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by Colin Powell
Two candidates have taken out papers for a one-year position on the CSD 13 school board this year. Gordon Stewart is a lawyer who grew up in the Bangor and Portland areas, vacationing in Sedgwick and on the Island with his grandparents. Virginia Olsen has lived on the Island her entire life and now operates a seafood business and serves on a number of boards and committees related to fishing and the shellfish industry, including the Stonington Shellfish Committee.
Olsen said that since she graduated from the Island high school a number of years ago, she has watched the quality of education change, especially now that her son is a freshman. She also noted that while the quality has changed, she remembers being unprepared for college, just as today’s graduates have expressed in recent letters to the editor. “I had to take 100-level English and math classes. An entire semester of classes that don’t go towards your degree is difficult to swallow. That’s something we need to address,” said Olsen.
She said she feels it’s a school board member’s role to work with the community and school administrators, and to guide the superintendent. “That’s not happening she said,” referring to the latter goal of guiding the superintendent. “The school board has asked for the community and parents to come and give them their thoughts and ideas, and nothing is followed through with. I would like to see a little continuity there,” said Olsen.
Asked about the work the high school has been doing to improve after being labeled by the state as an under-performing school, Olsen said she feels much of that work has not come to fruition yet, and she’s not sure the school administration is on the right path. “I still see a lot of kids expelled from school, high drop out rates. I don’t think that’s a positive sign,” said Olsen.
On the high school’s new graduation requirements, Olsen said that while she does not think senior projects are a bad idea, requiring their completion for graduation does not seem that useful. She said she has seen students run into trouble with their project mentors. “If they can’t find mentors and people to listen to them, what have they really gotten from their project?” asked Olsen. She feels students might get more out of their project if they included actually going out and spending time in a profession they were interested in.
Olsen admitted to not knowing a lot about the work Principal Mike Benjamin has been doing at the elementary school, but did say she is disappointed with how both schools have implemented early release Fridays for teacher professional learning community (PLC) time. “I’d be very interested to know how many people think early release has benefited their children.”
Olsen said that with a new Reach director, she would like to see more high school students involved in productions. She would also like to see more year-round use of the facility, and get more funds from outside the school to help support its mission.
“We have some really talented children, and we need to make sure the schools are meeting their needs and giving them the tools to succeed throughout their education and working life,” concluded Olsen.
Stewart has three kids currently enrolled in the Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School and, in a recent interview, said he feels the elementary school provides a wonderful facility for learning. “As parents, we couldn’t ask for more,” he said. But his interest in the school board is to help with what he said are, “serious problems in the high school.”
He noted last year’s announcement of the school as an under performing school, and, more significantly, the recent publication of letters in the Island Ad-Vantages, from former students now in college suggesting students are graduating unprepared for life after high school. “I have a vested interest in trying to improve the overall K-12 program,” said Stewart.
Stewart said that while he lacks experience in education governance specifically, as a lawyer for over 20 years, his focus is on administrative law and said he is capable of understanding how governance structures work.
In his campaign for the school board, Stewart said he has been asking questions of various stakeholders in education on the island, including current school board members, the superintendent, principals and representatives of the teachers union. He has identified three areas of academic concern, which he hopes to address if elected: writing and communication skills, the science and math curricula, and the lack of a foreign language curriculum. Stewart also noted the political issue on the island of what the K-12 program is preparing students for. While some students set their sights on college, others will look for resource-based careers. Representing the entire community, the board’s job is to reach a consensus that satisfies both groups.
Asked about his budget priorities, Stewart admitted that should he be asked to serve, he will have to learn more about the district’s budget and does not know enough about the state of the budget, but added that as a school board member he will look to the community for direction. He also noted that he is not current on what the high school’s new graduation requirements are but will be interested to get caught up if elected.