Principal, 2 teachers leaving Peaks Island school, where the mission may change

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PORTLAND — Radical changes could be in store for the 50-student Peaks Island Elementary School, considered by many islanders the life-blood of the community.

The School Department is poised to revise the school’s mission, which could change from traditional education to an expeditionary model or focus on specific disciplines, like are marine science or art. 

Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. met with island residents Monday night to discuss how to replace Principal Gwen Smith, who abruptly resigned in July after two years of service. Smith was the fourth school principal to resign in the last six years. Assistant Superintendent Jill Blackwood will take over until a replacement is found.

Morse also informed residents that two of the four island teachers have applied for, and will likely be awarded, mainland teaching positions for this year.

Monday’s meeting at the school came a week after Morse reversed a decision to reassign one of the four island teachers to the mainland, where class sizes are expected to swell with the influx of 60 new students.

Morse had informed island residents and staff of his decision to reassign an island teacher to the mainland on Aug. 14, but changed his mind after islanders made him aware of a promise made by former interim Superintendent Jeanne Whynot-Vickers that staffing at the school would not be cut.

There was little anxiety or animosity at Monday night’s meeting, which focused on the future mission and sustainability of the school. To many, if the island school becomes extinct, so will year-round island life and culture, said Melissa Conrad, president of the Peaks Island Parent Teacher Organization.

Morse, who indicated the district is ready to fill the two teaching positions if needed, asked island residents whether they want the department to conduct a full-blown search for a new full-time principal, or fill the position on an interim basis to allow a broader revisioning of the school.

Nearly everyone’s hand in the school gym was raised when Morse asked if the community is interested in creating a new school structure that capitalizes on the unique nature of island life within a curriculum. The new learning model for Peaks Island could resemble the expeditionary learning taking place at East End Community School, King Middle School and Casco Bay High School, or center around a specific discipline.

Morse, who helped found the Maine School of Math and Science in Limestone, said the key to the future is enticing more mainland students to attend the island school.

“If you have a powerful vision for a school, people will want to send their kids to that school,” he said. 

While the district as a whole is expected to undergo a similar visioning process, Morse suggested the same process be undertaken specifically for the island school.

Meg Springer Holdridge said the district has an amazing opportunity to capitalize on the unique character of the island. Resident John Holdridge suggested a new school model that would teach traditional subjects of reading, math and science through the arts.

“That’s radical,” Morse said. “I like it.”

Resident Mike Sylvester said the school curriculum could  be enriched by island residents, whether they are artists or scientists, who could be tapped to volunteer in the classroom. And Bo Boyce suggested school activities should be offered after 3 p.m., which drew a round of applause. 

Residents, however, agreed that for the revisioning to be successful, the next school principal must be a strong leader who is committed to the island life. 

“Whoever we get in there has to be tough,” resident Jean Bergh said. “I’m telling you, we’re a tough group.”

Morse offered islanders half a dozen spots on a search panel for a new principal and said the community feedback received Monday night would be used to guide the deliberations over an interim principal while the visioning process begins to take shape.

Sylvester joked about one way of getting, at least, a long-term commitment out of the next principal. 

“Is there any way we can make him buy a house on the island,” he said. “That way he can’t sell it.” 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or