BANGOR, Maine — As Bangor’s new school superintendent sees it, preparing Bangor High School graduates to compete in an increasingly global economy is a little like learning how to get over seasickness.
Betsy Webb, whose love of boating goes back to childhood, used to be afflicted with horrible seasickness while boating with her parents, brother and sister — until she unlocked a secret.
“I moved to the front of the boat on the very top deck, and instead of looking down, I looked up and focused on the horizon.
“With the wind in my face, I kept my eyes on where we were headed,” Webb said last week during a back-to-school address for Bangor School Department faculty, staff and officials. Her remarks set the tone for the start of her tenure at the helm of Bangor public schools. She was chosen earlier this year for the superintendent’s post after serving as assistant superintendent since 2005.
“As I have stepped into the role of superintendent, I have been reminded of the importance of having and maintaining a vision,” she said. It would be easy to get bogged down with daily minutiae of educational administration, such as sometimes-conflicting state and federal mandates and the reporting of dropout rates that don’t acknowledge students who have taken alternate paths toward graduation.
“These items could make anyone nauseous,” she quipped, before adding that such issues “cannot define my position or who I strive to be as an educator. Rather, I must keep my eyes focused on the vision.”
“Bangor is an extremely special place and it is so because of the mission [of] academic excellence for all. … With system-level thinking, coordination and alignment of our efforts, improved communication systems and teamwork, I know we will achieve even higher levels of success,” she said.
To that end, Webb wants to make sure everyone in the sys-tem continues to row in the same direction.
Webb grew up in Hampden in a family of educators. Her mom, Christine MacGregor, retired in 2000 as principal of Bangor’s Fourteenth Street School. Her father, Bruce MacGregor, is a professor at Husson College, where he also coaches golf. Many of her aunts, uncles and other relatives teach. In addition, one of her two sons is considering teaching in the future.
When she was a child, her home often was filled with students, including Husson students who lived too far away to go home for holidays and spent them with the MacGregors.
Though her brother, sister and husband, Calvin Webb, have chosen different career paths, Webb said all she has ever wanted to be was an educator.
Today’s high school graduates face an economy and a society in which they can expect to have as many as 10 to 14 different jobs during their life-times, Webb said, citing data from the U.S. Department of Labor. That concerns her.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, so all my life I have been preparing and continually stretching, going after the next level of knowledge about this career,” she said. “When I think about people who are in high school today having 10 to 14 jobs, it’s hard to think of how we can best prepare them.
“What I keep coming back to is that we have to provide them a top-quality education, and in my mind, we have to do a better job of teaching them to be creative problem-solvers and how to apply their knowledge to real-world issues,” Webb said.
Simply put, it’s all about making education meaningful.
For instance, Webb suggested last year that a geographic information systems class at the high school help map out school bus routes and stops in Bangor.
“Our community was trying to evaluate our student transportation, and the bus company was struggling with software to analyze routes,” she said. “So I went to the director of student services and said, ‘What about our students at the high school? They have these skills and they’re mapping all kinds of things for the city. Why not look at having them map the routes?’”
The project, which led to the consolidation of several stops, will help the school system save fuel and time. Webb said she’s excited about the idea that this year’s class will take the research project to the next level of analysis.
“And you know what? They’ll remember that more than they will ever remember number 37 in the back of the chapter [in a textbook],” she said.
“In order to have engaged learners, you have to have empowered them,” she said. “You have to say, ‘Here are the given pieces of knowledge that you have to have. What are your questions? What is the next thing that you need to know about this?’ And so we have to give them more technological skills, greater communication skills.
“There’s all kinds of research about how the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ will be determined by the ability to manage information, solve problems and communicate findings.”
Webb’s aim is to make sure Bangor schools give rise to graduates armed with the skills they need to become “haves.”
School committee chair-woman Phyllis Guerette is looking forward to the next chapter in Webb’s career here.
“I think one of the things that I’m most excited about are her leadership qualities, communication skills and the way she listens to people,” Guerette said.
“When she talks to you, you feel you have her undivided attention, and I think that’s important because people need to feel they are being listened to,” she said, adding: “One of the things that I find reassuring is that she values our core value — academic excellence for all students.”
Webb, whose education career spans 25 years, was one of three qualified candidates for the post, which opened up when former Superintendent Robert Ervin announced his plan to retire as of June 30. Webb’s starting pay was set at $125,000 a year, which Ervin said was commensurate with a Maine school system of Bangor’s size. The school system’s enrollment has reached nearly 4,000 students, and its staff totals about 600, nearly 360 of them teachers.
Before Ervin recruited her for the Bangor school system’s No. 2 post in 2005, Webb served as a principal, technology coordinator and superintendent in Brewer.
Lester Young, business manager for Brewer schools, called Webb an “outstanding educational leader. … Betsy leads by example and always gives her best effort toward everything that she does. She truly cares about education and is committed to doing what is best for children.”
Webb also held a range of teaching and administrative positions in SAD 68, which serves Dover-Foxcroft, Charleston, Monson and Sebec; at Thornton Academy in Saco; and in the Wells-Ogunquit school district.
Thornton Academy Headmaster Carl Stasio Jr., a former principal at Wells, offered Webb one of her first teaching jobs. He described the rookie teacher as “very bright, a wonderful candidate. I’m honored that she considers me a mentor,” he said Friday. About four years later, when he became headmaster at the Saco school, he recruited Webb for a position as a director in the then-emerging field of technology.
“Betsy was at the forefront of all of that. She’s just a visionary who understood early that technology was going to be a tremendous tool in education. … She’s probably one of the smartest people I know. I think that Bangor’s fortunate to have her. She puts people at ease and people like to talk to her.”