READFIELD — For the first time in a decade, Regional School Unit 38 has a new superintendent.

For Donna Wolfrom, it’s her first time in a school district’s top job.

Wolfrom, 61, comes to RSU 38 after four years as assistant superintendent of Bangor School Department, the state’s fourth-largest school district.

Before that, she was assistant superintendent of Hiram-based RSU 55, where she spent 20 years as an elementary school teacher and administrator. The Sacopee Valley school district’s enrollment is slightly smaller than RSU 38’s student count of 1,236.

Wolfrom officially succeeded Rich Abramson on July 1.

She took a break from meeting with her administrative team and setting up her office recently to answer questions about her guiding principles, raising achievement in RSU 38 and coming reforms.


What are the differences between running a big school district like Bangor’s and a smaller district like this one?

I think, really, all the districts face the same challenges, and that mostly is how to do as much as you can for the students with the limited funding that we have. There will be some differences, but a lot of things that we face are the same, just on a larger scale or a smaller scale.

Do you have an overarching educational philosophy? What guides you in your work?

One of the things that I really have let drive me throughout all of my education career is thinking about: Would it be good enough for my kids? I have three children, and I’m always thinking through the lens of a parent. Is it good enough for my child? And if it’s not good enough for my child, then we have no business trying to provide it for anybody else’s child.

Can you give some examples?

With looking at staff and when hiring teachers and when going into classrooms, just thinking about, “Would I want my child to be in this class?” Most of the time it’s, “This is a wonderful experience. This is a wonderful classroom. I would feel so happy if my child were able to be in this classroom.” …

If the answer’s “no,” then I really need to do something about that. With staff, the first step is always what do I need to do to provide support for that staff member, so that they can be the best?

(Also,) thinking about activities that the school provides, extracurricular activities and those types of things that are so important. Learning research tells us that the more active a student is in those after-school activities and extracurricular activities, it really does positively affect their education. In times of tight budget cuts, I know that some districts have talked about cutting the athletic program. And I think, “Would I want that for my child?” And I really have to think about it through that lens.

When you visited in the spring, what did you see here and what impressions did it make on you?

I saw a lot of wonderful things going on in classrooms. I saw students who were really engaged in what they were doing, and very excited about what they were doing, so that was great to see. (If) you go into a school and see students sleeping at their desks or not really engaged in what’s going on in the classroom, it really makes you wonder. I saw engaged students. I saw teachers who were using great instructional strategies, so it was very exciting to see what was going on here.

The middle school is an area of concern for a lot of people in this district because that’s where students start to fall behind their peers around the state.

What are your thoughts on middle schools and how to help students get through those difficult years successfully?

My plan is to really put (the 2011 strategic plan) back on the radar screen and do a lot of work on, “What does this mean for our district, and what does it mean for each individual school?”

So as part of that work, we’ll be looking at each individual school, and how can we use this to guide all of the work that we’re doing? I’ve done a lot of reading from (organizational management expert) Peter Senge and how he talks about all the arrows going in the same direction — making sure we have our plan, we have our goals, and then focusing all of our work toward that goal. So that’s what we’re going to really start working on, and that will have an impact on not just the middle school but all of the schools.

At our administrative retreat the other day, we worked on having teachers set instructional goals and how that would impact the learning. There would be a district goal, a school goal and then an individual goal for their professional growth. … Everything that goes on at the individual schools is based on what the district goals are, and we’ll all be heading in the same direction. I think looking at it as a system rather than, “This school does this, this school does this, this school does this,” will help us all move toward the goals of the strategic plan.

Are there any reforms or innovations on the education horizon that you find particularly exciting or promising?

Oh, it’s all exciting. It’s all changing. I think the Common Core (national standards initiative) is going to have a huge impact. We have a lot of work planned, working with Common Core and making sure that the teachers are all familiar with the standards and aligning our curriculum with the Common Core. I think having those clear standards that everyone’s working toward will really have a positive impact on our instruction. So we’re going to be doing a lot with professional development with that. …

There’s a lot of talk about standards-based education in Maine. We have started attending, through the Western Maine Collaborative, some professional development on understanding the standards-based movement. I can’t say that we’re going to dive in full-force, but we’re looking at it. We’ll do some studying on that and how that applies or doesn’t apply to RSU 38. …

I’d like to hear more about the teacher evaluation program in Bangor. That’s another area that school districts are going to have to start working on now, with new legislation.

There are evaluation policies and procedures in place. Many districts at this point are looking at, how do we improve our teacher evaluation system, how do we make it most effective? But then also hearing that there are changes being made in the state with the new laws. There is a committee right now working on effective teaching with new standards. …

So (we’re) not sure which way the state’s going at this point and really being mindful of what’s going on in Augusta and looking to that committee for some guidance. So as Bangor did and as this district is doing, (we’re) spending this time doing some research. And really looking into the different models of instructional strategies, the teaching models, identifying what the purpose of the teacher evaluation system should be for that district — which RSU 38 has been working on, and has a draft statement on what the purpose of their teacher evaluation system will be.

Rich Abramson was superintendent for 10 years, a lot longer than the average tenure. What’s it going to be like stepping into the role here?

He was wonderful. When I came to visit, he would introduce me to a lot of groups and was very welcoming and supportive as well. That’s very important. It was comforting to people: “This will be fine; we’ll make a great transition.” His work in paving the path for me has been so important, and I so appreciate that.

And people have just been very welcoming. They’re very positive — recognizing the wonderful work that he did, but he’s ready to move on and do other things with his life, and honoring that, but being very open to me coming, as well.