BRUNSWICK — The November Saturday morning after Janet Mills won the gubernatorial election, Pender Makin sat in bed with her computer, sipping some coffee and preparing to compose a letter to whoever would be the next commissioner of the state Department of Education.
“I was on the one hand so filled with hope for a much better future for Maine, and also filled with exasperation due to some significant issues that I was concerned about at the department,” she recalled Dec. 28.
“‘Dear new commissioner,'” the Scarborough resident’s letter began.
Then, she said, “I basically laid out what I thought should be the most immediate strategic goals for that post.”
Makin, Brunswick’s assistant superintendent of schools since 2015, had no idea she was writing a letter to herself.
Even though she never planned to send the letter, deeming it just a way to organize her thoughts and feelings, Makin had started to establish a platform of issues and priorities that would serve her well in the weeks ahead.
The state Senate and Education and Cultural Affairs Committee are due this month to confirm Mills’ nomination of Makin as Education Department commissioner. She would replace Robert Hasson of South Portland, who former Gov. Paul LePage tapped for the role in March 2017.
The search for Makin’s replacement in Brunswick begins this month. Applications are due in February, depending on when Makin is confirmed by the Legislature, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said Dec. 28. He said he expects her successor to start work July 1, with Makin’s duties to be assumed in the meantime by School Department staff.
Makin said she was asked out of the blue in early December to attend an interview in Augusta with a cabinet screening committee.
“I said, ‘of course I will,'” she recalled. “How would I ever not? … I wake up with a sense of urgency; I consider it a complete mission, public education across the board.”
Makin saw the interview as a chance to share her beliefs about education with “a bunch of smart, powerful people,” but didn’t imagine herself much of a contender for the post.
Regardless of whether she got the job, Makin said she found the experience fulfilling, and was touched that, unbeknownst to her, various people – likely from committees and groups on which she’s served, she said – put her name forward for consideration.
A week later, on Dec. 9, Mills’ office reached out, inviting Makin to meet with the governor-elect the next day.
“I was so impressed with how real, and how determined she is to make our state a phenomenal place,” Makin said of the two-hour chat. “It was much more of a discussion than an interview.”
The feeling must have been mutual. The night of Dec. 21, while driving through the wind and rain to deliver donated gifts to homeless Brunswick youths, Makin got the call asking if she’d be Mills’ education nominee.
“I have to say, it’s surreal,” Makin said, revealing she hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in about a month. “It’s exciting, and I’m inspired and honored to even imagine myself as part of the cabinet for Maine’s first female governor. I’m honored to align myself with that administration.”
Makin, 54, was raised in Saco, and from the age of 8 spent summers as a deckhand and mate on her father’s deep-sea fishing charter boat. She was named for her grandmother’s aunt, Anna Pender, who was a 19th-century Portland teacher.
Makin graduated from Thornton Academy and earned degrees in English literature and school leadership from the University of Southern Maine, followed by teacher certification from the University of New England in 1996.
She and husband Mike, a middle school science teacher, have two rescue dogs.
Makin started her career in 1997 at the Fred C. Wescott Junior High School in Westbrook, where she taught the full spectrum of subjects to at-risk students.
She said she sought a job teaching English, but took the difficult-to-staff role by default. “I fell so madly in love with working with those kids,” she said, “that that’s what I did for the bulk of my career.”
The experience of finding innovative ways to reach students struggling with the traditional curriculum continued from 2003-2015 at the REAL (Regional Education Alternative Learning) School on Mackworth Island in Falmouth, where Makin served as principal.
As the school’s top educator, she and her team worked with students from 28 school districts, many of whom she’s kept in touch with over the years.
Makin has been on Maine’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group since 2014, and co-founded the Collaborative for Perpetual Innovation, a technical assistance, professional development, and consulting company for people in the education field. She has served on legislative work panels that aim to enhance educational opportunities for Maine students and promote the work of the state’s public schools.
The Maine Principal’s Association named her the state’s principal of the year for 2013-2014, and Makin also earned the MTV Local Hero and Milken Educator awards.
As it was when she wrote that Saturday-morning letter, Makin said her top priority as Maine’s next education commissioner will be to rebuild trust in the department.
“There’s been a revolving door of short-term commissioner posts, and the constituents – the schools, the superintendents and the districts – at this point have no faith and no trust that the existing structure is able to meet our needs,” she said.
There is also a need to rebuild trust in public education among all Mainers, Makin added.
Equity of access for all the state’s students to the best education possible is another objective. “We have a growing divide between children who are living in poverty and children who are quite privileged,” and there’s a difference between schools in big cities, the suburbs, and remote rural districts, Makin said.
Makin said she also wants to tackle school safety as proactively as possible.
“I would emphasize social, emotional, behavioral mental health supports (and) screenings,” she said. “Attention to those things is going to make us safer than any type of equipment ever will.”
Taking the reins of the department at the dawn of a new administration, “I see Maine as being in a prime position to be influencing national education policy, rather than reactively responding to every little whim that’s happening (at the federal level),” Makin said.
“We have the most unique demographics, we have innovative people in our classrooms all across the state,” she added, plus “a lot of passion and determination, hard work, and all the things that make Maine a real leader educationally. I feel that we maybe have squandered every opportunity to highlight that at the national level.”
Makin also said she sees Maine striving to achieve a world-class education for its students and pushing back against federal policies with which it doesn’t agree, instead of “absorbing blindly whatever gets handed down to us.”
She recalled implementation of the “No Child Left Behind” initiative in 2001, which launched a period of externally driven policies that created a culture of fear-driven accountability. Non-educators were telling educators how to teach, she said, and using sometimes punitive methods to try to bring about success.
But educators “don’t respond to carrots or sticks,” Makin noted, pointing out that the new teachers she meets each year come with a passion and idealistic desire to do the best for their students.
“They arrive pre-motivated,” she said. “… They don’t need to have their professionalism stripped away and replaced with something to implement.”
“Government’s role should pull back, and focus on bills and initiatives that provide infrastructure,” Makin said. “Let’s look at innovative ways to provide … universal (pre-kindergarten). How can we raise up teacher bottom pay so that they’re recognized for the amount of education and work that they do to become teachers? How do we create equity across the state?”
“These are great, big things,” she continued. “I think government should stay out of the classroom; I think government should stay out of the transcripts,” and retreat from “micromanaging the actual operations of our schools.”
“When you take leaders, and you strip from them their leadership and you replace it with stuff to manage, you’re not fostering leadership,” Makin said. “So I think we need to just have a different lens.”
Caught in the whirlwind of statewide attention as 2018 drew to a close, Makin was besieged by congratulatory messages. She reached into her handbag and pulled out her phone to play one of them, from a former at-risk student she taught.
“This means more to me than anything else so far,” Makin said.
“The work that you did with myself and the other students at the REAL School changed my life, and I know it changed the lives of others,” said the man, who is now head chef at a Portland restaurant.
“What a wonderful way to spend your life and career,” a slightly emotional Makin said, adding that a testimonial like that means “100 percent” as much as being tapped to head the Education Department.
“For me, what they signal is that my time on this Earth is not wasted, and that I’m contributing to something so much bigger than myself,” she said, “whether it was in the classroom, or as principal, or in a bigger job.
“That’s the thing about this (position) that I’m stoked about,” Makin added. “Is that I’ll have that opportunity to make a positive difference.”
Pender Makin of Scarborough, Brunswick’s assistant superintendent of schools since 2015, is Gov. Janet Mills’ nominee for education commissioner. She said state government should not micromanage what schools teach.