Christiana Otuwa, right, candidate for Lewiston schools superintendent, speaks to students at The Green Ladle culinary arts restaurant Wednesday in Lewiston. Seated, from left, are Lewiston High School Principal Jake Langlois, Lewiston Regional Technical Center Director Rob Callahan and student Koos Mohamed. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)

LEWISTON — Before going to college, Todd Finn jumped out of planes into war zones while in the Army.

Before she went to college, Tracy Racicot was a teenage mother.

At age 16, Christina Otuwa immigrated to the United States from Nigeria. “I was married,” she said.

All three went on to achieve careers in education, and all three are finalists for Lewiston Public Schools superintendent.

One will be hired to replace retiring Superintendent Bill Webster.

The three met with people in the community earlier this week and were interviewed by a panel of Lewiston High School students: Amber Veilleux, Mackenzie Richard, Jordy Dushime, Hunter Landry, Koos Mohamed, Deko Hassan, Carolyn Adams, Rizzajem Rebooquio and Fazla Harim.

On Monday, students met with Finn, who said he grew up with nine siblings in Massachusetts and has a brother who is principal at Gray-New Gloucester High School. Finn said he’s excited about the prospect of working in Lewiston.

Finn said he sees much potential in Lewiston schools, noting a recent 5 percent jump in the high school’s graduation rates. That kind of increase “doesn’t happen by accident,” he said.

Finn said he has helped struggling schools, including one in Georgia, turn into schools of excellence. “Test scores will come if you excite kids.”

In Lewiston, about 40 percent of the student population represent minorities, making schools among the most diverse in Maine.

Student Koos Mohamed asked Finn how he would improve race relations at Lewiston High School.

Finn said part of the answer is promoting Lewiston as a kind of United Nations. He’d like to see the flags of all the nations represented by the student body in the high school parking lot, so when a student comes to the school, “you’re in the United Nations. You are going to learn how to embrace diversity and culture.” Lewiston High School “is where the world comes together.”

On Tuesday, students met with Racicot from New York, who said she also was impressed by the student diversity in Lewiston.

“Your strength is your diversity,” Racicot said. Going to school with many students from other cultures “makes you a much stronger and educated person.” Lewiston has economic challenges, but the district’s weaknesses “are overstated,” she said.

A former art teacher now a school administrator, Racicot said her son struggled in school and found success through career and technical education.

Often teachers are overloaded with too many initiatives, Racicot said, adding as superintendent she’d have a minimum number of initiatives and be clear about goals.

The idea of proficiency-based learning — to have learning be individualized to meet students needs — has validity, but the way it has been implemented is like “building the plane as we fly. That is just a terrible idea,” Raciot said. Districts need to learn how (proficiency-based learning) has impacted students and “slow it down, analyze and move forward.”

On Wednesday, a snow day for students, Christiana Otuwa toured several schools and met with faculty before joining the student panel later in the day.

During her tour of the high school, Otuwa said she’s been in education for 26 years and has served as assistant superintendent or deputy superintendent in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Rochester, New York, and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“I’ve seen all parts of education,” Otuwa said. “I’m really excited to be here today.”

English is Otuwa’s second language. Her first is Ebo, the language of Nigeria. Lewiston’s high numbers of English Language Learner students is why she applied for the job, she said.

A former English Language Learner, Otuwa said she’s capable of helping ELL students who need social and emotional learning in the curriculum. “Also we need to pay attention to what is happening in the classroom, and making sure students are getting what they need.”

Connecting with students is critical, she said. “I’ve been in high positions for a long time.” Often the best information comes from students. “They will tell you what is happening,” she said. “Use that information to guide you in decision making.”

Tracy Racicot, candidate for superintendent of Lewiston public schools, answers a question from high school senior Hunter Landry during a focus group at the school Tuesday. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)

Todd Finn, right, candidate for superintendent of Lewiston public schools, speaks with a focus group of Lewiston High School students at the school Monday. From left are Koos Mohamed, Principal Jake Langlais, Assistant Principal Jay Dufour and Finn. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)

Tracy Racicot, left, candidate for superintendent of Lewiston public schools, speaks with high school senior Koos Mohamed following a roundtable discussion with students at the school Tuesday. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)

Todd Finn, candidate for superintendent of Lewiston public schools, speaks with a focus group of Lewiston High School students at the school Monday. From left are Fazla Karim, Carolyn Adams, Rizzajem Reboquio, Deko Hassan, Mackenzie Richard, Amber Veilleux, Koos Mohamed, Finn and Principal Jake Langlais. (Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover)

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