2019-01-11 / Columns

New year brings reflection and gratitude

Superintendent’s Spotlight
By Dr. Kathryn Hawes Special to the Post

The new year brings with it a time for reflection and gratitude. As a school district, we are thankful for our newly renovated, state-of-the-art facilities, high-performing schools, progress in unifying our three towns into one district and consistent community support.

Newly renovated, state-of-the-art facilities

On the day after Thanksgiving, more than 600 people attended our open house at Kennebunk High School. With Ram Pride, they marveled at the new library/learning commons, theater, lecture hall, and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) suite.

Staff and students led tours pointing out where the new construction meets the 1939 and 1981 parts of the building, which now seamlessly blend into one learning environment.

The two other newly renovated elementary schools round off our district with six safe, accessible and modern schools.

We appreciate that this was the largest locally funded school construction project in Maine history and have managed the taxpayers money exceptionally well.

Voters in all three towns authorized the RSU to borrow $56.5 million for this project. We borrowed $55.5 million, saving a million dollars off the top. Utilizing the credit scores of the town of Kennebunk and the RSU, we opted for a private bond sale instead of the traditional Maine Municipal Bond Bank.

While this was more work on the part of the finance committee of the school board and administration, we saved $2.6 million in interest over the life of the loan.

Our timing was also impeccable. Due to rising construction costs, the high school alone would cost $12 million more to build if we began today. Our administration, school board, construction company and architects have managed your money well, resulting in three beautiful facilities, completed ahead of schedule and under budget.

This fall, mother nature forced our championship football team to forfeit homefield advantage and play the Western Maine and Campbell Cup championships in Biddeford.

We recognize the poor state of our athletic complex, the tens of thousands we expend annually to maintain one of only five remaining grass high school fields in southern Maine and the limited ability to overplay our only field with lights. The school board has begun to discuss seeding a capital campaign as a means to address this need without a tax increase.

High-performing schools

Our schools consistently perform well on the state-assessment. The elementary schools are always in the top 5 percent in the state and the middle and high school in the top 10 percent. While this is only one measure of our academic success, our student’s scores are comparable to those in the most affluent Maine communities. Conversely, 25 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged and the communities we compare ourselves with are in the single digits.

Our special education identification percentage rates are also higher. Yet, with your support, our students are are excelling in the arts, athletics, robotics and academics.

We appreciate the strong public support for our first ever universal pre-kindergarten cohort this year. On Sept. 6, we welcomed 124 4-year-olds into newly designed classrooms staffed with high-quality educators, and a play-based (and research-based) curriculum.

Access to high-quality pre-kindergarten is one of the largest predictors of future academic and social success, leading to less of a need for retention or special education, higher academic achievement, increased college or post high school credential rates, decreased crime and a greater lifetime income. Studies show that this investment will be critical for a thriving future workforce and save taxpayers an average of $34,000 per lifetime for each student served. Our students are excelling.

We anticipate a return on this investment by way of increased academic achievement and a decreased need for special education and intervention programs for all students. In the meantime, these students are so far ahead that we’ll need to focus on what we teach in kindergarten next year.

Unified schools and communities

It has been a decade since we consolidated and formed RSU 21. Naturally, coming together has not been a linear or smooth journey. However, we are grateful for the significant progress.

Our teachers continue to work together across schools and towns, aligning curriculum and instructional practices. Our principals conduct regular visits to all schools in our district, focusing on teaching and learning across the pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 span. Our district schools are more aligned than ever.

We appreciate that our towns have embraced the model of three towns, one community. Our police departments have stepped in to seamlessly support the needs of all of our schools by sharing school resource officers across towns, partnering on our Sandy Hook Promise work and offering training and support for our teachers and students.

Our fire departments and emergency response personnel have teamed up with us to create one local emergency shelter to serve our communities more effectively and efficiently.

The town recreation departments have worked to cross town lines and develop three-town programming, getting our children and families playing together as one community from a very young age while offering adult classes and trips without duplicating efforts (and costs) through school-based Adult Education.

We will continue to work with town managers, selectmen and the school board to identify areas for collaboration, efficiency and reducing duplication of services.

Last spring, we initiated a task force to develop recommendations to balance and stabilize elementary school enrollment. Mildred L. Day School has consistently maintained two classes per grade level, Kennebunk Elementary and Sea Road Schools have fluctuated between five and six classes per grade level, Kennebunkport Consolidated School has seen a reduction in enrollment, leading to one class in three grade levels and two classes in the other three grade levels.

In order to most efficiently and effectively ensure that all of our schools continue to thrive, we are charged with pulling together as one community with four excellent elementary schools.

Details about these recommendations will be provided for community input, likely in February or March. You can also follow the work of this task force by visiting our webpage or attending one of our meetings.

Strong community support

Strong public schools create thriving communities. Communities that attract residents, families, and businesses lead to economic development and increased property valuation.

We appreciate the strong community support that allows our schools to excel. This support ranges from supporting our budget at the polls, attending games and events, volunteering, supporting the education foundation, or simply sharing the good things that are happening in our schools.

Whether you currently have children in our schools or not, we are committed to continued fiscal responsibility while sustaining excellence toward student success and community economic development.

Kathryn Hawes is superintendent of schools for Regionals School Unit 21.

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