BELFAST, Maine — A local teacher and administrator has been selected as Maine American Legion educator of year.
RSU 20 teacher Gary Skigen was presented the award during the Legion’s state convention in Bangor last month. Skigen is the head teacher and administrator of the school district’s Belfast Community Outreach Program for Education alternative high school. BCOPE provides alternative instruction to grade 10-12 students from across the nine-town district. BCOPE was established 20 years ago as a way to lower the district’s dropout rate. The alternative school has averaged a 93 percent graduation rate over the years.
“It was quite a surprise. Nobody told me anything about even being nominated so it came as kind of a shock. I was extremely honored and I accepted the award on behalf of all my students and especially those who are now serving overseas,” Skigen said.
Skigen noted that quite a few BCOPE graduates have served in the military over the years. One of the program’s first, David Caswell of Belfast, is now a master sergeant in the U.S. Army and addressed this year’s class during honors night. Caswell told how BCOPE provided him with the opportunity to finish high school at a time in his life when he was struggling academically, Skigen said. BCOPE serves students at risk of dropping out and those who have difficulty adapting to high school. Besides administering the program, Skigen is one of school’s three teachers.
“Gary’s got a hard task here being the disciplinarian, handling all the paperwork, being friend to the kids as well as teacher,” said Donald Dinsmore, former commander of Belfast’s Frank D. Hazeltine Legion Post No. 43.
“I’ve often told Gary ‘You’ve got the patience of a saint with these kids.’ I’d have put a few of them out the door more than once. But he’s not like that. He’s very dedicated to these kids. A lot of these kids are potential dropouts any day of the week, for various reasons. He manages to keep them on track.”
Dinsmore, who has worked in the school’s kitchen for 15 years, said BCOPE has proved itself over the years. He said that like many in the community, he was skeptical of the program in the beginning, but learned quickly that it provides a needed service to the district’s at-risk youth. Dinsmore noted that he dropped out of high school to join the Army for three years, but went back to complete school upon being discharged.
“I wish we had had something like it when I was a kid; I probably would not have dropped out,” Dinsmore said. “When it first started out I didn’t think much of the program but after being involved I realized it’s a very good program. I’m behind it 100 percent.”
Skigen said he enjoyed meeting with the veterans at the Legion’s state convention. He described the veterans as “extremely generous,” with a heart-felt appreciation about what BCOPE does for at-risk youth of Waldo County.
Besides describing the school’s program, Skigen also addressed the veterans on personal level. “I told them about my dad having two destroyers shot out from under him in the South Pacific during World War II and how my late mother-in-law, Marge Butler, was a longtime member of the Ladies Auxiliary at the Belfast Legion,” Skigen said.