Regional School Unit 9 Superintendent Chris Elkington said public education is essential to the success of American democracy. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — To say that the Mt. Blue School District has been in transition would be an understatement.

In the past eight months, Regional School Unit 9 has seen three superintendents and expired teacher and staff contracts, on top of a once-a-century global pandemic.

As things settle for the summer in preparation for a full return to school in the fall, the district welcomes its new leader, Chris Elkington, who has worked in education since the early 1980s, starting as a substitute in Massachusetts.

He came to Maine in 1987 and spent nearly the next 10 years teaching in elementary, middle and high schools, alongside coaching varsity basketball. Since 1995, Elkington has worked in school administration, starting as a principal in Gray and eventually becoming superintendent for School Union 76 in Deer Isle, Stonington, Brooklin, Sedgwick and Isle Au Haut.

I started to take positions to help school districts clean up a school,” Elkington said. 

He said he was interested in taking a position at RSU 9 because the district has strong academics, arts programming, sports programming and vocational programming.

Mt. Blue district is a district that seemed to have pride in itself and people work together,” Elkington said.

More so, he believes the district “has tried their best to look at the whole child,” valuing and bringing together the academic, vocational and social-emotional aspects of education.

I think and know that not all districts do that,” Elkington said.

He views the Foster Career and Technical Education Center as “the next frontier in education that we really need to be looking at” and the symbiotic relationship between Foster Tech and Mt. Blue High School as “advantageous.”

Despite the many positives Elkington listed, he also acknowledged that the district “had gone through some difficulties the last couple of years” that he will need to work through.

I had been used to going into places that have been in difficulty … the schools that I’ve been in and the districts now that I’ve been in, I felt have been much improved after I’ve been able to work with people,” Elkington said. “Any place I’ve been involved with, any learning organization, educational institution, school district, was better after I had been there for a while than when I started.”

Pondering some of the issues that impact RSU 9, Elkington acknowledged the challenges posed by the change in leadership over this past year.

“You wonder who’s in charge and who is leading,” Elkington said.

He also spoke about the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on attendance and truancy, as well as students lost to home schooling and dropping out.

I’m concerned about those kids, can we reengage with them, can we get them back in, can we help them become successful again,” Elkington said.

Looking to the fall, the superintendent wondered, “What’s going to happen when our kids are all back together … How are they going to react … How are those interactions going to be now?”

Elkington said that though no concrete plans have been set on reengaging students, he’s certain “we have to really go in and reach out to them.”

“That’s going to be time intensive, it’s going to take person to person. It could be a call. It could be a visit. It could be sending some information. We’ve got to make the case that we really want you back,” Elkington said. “What are we going to offer them to return, what are some things we can do to help them … I think that’s part of what we need to look at, especially with the next set of grant moneys we have.

“We’re going to have to be creative. We’re going to have to give kids other reasons to come to school other than just to learn,” he said.

Elkington said “giving kids hope and more options for their future” are the tools needed to address some of the issues present in the district such as housing insecurity among youth and the income gap across the various towns in Franklin County.

“The best thing we can do for our kids is to continuously give them hope as they grow,” Elkington said. “We need to get rid of the barriers to kids being able to participate in the whole school experience.”

Chris Elkington, superintendent of Regional School Unit 9 in Farmington, displays in his office a cherished portrait done by a former student. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

Though Elkington doesn’t yet have concrete long-term goals, he will begin collaborating with the board of directors to create a strategic plan for the district. They will outline “where we think the district should go and for what we think an RSU 9 student should leave us with.” 

Understanding what they want to see in a Mt. Blue graduate will impact “everything” for the next five to 10 years what updates are needed in academics, for developing social-emotional skills, for the district facilities, technology, etc.

In the coming months, Elkington said he wants to return the district to a state of “normalcy.”

I want people to feel that they’re respected,” he said. “And I want to be able to work with people to problem-solve.”

To avoid the district’s past issues, Elkington plans to reach out to teachers and staff “on a regular basis” and start a recognition program that acknowledges the successes of staff. 

He also acknowledges that fall will be a “hard transition” for teachers and staff coming back to a full return at school and plans to make “social and emotional supports (and) resources available.”

Rather than implement new goals and rules for staff, Elkington wants to look at “what we were working on before the pandemic, how are we going to transition and start to pick some of those pieces up without throwing it all at them at once.”

The superintendent is also keeping the pandemic on his mind and thinking about “what are we going to do this next time if it happens again or when it happens again” with “a plan in place for the worst-case scenario to return.” He believes the district can stay prepared by continuing to use technology and having personal protective equipment stored away. 

Elkington said a good superintendent is one who is able to solve problems and effectively communicate, whether that be “the good, the bad or the ugly.”

“You need to give people reasons to trust you because once you lose trust, you can’t get it back,” Elkington said.

And, of course, a good superintendent is one who keeps “everybody focused on kids.”

“I like helping schools and school districts become better,” he said. “And serve more students, support more staff and support their communities. When you do that, you support our communities, we support our state and we support the nation. I think public schools are the most important thing to the democracy continuing.”

Ultimately, Elkington said he feels most satisfied when he’s “made a difference.”


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