LEWISTON — Dr. Sara Sims, principal of the new Connors Elementary School, likes to end her morning announcements by telling her students “I love you,” in several languages.

Two weeks into the school year, a boy from Somalia came into the office and told her, “Dr. Sims, you’re just not saying it right.”

“Teach me. Teach me. Tell me. Don’t let Dr. Sims sound silly,” she told her student. “You’re the master, I’m the student. Teach me.”

After the young student taught her the correct way to say “I love you,” Sims said it took her a couple of days to finally get it right. Once she did, the student came to the main office, gave Sims a thumbs-up signal and excitedly said, “You did it today.”

“It was this warm fuzzy feeling for this student, who was like, ‘I made a difference for you,'” Sims said. “He’s now been teaching some of the other kids some of the different languages here.”

With so many different languages spoken at Connors, which has 732 students from at least 13 countries, Sims maintains that is one of the school’s strength.

“It’s important to empower them that this isn’t a language barrier,” she said. “It’s a strength that they have. We have our strength in English, and they have their own strength in other languages.

“And they really want to learn,” Sims added. “Some of these kids are so smart. They’re just so brilliant. Some of them speak four to five languages.”

Since Connors opened Aug. 28, Sims and Superintendent Todd Finn have already seen a large transformation at the new school created by the merger of the former Longley and Martel schools.

“I look back to the first day, and it’s a different school,” Sims said.

Not that there haven’t been growing pains. Combining the cultures of both Longley and Martel into a singular Connors identity has been a challenge, especially with some of the older students.

Connors Elementary School students work with Sarah Latzke during their English Learning Languages class on Wednesday afternoon. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Parents have complained about bullying, racial slurs and disrespect — mostly in the fifth- and sixth-grade wing.

“The upper-grade levels definitely have had more challenges because they’re a little older and are also in that adolescent age when they want to spread their wings a little bit more,” Sims said. “They have had a harder time with the change and adjusting to the new rules, adjusting to the space.”

The principal at Connors has received positive feedback from parents on how her staff has responded to many of those issues in her attempt to establish a school culture.

And Sims wishes that more parents would come to her with concerns.

“They may not always be happy phone calls, but I still look at it as a positive that they are reaching out and say we want you to know,” she said.

Helping her with discipline and accountability are 52 cameras throughout the building, turning the incidents into teaching moments.

Sims has been through a similar process at an inner-city school in Alexandria, Virginia, with similar demographics, she said.

“It’s hard, but the first year is the most difficult,” Sims said. “There are end goals and dreams, and eventually, everybody gets on board. Then, all of a sudden, wow. Look what we did. This is amazing. Now we have a school culture and the students are involved.”

Finn also said he’s not surprised about the early difficulties at Connors, especially at an elementary school that is bigger than some high schools in Maine.

Kermali Hussain, center, is eager to answer a question from her second grade teacher, Ryan Shaw, at Connors Elementary School in Lewiston on Wednesday afternoon. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“We have two communities that used to have their own schools and their own identities coming together as one,” Finn said. “We have two sets of teachers who were parts of two very different cultures now coming together.

Add to that a new principal and a new superintendent. With so much change, Finn said everyone needs to learn about each other first before being able to work together to create an identity.

“I’m confident in what they’re going to be,” Finn said. “I’m confident along the way they’re going to have their struggles and their growing pains. I’m confident that, as a superintendent, I know when I have to step in and when I have to let them hit their own bumpers.”

As the school year enters mid-October, approaching test scores will reveal more clues on how well Connors is performing and how well the partnership of the former Longley and Martel schools has altered the dynamics and formed a new identity.

“We’re working very closely without hovering,” Finn said. “They have to find their own self and their own North Star and their own identity. We can guide them and help them when we can. I respect the process because I’ve been through the process before. They are going to be fine.”

“By the end of the year, my goal is to bring everyone together, kind of toward what we are officially Connors kids, that these are the Dragons (the school nickname,)” Sims said. “It takes time, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”

Students prepare to get on a bus at Connors Elementary School in Lewiston Wednesday afternoon. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo


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