Originally published in The Weekly Packet, June 21, 2012
After first year, Perkinson reflects, then looks forward
“It’s clear to me there’s a goodness, a level of engagement in the school community,” said head of school Paul Perkinson after GSA’s first graduation under his leadership.
by Anne Berleant
“The nature of being a head of school is to be pulled in 360 directions,” Paul Perkinson said in an interview that began June 8 and concluded June 11, the day after graduation ceremonies at George Stevens Academy.
Perkinson is finishing up his first year as GSA’s head of school, after leaving a similar position at Tandem, a Quaker-based independent school in Virginia.
A head of school focuses “more out on the horizon,” than on the day-to-day details of running the school, Perkinson said.
His biggest challenge this past year, he said, has been getting to know the school and letting the school get to know him.
“Maine has a highly developed sense of ‘being from away,’” Perkinson said. “Most Mainers use it descriptively.”
The advantage to moving here from out of state, he continued, is that “you might have something new to bring to the community, to be revealed over time.”
One idea Perkinson is passionate about is helping to bring a performing arts center to the Peninsula.
“This is not a novel idea,” he said. “This town needs a performing arts center. I think the town knows that. I think the Peninsula knows that.”
He mentioned the Reach Performing Arts Center—built in 2001 at the same time and as part of the new Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School—as an example of the kind of community performing arts center he envisions.
So, when GSA’s strategic planning committees begin to meet this summer with a goal of creating a three-, five- and 10-year plan for the school, a performing arts center will be one part of the larger picture.
GSA’s music and theater programs should be showcased in the same way as athletes are in the gym and on the playing fields, Perkinson said, and to prepare all students for the “times in life you have to perform.”
Perkinson envisions a community center, not “super elegant,” that Blue Hill and the surrounding towns will help support from the ground up.
The idea of a performing arts center is one piece of what will be the academy’s strategic plan on school buildings and facilities, Perkinson said. The plan will address campus safety and security, two areas recommended for improvement in a 2011 report from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges as part of GSA’s successful re-accreditation process. The report specifically pointed to the school’s lack of a crisis plan for a stranger on campus with intention to harm. In response, GSA held two “practice lock-downs” this year, Perkinson said, but he doesn’t want to sacrifice accessibility, with doors “intentionally left open,” for a prison-like security.
With multiple buildings that make up the campus, “the last thing we want to do is put a fence around it,” Perkinson said. “I will do anything to avoid making the school a metaphor for ‘school as prison.’”
The school also plans to build a fence by the creek behind the school this summer and fix staircases that are “outside of code” to improve student safety, Perkinson said, adding that he would like to address areas like the “wasteland of blacktop” behind the school, that “run counter to [its] soul” in a building and facilities plan.
Building the residential program is another part of the strategic planning process, and Perkinson would like to cast a wider net.
While Perkinson said the program is in “outstanding shape,” with around 40 international students, he would like to tap into other Maine communities and out-of-state independent schools. A five-day residential program, for the student who travels from, say, Winterport, is one idea for the future.
Maine sets the tuition rate that sending towns pay per student at $9,275, which leaves a $2,000 to $2,500 gap in overall cost, Perkinson said, with the state covering “a portion” of that gap to be used toward maintaining the facility.
Being known for a strong academic program, as John Bapst High School in Bangor is known, will also attract more potential day students from the traditional “sending schools,” Perkinson said.
Educators from the sending schools are invited to join the strategic planning committees, Perkinson said, alongside GSA board members and teachers, and professional educators, retired or otherwise, from the community. The committees will meet monthly and hold a 2013 mid-winter retreat, after which a report on their progress will be publicly available.
Perkinson attended sending school board meetings at the beginning of the school year and has sent in monthly reports to the boards, although that has dwindled in the last few months.
“We will always be dependent on and collaborate with the sending schools,” Perkinson said. The communication lines could be better, “but that’s completely on me.”
Which comes back to being pulled in 360 directions.
“The second year will be easier,” Perkinson said. “And research has shown that the third year will be even more.”