as PAX (and) our Too Good for Violence program, which is another prevention program that we provide,  (make) sure that we tend to the whole child; emotionally, spiritually, physically. When we can take care of all those pieces, it makes the academic piece much more effective. And this is where we start to invest in grants such as PAX, which focus on regulating emotions because that plays such a significant role in a student’s learning. These are those value-added pieces that will ultimately set us apart from our counterparts. 

TE: Going in your third year as superintendent, what has been your biggest success?

GV: It’s actually a success that falls into my role as associate superintendent. As associate superintendent, I was charged with leading the system accreditation initiative, (an international recognition of the effectiveness of the diocesan schools, including the faith component) which accredited all of our schools in the Diocese of Albany under the system of the Diocese of Albany Catholic Schools. That was a tremendous moment of success for me, because it brought our schools together and it united our schools. It’s such a symbolic time because it set the tone for how we need to work going forward. We are so much stronger together than we are on our own. And that system accreditation achievement, what I believe to be my greatest achievement because it was something that shepherded our entire system together and brought them together, has been the underpinning of so many other successes. Some of the initiatives that we have on the horizon and some of the other recent successes, such as PAX, are all rooted and anchored in that unity that came out of system accreditation. And I had the great pleasure of leading that initiative. 

TE: What is the best part of your day?

GV: Being in the central office, I have many responsibilities that involve meetings or various responsibilities that take me away from the school environment. So one of my favorite things to do is visit our schools; getting lost in one of our schools. One of the things that I miss the most is school life; leading up to Advent or Lent or getting ready for Easter. School life, in general, I miss because ... it gives me an opportunity to interact with our teachers and our students, see the great work that is happening in our schools. And it gets me back to my roots as a teacher and principal.

TE: What is your life philosophy?
GV: I have a list of Italian proverbs (in my office) and I refer to those Italian proverbs often. One that has resonated with me a lot recently goes: ‘The salt of patience seasons everything.” (Il sale di pazienza conde tutto.) This idea, and I do anchor a lot of my life philosophies in my upbringing, my culture, these Italian proverbs, and this one in particular about patience has spoken to me a lot recently because there is such a sense of urgency to our work, but timing is everything and that patience is so important. I think about my grandparents or my parents waiting for a sauce to have the perfect seasoning or whether it is a fig growing on a tree and knowing just when to pick that fig. There are so many parallels to patience and my daily work and my ministry here at the Diocese. I am constantly plagued with a sense of urgency for so many things that we need to do but patience is one of those things that can really make or break any initiative.