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by Jessica Brophy
In his 19 years at the post of superintendent of Union 76—which includes the towns of Deer Isle, Stonington, Brooklin and Sedgwick—Robert Webster has seen his share of change.
Two of the biggest changes he also considers two of the greatest successes during his tenure: the construction of the Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary and Brooklin Elementary schools.
“Thanks to the hard work of many, many people, both of those schools were funded and built,” said Webster.
A major challenge was establishing stability in principal positions. The exception, said Webster, is Sedgwick Elementary’s Don Buckingham, who has been at the school since before he signed on.
In the island’s elementary and high schools, and at Brooklin, however, there had been significant turnover in the principal position. This was especially troubling at Deer Isle-Stonington High School, said Webster, as there were some underperforming principals.
“We have very competent to excellent principals in all our buildings,” said Webster. “I think it’s a necessary pre-requisite to making progress.”
Webster said he’s worked with many great staff, administrators and board members over the years. He considers the teaching staff across the three schools to be a “stronger group now” than they were in 1993. “We’ve brought in people with experience as opposed to hiring the least expensive option,” said Webster. “And even if they’re not experienced, they’ve proven their ability to grow.”
Town-school relations have improved over time as well, said Webster. “When I came on, it was a priority to improve relationships between town officials and the schools in Brooklin and on the island,” said Webster, who feels the relationships are much less contentious then they once were.
Changes have occurred not just in facilities or staff, but in education as a whole, and especially in parent expectations. “There’s a lot greater expectations among parents that [the school will use] their particular approach to education,” said Webster, who explained that when he began in the early 1990s, parents seemed more accepting of how the school did things, whatever approach the school took.
It isn’t just parents that have increased pressure on schools, said Webster. State and federal accountability in the form of standardized tests has increased. Webster sees this as a mixed bag; on the one hand, he agrees that there needs to be accountability for staff and administration and there needs to be a “culture of ongoing improvement,” but Webster believes the focus on test scores isn’t “particularly healthy.” Much of the focus on test scores comes from political figures, which are increasingly critical of education in general and administrators in particular, said Webster.
A change Webster has been pleased to see is the focus on teaching and collaboration. “There is much less of a teacher working in isolation,” said Webster. “Teachers work together to look at groups of students and individual students to see what can be done to improve their learning.”
One of the concerns of the hiring committee back in 1993 was how long Webster was willing to stay. The union had seen a succession of six superintendents in about 10 years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “There was a concern at the time of a commitment to the position,” said Webster. “I think I fulfilled that.”
Webster’s plan for retirement includes spending “a lot more time cutting wood, sailing, gardening and traveling,” he said. Soon, he and his wife, Faith, will be traveling to Newfoundland.