Back to school: Scarborough superintendent wants to engage community

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SCARBOROUGH — New Superintendent of Schools Julie Kukenberger is a forward-thinker. 

Now in her second month on the job, she said she’s been preparing for the school year by immersing herself in the community and soaking up as much information as she can.

She’s had about 30 one-on-one meetings, and has visited agencies like the Scarborough Police Department to foster conversation, understanding and the potential for collaboration. 

“I’m trying to take this time to listen and learn, and figure out, what are we doing well. What can we improve on,” Kukenberger said Tuesday afternoon in her office. “I’m trying to figure out how I can best serve the community.”

With the start of the school year fast approaching on Aug. 30, she’s mulling questions like “How to measure the success of a district?,” and a desire to “empower” students and teachers, and foster an environment in which teachers feel valued and important.

Kukenberger was appointed unanimously by the School Board in April to succeed former Superintendent George Entwistle III, who resigned from the post at the end of June. This is her first job as school chief; she came from Haverhill, Massachusetts, where she was assistant superintendent. 

Kukenberger said education is changing and the roles of teacher and student are shifting considerably. 

“The job of an educator is very different today than it was 10 years ago,” she said. Part of how she views her job in the upcoming school year has to do with thinking about how to “reinvent education and (allow) ourselves to really think differently about how to educate.”

Not only are teachers responsible for building and teaching curriculum and integrating new learning tools, they also have to juggle issues beyond curriculum, Kukenberger said. With a more student-centric education style – a method that, for example, encourages time in classrooms to let students engage with one another, critically and collaboratively – teachers are required to adapt and be prepared in unprecedented ways. 

Moreover, she said, teachers have to balance and foster education about  sensitive social justice issues that have become topics of conversation in classrooms.

For example, she said, what better way than the classroom to deconstruct the public perception of police officers in the wake of fatal shootings across the country. “How we help students navigate and understand what they’re hearing in the media,” Kukenberger said.

“Truly preparing our students to be thinkers,” and teaching them “how to be adaptive” in their own lives is crucial, she said. “We have to intentionally teach these things. It’s less about facts and figures and more about (whether) students are able to think critically, able to articulate your emotions orally and in writing.”

Kukenberger said she is also invested in “keeping the momentum going” after the town’s most recent “really good budget experience,” when residents passed a school budget on the first vote for the first time in more than three years. 

Going forward, Kukenberger said she wants to continue the budget collaboration process with municipal staff and town councilors. 

“We have to be so smart about how we’re behaving as adults, because our kids are watching,” she said. 

Kukenberger also said she hopes to have community members more engaged with the inner workings of the School Department. 

Once a quarter, Kukenberger would like to give about 20-25 people the chance to come in and “talk specifics about one modern aspect of education” with educators over coffee. 

“I want to build that trust with community, and being visible is part of that,” she said. 

She also wants students to give feedback about their learning experiences, and figure out how to “include more student voices, even in the decision-making process.”

But for now, in the calm before the storm, Kukenberger is just plain excited.

“For me, it’s about pride and efficacy,” she said. “Thinking bigger, beyond the 13 years we have students. Our job is to make sure every student reaches their full potential, to create intelligent, curious, civic-minded students.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.