PORTSMOUTH — Ana. C Riley, who was appointed Portsmouth’s new superintendent of schools in June, has been doing her summer reading on “big picture stuff” such as the district’s strategic plan, budget and more. It’s obvious in talking to her that the first day of school can’t come soon enough.
“It’s almost like the buildings aren’t alive until he kids come,” said Ms. Riley, who comes to Portsmouth from the Dartmouth school district, where she also served as superintendent.
Ms. Riley’s home in Fall River — she’s lived her whole life there — is certainly always alive. She’s the mother of six children, ages 4 to 20. (She also happens to be the oldest of six children.) Her husband, Kyle, is director of special education in the Dighton Rehoboth Regional School District.
We sat down with Ms. Riley recently and asked about her former stint as a teacher, why she became an administrator and some things she’d like to see started in Portsmouth.
To start off, is your first name pronounced “AH-na” or “AN-na?” I’ve heard people call you both. “And that’s the way I’ve lived my whole life. Both of my parents are Portuguese and I’m the first born here in the United States. ‘AH-na’ is what my family calls me, but ‘AN-na’ is more widely used.”
Background? “I actually didn’t start out as a teacher. I have (an undergrad) degree in in chemistry. There weren’t a lot of chemistry jobs that were local and I was engaged to be married and didn’t want to drive to Boston every day. My mother-in-law had a friend who was a principal and she said, ‘You know, she’s always talking about needing substitutes.’ It was a small private school in Fall River and that’s where I spent my first six years teaching. Thanks to (the principal), I became a licensed teacher. It really was a fluke and I just fell in love with it. I love watching kids light up when they learn something.”
So why did you become an administrator? “I love teaching, but at some point in your career you start feeling a little powerless to make change. I went from teaching at regular high school to teaching at the alternative high school (at Durfee in Fall River), and that’s when you really start to see the need.”
Does having a teaching background help you as an administrator? “I think there’s a lot of credibility with staff when they know you’ve been in a classroom, you’ve been an assistant principal, you’ve been a principal. It allows folks to understand you associate with their role. It also helps me to see through their lens.”
Do you miss being in the classroom? “I still get to dabble in it because I’ve continued to teach adults. I work for the National Institute for School Leadership and that’s allowed me to keep my hand in a classroom. Also I think having six kids it’s like having your own classroom and reliving all those years.”
Biggest challenges going forward in Portsmouth? “One of the immediate needs is the review of the regional special ed program, so that’s a big thing on my plate. Also, having had an interim (superintendent) for a year, we have to get back into a process: Here’s how we do this, here’s how we do that.”
In Dartmouth you initiated an “Every School, Every Week” program, with district administrators visiting one school per week. Are you bringing that to Portsmouth? “Yes. It’s a way to align our district plan. We’ll be looking for evidence that what we say we’re doing, we’re really doing.”
You also started up an academic summer school in Dartmouth. “When I started as assistant superintendent in Dartmouth, we didn’t have a summer school other than for special ed students. Similarly, that’s what’s going on here in Portsmouth. I would love to grow that program. We know that all kids experience a summer slide, some to different extents. If they’re readers or travelers or exposed to other learning experiences over the summer — like camps — then they have lots of opportunities to grow. But some kiddos don’t have that benefit. We didn’t offer it as anything labeled or connected to remediation. We’ll find ways to incorporate learning into fun activities over the summer, even using the STEAM initiative and putting together science, technology, engineering, math and English. It can really be anything we create it to be, as long as it’s engaging to students and gives parents and affordable opportunity. I think we ended up charging $100 if you registered early and then it was $125 or $150 after that, which for five weeks is pretty reasonable.”
How do you balance being a school administrator with raising six kids? “I have a great support system. One of the great things about Portuguese families is that you’re close and you’re also in that expanded family group; it’s never you by yourself. My husband and I are a great team. We figure it about between the two of us and when we need a little help, we have three grandparents who totally pitch and support us. I always tell folks, ‘Once you’re outnumbered, it really doesn’t make that much of a difference.’ I always say are kids are growing up to be very flexible, independent children. They’re used to making changes on the fly and being ready to adapt to whatever schedule there is.”
You have a 20-year-old (Brenna) and a 4-year-old (Seamus). That’s quite a gap. “Yes — happy 40th birthday! (Seamus) has been an absolute gift. He’s made everything new again — Santa, the Easter Bunny. He’s everybody’s baby, for all the older kids. He’s brought it all back for all of us. There’s a real appreciation from the older kids, seeing life through his eyes.”
With your job and six kids, do you have time for hobbies? “Most of our hobbies revolve around whatever our kids are doing. All of them play sports and they’re active, so there’s a lot of soccer that goes on. One of my daughters dances. My husband plays golf in a league and he’s always trying to talk me into it. I find since two of my older girls are going to college, I want my hobby to be to spend as much time with my children as I can.”
Favorite books? “My daughter got me hooked on the Game of Thrones series. I just finished the last one, and I’m heartbroken that it takes him like 10 years to write one. I read tons of young adult stuff because I think it keeps me connected to what they’re reading. But I also do professional reading in between. I just finished ‘Reign of Error’ (by Diane Ravitch), which is about school reform from a really extreme vision. The one book I’ve read over and over again professionally is ‘MindSet,’ by Carol Dweck. It’s one of those books that applies to your professional life and your personal life because it’s about how we view kids and how our views can pigeonhole them. It’s a really fascinating read for parents and teachers.”
TV shows? “The kids are really into all those cooking shows right now — ‘Master Chef’ and ‘Cupcake Wars.’ It’s probably because I’m a terrible cook, they’re fascinated by people who can cook.”
What about your husband? “My husband is a master chef. He’s always joking that if I’m cooking, there’s a box somewhere that’s getting opened. But I will prep, I will clean up, I will do whatever needs to be done as long as I don’t have to do the actual cooking. Although, I am a fan of the eating. Like I said, the reason this works is that my husband and I are a great team. We compliment each other.”