2016-08-25 / Front Page

OOB school officials ready for new year

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

OLD ORCHARD BEACH – Entering its third year as a single-municipality regional school unit, RSU 23 is finally settling in to life as a smaller district. With approximately 800 students, new superintendent John Suttie said the school district has undergone administrative and instructional downsizing in the past year that is “appropriate.” Among the consolidation of administrative positions, Suttie is now both the superintendent of the district and principal of Old Orchard Beach High School.

“It’s very doable and really appropriate,” Suttie said. “Obviously, I have to be careful, cognizant of being aware of situations where I might have to step away as principal and let (Assistant Principal Eric Hanson) handle things.”

Suttie said with the district fully transitioned into a smaller district after Saco and Dayton withdrew from the RSU two years ago, staff can now begin to focus more on the future of public education in Old Orchard Beach.

“We found a great deal of savings in the school budget,” Suttie said. “Now, we’re getting ourselves to the appropriate size as a district, then developing a strategic plan and working to improve student achievement using data to inform best instructional methods.”

Suttie, who has been principal at the high school since 2014, before also taking the helm as superintendent last month, said staff have been instrumental in keeping the focus on children as the town adjusted to being the sole member of the school unit.

“It’s been a process, been our third year since the breaking away from the RSU and we’re constantly looking at structure and personnel and doing things differently,” Suttie said. “We want to give taxpayers the best education possible while maximizing every dollar, so it’s a balancing act. We don’t ever want to impact students with any sort of budgetary decisions, so we’ve been very careful with that.”

“We’ve got to continually get better and look at different ways of delivering instruction and curriculum to maximize each individual learning style. You can’t just teach 70 percent of kids and not the other 30 percent.”

Suttie said the greatest indicator of high student achievement is having a great teacher in every classroom, but the second indicator is having great educational leadership.

“And the second directly affects the first,” he added.

Suttie said all teachers in all schools have to work on diversifying their instructional methods to spur the most learning out of all students. This year, student engagement will be an important aspect of teachers’ professional development, he said.

“We got to teach every kid that gets off the bus, meet them where they are and get them where they need to be,” Suttie said. “All kids have different avenues in which to demonstrate learning and those aren’t paper and pencil learning, each kid has different ways.

“In the old way, we delivered content and kids needed to access it in the way it was delivered … It’s not just about answers anymore, it’s about the process of learning. So teachers now have to constantly be able to change their practices in order to make sure kids are getting that essential knowledge, rather than just regurgitating answers back, because that’s easy now.”

Suttie said with access to the internet, students can find the answer to just about anything, so now teachers have to look beyond the answers themselves and make sure students are actually learning content and not just delivering answers.

Suttie said the educational field is becoming more like the medical field – able to adapt faster to keep up with technology and changing times.

“The medical field has been doing it forever because science and technology are constantly changing how doctors perform surgery or diagnose bodies,” he said. “They’re constantly in the process of realigning and adjusting how they do it. The educational system has to approach it in the same manner. Teachers have to constantly relearn their practice.

“In education, there’s a variable that you’re never going to be able to control – the student. You think you have everything planned out, and then you need to change, to meet the student where they’re at.”

Suttie said this year, the first change parents and students should notice will be later school day start times for middle and high school students. The district decided to align its school days with those of Saco, Biddeford and numerous other surrounding communities that made the switch this year.

“We went with what science is telling us about sleep cycles and adolescent brains and optimal sleep and optimal learning times. It’s clear that teenagers need more sleep. There’s a lot of science out there and we went with the science.”

Suttie said the district’s website was changed to make it more user friendly, and the district will ramp up its use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as direct emails, to keep the community informed.

“It’s really important to me as a school educational leader in the district, that parents have all the information they need by whatever medium they choose to access school information,” he said.

That communication will be important over the next year, he added, because the district will begin discussions in October with the town council and the community about options for future school construction. Suttie said enrollment in Old Orchard Beach schools has been fairly steady over the years, but the condition of school facilities will require some discussion and action.

“We’ll work in conjunction with the town council and community to work this out,” Suttie said. “We’ll put information out there and let the community decide … Last year we obtained all the background information from the architects and studies and now it’s time to get together with the council and community and look at what we have in front of us and make some decisions. It’s very much a community discussion.”

Suttie said he has no preconceptions of how the community will want to address its aging school facilities.

“My role is to help facilitate by getting information out there. I don’t think it’s my role to do anything but put the information out there and answer the questions that are asked.”

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