LEE, Maine — When Bruce Lindberg became Lee Academy’s headmaster in 2005, the school’s board of trustees gave him a grim task, he says.
Find new revenue sources, board members said, or you will be our last headmaster.
The semi-public high school’s dwindling population and revenues made its closure inevitable, Lindberg said. So he embarked upon an eight-year odyssey in search of international students. Lindberg visited a host of countries, concentrating primarily upon far eastern nations such as China, South Korea, and the Philippines and, he admits, developed serious cases of jet lag and homesickness.
Today the school enrolls 128 international students out of a total of 270, with the balance coming from the Lee area through a contract the school has with SAD 30. Its international student program revenues probably make Lee Academy the only high school in northern Maine that doesn’t automatically institute no-growth budgeting, Lindberg says.
So: If you are new headmaster Gus LeBlanc, how do you top all that?
The 61-year-old Auburn transplant isn’t sure he has to, but he has some ideas.
“I think the biggest challenge,” LeBlanc said during an interview Thursday, “is that Lee has gone from a small school in a small rural town to a school that has regional and international connections. I would say that probably the school’s operational budget has quadrupled in the last eight years because of our growth and connections.”
The school’s staff, buildings, students and educational programs have increased under Lindberg, who retired as headmaster in May but is staying on as the academy’s director of international programs.
LeBlanc said he must expand and stabilize the beachhead won by the Lindberg administration’s academy-saving work. That includes maintaining the international program’s vibrancy, updating the school’s managerial structure to reflect the growth, and improving the F grade Lee Academy received from a controversial grading system the Maine Department of Education’s instituted in May at Gov. Paul LePage’s insistence.
LeBlanc and Lindberg said the grading system is seriously flawed. In the academy’s case, it measures only the efforts of the Lee-area students the school contracts with SAD 30 to serve — excluding international students who are 47 percent of the school’s population. The students are not considered part of a public school system, Lindberg said.
The grading system also ignored socioeconomic factors, such as the Springfield-Lee area’s poverty — a common complaint against it.
“The other side of that coin, to completely dismiss the report card, is a mistake,” LeBlanc said. “If the message is that Lee Academy could improve, I would agree, but to categorize it as a failing school, I am not sure that I would agree.”
LeBlanc plans to review all aspects of the school’s academic programs, including the programs’ level of student expectations, student attendance, and disciplinary standards, he said.
His essential question, he said, will be: How can educators best increase student aspirations and faculty expectations? What programmatic changes should occur?
“There is recognition that the international program is supportive of Lee Academy,” LeBlanc said, “that is tempered by the recognition that we want to remain a town academy, with a strong commitment to Maine kids and strongly connected to Maine academies.”
Lindberg said he is pleased with his accomplishments and his successor.
“I think Gus is going to do a tremendous job. We have made great strides over the last few years,” Lindberg said Thursday during an interview conducted via Skype. “We have been able to improve our academic program. Some huge changes have occurred with our physical facilities. We have increased our revenue streams enormously to the benefit of all of our students.”
LeBlanc doesn’t promise any instant changes.
“You can walk into a new school and think that a lot needs to be done,” he said, “but you have to first see what is there and why.”
As the principal of Lewiston High School, LeBlanc got to see some of Lee Academy up close as part of the three-member Maine Principals’ Association hearing panel that recommended placing the school on two years’ probation last December for allegedly using tuition assistance to entice students to play basketball.
“In a school like this there are a lot of moving parts,” LeBlanc said. “A lot of times we will get international students who will come to this school and we don’t know until that kid gets here [that he or she] wants to be an athlete.”
The school’s athletic program wasn’t aware of precisely who received tuition assistance, LeBlanc said, and Lindberg, who solely decided assistance questions, said at the time that school officials disagreed with the MPA ruling but would accept it.
Today, the headmaster, school finance officer and its admissions director direct tuition assistance. School officials rewrote assistance guidelines to better define the criteria, LeBlanc said.
One of the academy’s biggest administrative changes is already in effect: The board of trustees prevailed upon Lindberg to continue to oversee recruiting and all aspects of the Lee Academies in the Philippines and in Daegu, South Korea — two significant sources of international students and revenue.
This, in effect, puts a headmaster in two places at the same time.
“Me being located in Asia right now makes it much easier to have conversations with people looking to partner with Lee Academy in this part of the world,” Lindberg said.
But even with Lindberg in the Far East, LeBlanc plans to compile some frequent-flier miles of his own by visiting the satellite schools at least four times a year.
“I will still need to do some of that traveling,” he said.