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Hardscrabble life has forged a ‘visionary’ superintendent in Oyster Bay

Ianni, Oyster Bay’s new superintendent, is ready to lead

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Dr. Francesco Ianni, 48, will become the Oyster Bay-East Norwich School District’s new superintendent on Jan. 1. A Plainview resident, married with two grown children, he has been involved in education for 20 years.

At New York University, Ianni earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics. He went on to earn a professional diploma in education administration from Long Island University and a doctoral degree from St. John’s University. His resume is long on educational experience, but what it does not indicate are the extraordinary hurdles that Ianni, an immigrant from Italy, overcame.

He might never have come to the United States had he not met Anna Martuscelli, a tourist from Brooklyn who, vacationing in Italy, was intent on visiting Santa Maria di Castellabate, Ianni’s hometown. They fell in love,  and he came to Brooklyn in 1994 to be with Martuscelli. Ianni planned to stay for only a month, but, he said, one month led to another. Certain they should be together, the couple married that year. 

Life wasn’t easy for Ianni. “It was difficult at 22 not speaking a word of English,” he said. “Every day the English all around me sounded like one big sound.”

But he was undeterred. He worked several jobs, in pizza parlors and restaurants, attending English as a Second Language classes at night at a community college.

In 1995 he arranged for his high school diploma from Italy to be translated so he could start attending college at Kingsborough Community College. His English was still not good, but he tried his best, he said. It was hard for him to keep up, but what he did accomplish, he said, he found rewarding. And he had hope.

“I could see every month that my English was improving and I was getting used to the culture,” he said. “My wife was a fashion designer and her days were long. My days were long, too, working in the restaurants and then going to college at night. Every day I tried to make an improvement.”

He learned of a scholarship that would allow for one to attend New York University at night. When he arrived at his first class at NYU in 1997, he said, he felt a bit intimidated. There were 90 students, and the room felt like a big movie theater. Ianni said he felt lost. But another classmate comforted him, he recalled, telling him to take one day at a time.

“I realize that I can’t give back to all of the people who helped me, and they really don’t need it,” he said. “I have learned that if I can talk to a person who is struggling . . . I try to live my life and say every day is an opportunity to do something for others. Why wait?”

Attending college was like starting his life over, he said. He was always fascinated by math. “Some people look at it as addition and subtraction,” he said. “To me it is so much more. There are so many relationships. It is like magic.”

As an undergraduate, he learned of a scholarship that required that he teach for one year. He taught mathematics at a high school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the day, and at night went to graduate school at NYU. He graduated in 2001, was hired as an adjunct professor, and taught math from 2001 to 2010. In 2009 he earned his doctorate at St. John’s. He became an adjunct professor there in 2010, and is still on the roster.

Ianni heard of an opportunity on Long Island, at East Meadow High School, in 2001. He was hired  as a leave replacement teacher for six months. He and his wife moved to Plainview on Sept. 10, 2001. While at EMHS he learned that there was a job available at Locust Valley High School for a math teacher. He worked there for five years. 

Ianni taught upper-level classes, including Advancement Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. He started doing presentations for open school night and worked with the students on the Mathletes team. Then he introduced portfolio writing  for math students.

“Math education was changing a bit, moving more into math being more real-life applications,” he explained. “I expanded it. Portfolio was like a mini dissertation.”

At that point he decided to become an administrator. “The idea was to reach way outside my classroom halls,” he said. “I always felt that math is seen as a mechanical thing, but the ‘why’ of doing it was always important to me. I saw math as a way to say that things could change. Why not be that person to make that change?”

He began his administrative career in the Bellmore-Merrick School District in 2005, as the assistant principal at Mepham High School. The following year he was appointed assistant principal of Harborfields High School. Then, in 2010, he accepted a job at the Levittown School District, as principal of Division Avenue High School.

Ianni returned to Harborfields in 2013 as its assistant superintendent for administration and human resources. Three years later he advanced to deputy superintendent of schools, and six months after that he became superintendent.

John Valente, the director of athletics, physical education and health at Harborfields, said he has always been impressed by Ianni’s leadership style, describing him as a “visionary.” Valente said that Ianni included all administrators when making decisions, because he believed that it was important to work as a team to be successful.

Ianni, Valente said, had a different style. “Most kids don’t know who the superintendent is,” he said. “He defied that, walking the hallways, going into the classrooms, even taking off his jacket and playing with the kids in gym.”

Preparing for his new job in Oyster Bay, Ianni said he has fallen in love with the hamlet. His hometown in Italy, he said, is the same size as Oyster Bay. “I love the fact that this small community is tight,” he said, “and that the community is very supportive of the schools. This is very appealing to me to see so many similarities to Harborfields, where I am now.”

He plans to study the district’s test score statistics. Ianni wants to empower students, he said, to achieve success. He wants to take the district to the next level by building on the foundation already achieved by the administration and staff.   

Laurie Kowalsky, president of the Oyster Bay Board of Education, said that out of 65 candidates for the superintendent’s job, Ianni stood out. It is a benefit to the district, she said, that he speaks Italian and Spanish. During his interview, Kowalsky said, she found him to be warm, and someone who wants to get things done.

The board, Kowalsky, said, sees Ianni’s mastery of math and data analysis as further benefits for the district. “We have smart kids here,” she said. “Dr. Ianni dug into the data at his district. We want him to do so here, so we can improve our Regents and ELA scores.”

As an administrator and as a person, Ianni said, he tries to get a little better every day. “I try to live my life and see every day as an opportunity to do something,” he said. “I believe that if you put your mind into something, anything is possible.”