BAR HARBOR — Classes start next Thursday, Aug. 30, for students in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS).
Superintendent Marc Gousse said he is looking forward to having the schools open again.
“Summer is usually my least favorite time because, when the schools are empty, I miss seeing the kids and I miss seeing the staff,” he said.
In an interview with the Islander on Monday, Gousse talked about some of the issues that are front and center as the school year begins.
Safety and security
“Of course there will be a continued focus on school safety,” Gousse said.
A new safety initiative will be the implementation of a software system from a company called Navigate Prepared that, according to its website, “is designed to help [school] staff respond safely and effectively during drills and emergencies.”
“The goal,” Gousse said, “is to move away from a top-down, centralized system where, in an emergency, school administrators have to be the be-all and end-all.
“What happens if the principal is out of the building or unavailable?” he continued. “Staff need[s] to be prepared to make some decisions in some instances, and this system will help us with that.”
Gousse said the Navigate Prepared package includes training videos that teach school staff how to respond in different types of emergency situations.
The company’s website says various components of its system “address different school safety needs including step-by-step emergency response procedures and accounting for students, by name, during drills and emergencies.”
Gousse said Navigate Prepared has sold its system to school districts in many parts of the country, but the MDIRSS will be the first in Maine to use it.
“We were able to negotiate what I consider a nominal fee because they really want to be in the state of Maine.”
He said the total cost for the school district is $3,000 for the first year, and then $1,000 for each of the following two years.
“We will review it annually,” he said. “We’re going to evaluate it to make sure it works for us.”
In June, the Maine Legislature voted to eliminate the state requirement that high school students demonstrate proficiency in eight subject areas before they can graduate.
Now, each of the state’s school districts can decide whether to make graduation contingent on meeting proficiency standards.
The law that put Maine schools on the path toward proficiency-based education passed in 2012. Gousse said he doesn’t see the MDIRSS turning back now.
“There have been tremendous amounts of resources – money, time, professional development and people rolling up their sleeves and doing this work,” he said. “If it was good for kids then, I would struggle to think why we would now say, ‘We didn’t really mean that.’
“I think this school system has navigated it very well and thoughtfully,” Gousse said. “We’re not going pell-mell down this road, but I don’t suspect you’ll see us wavering from our commitment and the path we’re on. Because, at least here locally, when we look at the data, the results, we’re seeing positive things.
“I believe in what we’re doing,” he continued, “and I think we would be remiss to abandon that good work.”
Over the past two years, a few parents have complained that a couple of teachers had expressed political views in class or had assigned projects with political themes that the parents considered inappropriate for young children.
Gousse said Monday that, while the school system does not have a specific policy governing the airing of political views, it is made clear to staff that “schools need to be vehicles of neutrality.”
“It is not appropriate for an adult to advocate for one’s personal viewpoints or political or religious persuasions,” he said. “The expectation for teachers, administrators and staff is to make sure we foster and facilitate a positive climate, one that will nurture the expression of ideas but not push in one way or another.”
He acknowledged that doing so sometimes means treading a fine line.
“Partisan politics is a place where we have to be really careful,” he said. “I know that in this politically charged environment and this age of technology and social media, it’s important that I continue with the [school] administrators to say we want to encourage [different] voice[s], but we have to be careful in terms of how we do it.”
Gousse said he doesn’t know whether the school system needs to have an official policy on political speech.
“But given what I’ve heard from the parents who have approached me, we need to have some conversations with all of our staff about it, at a minimum.”
He said he intended to make it a point of emphasis during the orientation session for new teachers and staff this week and to remind veteran employees, as well.