RSU 20 high schools lose longtime principals

Posted June 18, 2010, at 10:45 p.m.

SEARSPORT, Maine — The school bell that marked the beginning of summer vacation at Searsport District High School and Belfast Area High School also delineated the end of an era for Regional School Unit 20.

The high schools will both be losing their principals, each of whom has left a unique stamp on area education.

Gregg Palmer, the principal of Searsport District High School since 2002, will head south to become principal at Falmouth High School. Butch Arthers, who also has spent the last nine years serving as principal of Belfast Area High School, is retiring from public education after 33 years. The longtime football coach and administrator will be going north to Lee Academy, where he will take a position as residential director in charge of a student dormitory.

“I am most proud of how much spirit kids have about this school now,” Palmer said recently.

That wasn’t always the case at Searsport, which had lost its accreditation in the late 1990s because of a crumbling school facility. Now, there’s a new school building, rising test scores that have caused it to be studied regionally as an improvement model — and a new state of mind, Palmer said.

“I think it used to be part of the culture to not express school spirit,” he said. “I could go out in the hallway now and start a pep rally. I think there was a belief that the school was not as good as other schools. I think kids don’t believe that anymore.”

In his time at the high school, Palmer instituted a standards-based educational program and an intervention system to help all students thrive.

Searsport students have made great academic progress, he pointed out, with just 21 percent of juniors meeting or exceeding the Maine Learning Results standards for math and reading in the 2006-07 school year, but 41 percent making it two years later. Still, Palmer said there will be ongoing challenges and that the school can’t rest on its laurels.

“I think that every school has to pretend they are desperate to find solutions to help all kids achieve,” he said. “It’s a starvation psychology. You can’t get complacent.”

He said that while on the surface, Searsport District High School and Falmouth High School are very different, they have some things in common.

“When you erase the money difference, the challenges are similar,” Palmer said. “What Falmouth and Searsport have in common is the spirit of the school and the staff.”

He hadn’t intended to look for another position at the beginning of the year, but “family considerations” got the ball rolling, he said.

Brian Campbell of Central Bucks High School South in Warrington, Pa., was confirmed last week to replace Palmer as principal.

“I hope that [he] will tap into all the experience and really listen to the story of the school,” Palmer said. “It’s a great story.”

In Belfast, Arthers said he is looking forward to experiencing life in a private school setting at Lee Academy.

“They worry less about what the state requirements are, and more about good education. I think that’s important,” he said in his office. “We’re always feeling defensive about what we’re doing because some organization says we should do this, this and that.”

All the “outside forces” hold educators back from teaching, he said.

After 33 years in Maine public education, he should know. Arthers has been at Belfast Area High School for 23 years, working first as the student activities director, and then as the head football coach, a position he held for 17 years.

It’s unusual for a principal to also serve as head varsity football coach, but Arthers did it with style, guiding Belfast to three Class B state championships and six Eastern Maine titles in 16 years, and had a 111-58 record.

“I’m very proud of the football,” he said. “We just have so many memories. … The rallying of the community around all that was tremendous.”

When he and his wife, physical education and health teacher Angela Arthers, pack up for Lee Academy, they’re doing it mainly to be closer to family in the area.

“We’ll be pulling up roots. It’ll be hard to do,” he said. “People tell me change is good. I’m hoping that it will be.”

He said that he hopes the next principal will be a collaborative leader who will let teachers do what they do best — teach.

A recent report from the RSU 20 assistant superintendent said the search for the new principal continues, with 11 applications submitted by June 10.

According to Arthers, the school and the next principal will continue to grapple with the “major challenge” of making the recent consolidation into RSU 20 work.

“When we were talking about consolidation in the communities, I vividly remember that schools would be able to keep their individual integrity,” he said. “I see a huge movement at the board member level to meld them.”

Arthers said that the two high schools could learn from each other, and added that Belfast would also like to trim its rate of kids repeating classes, just as Searsport has done.

But he’ll miss his colleagues.

“In the school, we certainly have been blessed with a very dedicated and invested group of teachers,” he said. “They’ve allowed us to do some things that I think will be really beneficial for the kids.”

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