Incoming Lewiston Schools Superintendent Todd Finn, left, and outgoing Superintendent Bill Webster, right, get ready to tour schools Tuesday on Webster’s last day on the job. Submitted

LEWISTON — On the last day of school Tuesday, incoming Superintendent Todd Finn and outgoing Superintendent Bill Webster visited the city’s schools, wishing students a good summer.

Finn wore a black jacket, shirt and tie and black dress shoes.

Webster wore a Hawaiian shirt, khakis and sandals. It was, after all, his last day.

Webster, 69, has been the city’s school superintendent since Jan. 1, 2011.

He has not been an ordinary one.

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster, right, and incoming Superintendent Todd Finn play basketball with students at McMahon Elementary School on Webster’s last day before retiring on Tuesday. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

After working as an executive at Hannaford and then owning Haven’s Candies, Webster made a mid-career change and became a teacher, eventually becoming a school superintendent in Ellsworth.

Soon after moving to Lewiston, Webster got to know his new city by jogging on every street, even in the winter.

When not working on school budgets, reviewing policies, meeting with troubled students or attending School Committee meetings, Webster has pursued other activities, such as climbing Mt. Katahdin in the winter. He and his wife have also sailed his 25-foot boat to the Bahamas.

Webster has taught candy making at Lewiston Adult Education. He sang in the Androscoggin Chorale. Last winter, he wrote and sang a “no school today” song while playing a guitar, accordion, piano, ukulele and tambourine. He posted it on YouTube.

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster, right, and incoming Superintendent Todd Finn tour McMahon Elementary School on Webster’s last day before retiring on Tuesday. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

Active on social media, he has 8,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter. Many are students. “Students have fun with me and I have fun with them,” he said.

During the June 7 Lewiston graduation, wearing the somber, traditional black gown,  Webster rapped with students to Pittbull’s “Timber,” even doing the floss.

While he’s been ready for fun, he’s also had a serious side.

HOW LEWISTON STUDENTS ARE BETTER OFF

During an interview last week, Webster shared ways Lewiston schools have improved, and work that remains in a district that has much poverty, too much chronic absenteeism and too many students at risk.

He is proud that in recent years the number of learning options for students has expanded.

Lewiston now has universal pre-kindergarten programs. Public pre-K for all “is critical in a city like Lewiston where so many students don’t come to school school-ready,” Webster said. “It really is helping. To my knowledge, we’re the first district in Maine to do that.”

A number of programs that offer students better ways to have academic success have been created. There are more alternative programs to help more students who struggle in large school settings. This fall, the former Gov. James B. Longley Elementary School will become the NextSteps alternative high school. Lewiston Middle School now offers hands-on, expeditionary learning.

Other programs Webster introduced, such as “The Dingley School,” means suspended students who used to spend their days at home or on the streets are no longer kicked out of school, their learning interrupted. They attend The Dingley School in a room not far from Webster’s office, and other in-house programs in schools give suspended students extra tutoring and support to improve studies and behavior.

Since the fall of 2015 when a greater-than-expected number of new students — 270 instead of 100 —  moved into Lewiston, there have been additions to McMahon and Farwell Elementary schools. In 2014, a major renovation was completed to Lewiston Middle School, giving that crowded school more room, with updated facilities.

This fall, elementary students from Longley and Martel Elementary School will attend the new Robert V. Connors Elementary School, next to the high school. That project brought with it top-notch sports fields at the high school and public walking trails.

‘IF I KNEW THEN WHAT I KNOW NOW’

Reflecting on unresolved problems, Webster said he wishes he had identified sooner youngsters who need help that does not exist.

“If I knew now what I didn’t know 8 1/2 years ago, one or more elementary schools would have a specialized program for students who don’t qualify for special education, but don’t have the skills to function in school,” he said. “It’s called ‘socially maladjusted’ elementary students.”

The inability to behave appropriately sometimes in class, “or any interaction that’s unstructured: lunch, recess, going to the bathroom, marching down the hallway, riding the bus. All those things they really struggle (with),” he said. “If a student doesn’t qualify for special ed, our options are very limited.”

For better or worse, Lewiston schools lived through the state-mandated proficiency-based learning diploma, which meant creating new standards and controversial grades.

That dominated School Board and teacher meetings for months, only to have the state revoke PBL. Schools have since gone back to traditional grading, Webster said, adding Finn, the incoming superintendent, has expertise in teaching and learning.

“He will rightly focus on that we need to help kids develop their passion in the classroom,” Webster said, “and relate what they’re doing to the real world.”

Some of Webster’s darkest moments as superintendent have been meeting with challenging students. At times, he said, it is heartbreaking.

“When I see that student before me being unsuccessful, and I look at the parent sitting beside them, I know why that student is not being successful,” Webster said. “I don’t have the answer. But we as a country need to do a better job recognizing the increased number of dysfunctional families.”

Too often, he added, children from a dysfunctional family become students who are not successful in school and life.

“I see too much of that,” he said.

Some of his happiest moments have been watching students who have turned their lives around.

“I remember being at one of the rehearsals for graduation,” he said. “It was the first year we did the ‘Parade of Graduates.’ A student came up to me to thank me. He said if it hadn’t been for support he’d gotten at Dingley School, he would not be graduating. That was pretty neat.”

As that graduate spoke, behind him others in caps and gowns lined up to visit their old elementary school to thank teachers and inspire younger students.

Now we have a tradition that will never go away,” Webster said.

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