LEWISTON, Maine — Gus LeBlanc, who has been Lewiston High School principal since 2006, is leaving to become headmaster at Lee Academy in September.
There’s a big difference between the two high schools.
Lewiston High is a public school with nearly 1,300 students, among the largest high school in Maine.
Lee Academy is a private school with 270 students in Lee, Maine, about 60 miles north of Bangor. It serves as a public school to area towns, and has 128 boarding students from countries such as China, South Korea and the Philippines. LeBlanc will also serve as chairman of the board of two English speaking schools in South Korea and the Philippines run by Lee Academy.
“I was asked how did I feel about dealing with kids from foreign countries. I said I do it every day,” LeBlanc said. About 20 percent of the school’s population are Somali.
He said he’ll miss Lewiston, the community, the students and faculty, but couldn’t turn down the adventure. “It’s an opportunity to learn and grow,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc, 61, came to Lewiston High School after serving as principal at Montello Elementary, assistant principal at Oak Hill High School in Wales, and principal at Leavitt Area High School in Turner.
He grew up in Old Town in a Franco-American family. He graduated from the University of Maine in Orono and has been an educator for 38 years, the last 15 in Lewiston.
LeBlanc said he’s worked to raise expectations, and students have met them. He’s coached students to always do more than asked.
The result is a higher high school graduation rate. The percentage of students who graduate in four years went from 58 percent six years ago to 73 percent in 2012, he said.
During an interview Tuesday, LeBlanc recalled being new on the job and meeting with a student to show him expectations needed to come up.
In August 2006, a high school senior walked into LeBlanc’s office asking that he be eligible to play sports. The student had not passed most of his classes during the past three years.
“He had six credits. Six credits!” LeBlanc said. “He needed 24 credits to graduate! I’m sitting there thinking, ‘How could this happen?’” The school was at fault “for letting this happen. It was a wake-up call.”
That led LeBlanc to propose a new eligibility policy. Instead of passing four classes to play, athletes had to pass six classes and be on track to graduate.
LeBlanc took flack from parents, but the policy passed.
Today, more student athletes are eligible to play than under the old policy, and more are graduating.
Also in 2006, the high school offered pre-algebra. “It’s easier than Algebra I, but 70 percent of kids in pre-algebra were failing,” LeBlanc said.
“We eliminated pre-algebra and made all the kids take Algebra I. It’s a harder course. We gave them more support. Now failure rate varies between 25 to 28 percent, which is similar to the national average.”
Other changes made to support students include giving them more class time when needed. That could mean a student has Algebra I, Algebra II or geometry every day all year, or every other day all year, depending on the need.
It could mean a study lab with help from a teacher instead of sitting in a study hall. It could mean an after-school class to make up credit lost when students failed a class. It could also mean an extensive summer school program, or Lewiston Academy, an alternative program for students who don’t fit in the typical school setting.
Some of the darkest moments for LeBlanc came in June 2006, when three Air Force Junior ROTC students died in a plane crash. LeBlanc knocked on the doors of three sets of parents and told them what happened.
“That is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he said.
When asked what advice he can offer to his successor, LeBlanc said to maintain high expectations for students.
“When we reach them, they’re better prepared,” he said. “They know they can do it. It’s a gift that we give our kids for the rest of their lives.”