As the 2014-15 school year begins today and tomorrow for many in central Maine, we take a look at some of the people — familiar and new — who will be going back to school.


AUGUSTA — Lime green and teal soft furniture, bedding and crates occupy one corner of the daylight basement in Lauren Wheelock’s home.

Wheelock, 18, is about to embark on her freshman year at the University of Maine at Farmington, and this will decorate her dorm room.

She’s looking forward to her experience, to her studies of special education and to a year made more fabulous by the Elsie & William Viles Foundation Scholarship that gives her $17,500 in each of four years.

The amount is just shy of the $18,187 estimate the school publishes on its website as the cost of “tuition, fees, room and board” for 2014-2015.

“Lauren is an exceptional young woman and she wrote us a wonderful letter of thanks,” said Dan Wathen, former Maine chief justice and chairman of the foundation. Wathen was a personal friend of the Viles as well.

Wathen notified Wheelock of the award, telling her in his letter, “We know that Elsie and Bill would be pleased to think that by assisting you, they are contributing indirectly to the future educational needs of those who may be your future students.”

Now instead of working during the school year to help offset the cost of college for her and her parents, Wheelock said she looks forward to joining clubs or maybe doing sports. She played field hockey at Cony High School in Augusta.

“I’m just so thankful to be the first recipient of this scholarship at Cony,” Wheelock said on Monday. “I’m going to work my hardest to make the Elsie and William Viles Foundation proud of me.”

A number of people applied for the scholarship, and Wheelock was one of five candidates interviewed. She said the committee asked about plans for the future and why she thought she should get it.

When her name was called on Class Day — where a number of scholarships and awards are presented —for the Viles foundation scholarship, “I couldn’t believe it,” she said.

She didn’t learn the size of the award until she opened the envelope at home.

“They’re paying for everything,” she cried.

Wheelock has this week off from work so she can pack.

For the past two years she’s worked at Damon’s, the Western Avenue restaurant owned by her dad, Douglas Wheelock. Her mother, Michelle Wheelock, is a fifth grade teacher at Hall-Dale Elementary School and a graduate of UMF as well.

“I always knew I wanted to go to Farmington,” Lauren Wheelock said. “When I went to visit, I fell in love with the campus.” After she finishes her undergraduate studies, Wheelock hopes to earn a master’s in speech therapy.

She’s narrowed her focus after spending much of her senior year in high school volunteering at Gilbert Elementary School in Augusta. “You see how big the classroom size is,” she said. “I want to be one-on-one with kids.”

When she volunteered with the speech therapist, she said she was delighted “to see the transformation you can make in a young child’s life in just a 20-minute session.”

— Betty Adams


RICHMOND — Jessica Viselli is no stranger to the town’s schools: She’s worked in them, volunteered in them and her two children go to them.

But she’s never been in charge. That will change on Wednesday, when Viselli takes over her own classroom as a math teacher at Richmond Middle School and High School after two years as an education technician.

“I’m responsible for these students and I need to make sure everything’s ready,” she said. “I’m excited about it, absolutely, but knowing that is a huge responsibility. It does make you a little bit nervous.”

Viselli, 39, will teach mathematics mostly to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, perhaps with some high schoolers mixed in. Improvement in math has been a focus for the high school after recent low test scores.

But she’s excited by the opportunity to make a big impact at the small schools in Richmond, which had just over 260 students last year.

The schools’ district, Regional School Unit 2, which also includes Hallowell, Farmingdale, Dresden and Monmouth, was an early adopter of standards-based grading, where the traditional A through F is replaced with a 1 to 4 scale.

Students earn a 3 if they demonstrate understanding of a concept and a 4 if they can analyze and apply it, with some students at different ages and advancement levels getting taught alongside kids at other grade levels.

For Viselli, the district is a family affair.

Her husband, Joseph, is a physical education teacher at Hall-Dale Elementary School in Hallowell, and her kids are third- and fourth-graders at Richmond’s Marcia Buker Elementary School. When they started school, she volunteered and later was a substitute teacher in the town schools.

When Viselli’s kids went to school, she said she worried if they would be challenged. She said the standards-based system has worked well for them, and she finds it “very freeing” as an educator, as she can tailor lessons to each student.

“That’s a huge piece: finding out what their interest is and what they care about,” Viselli said. “And how do I bring that as a teacher to get them engaged.”

Over the summer, the new teacher has done a lot of planning — Viselli said she doesn’t like to work on the fly. But she’s already resigned herself to the possibility that she may have to throw out some plans once she starts.

“You don’t know what you don’t know, right?” Viselli said. “So that’s what’s nerve-wracking. However, I’m really excited to be part of this district.”

– Michael Shepherd


OAKLAND — When Donna Pullen was asked to help the town out and drive a bus back in 1966, she said she’d help out for a couple weeks.

Forty-eight years later, she’s still at it, looking forward to the first day of school this week.

“I love my job. I love my kids,” Pullen said. “Tuesday I’ll bring my bus home and we’ll wash it down and clean it. The kids are always excited to come back.”

Pullen, 69, was recognized by the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation and the Department of Education as the Above and Beyond Maine Bus Driver of the Year.

In her 47 years as a bus driver in town, Donna Pullen estimates that she’s driven about 10,000 kids.

Some of those kindergarten through 12th grade students she’s driven have kids of their own, who also have kids of their own.

“There’s one family I’m in the third generation of driving that family,” Pullen said Monday afternoon. “I know all my kids’ first and last names. I know if they’re in band or on a sports team. I know what’s going on at home. I see them as my grandkids.”

It’s that type of personal connection that Pullen forges with the students on her bus and the rest of the community, whether she’s driving the town’s recreation programs bus or working as the town ballot clerk or showing up at fires — no matter what time of day — with her bus full of food and beverages and a warm place to recuperate, that earned her the annual recognition, the highest award a state bus driver can receive.

I was speechless,” Pullen said when she found out she had won from a pool of about 2,700 applicants.

Entering her 48th year as a town bus driver, Pullen has the same enthusiasm and excitement to begin the upcoming school year as the students she drives.

In the eyes of Regional School Unit 18 administration, Pullen is the one constant among the changes that happen every year in every school.

“She’s recognized as a matriarch of the district,” said Gary Smith, superintendent of RSU 18, which, along with Oakland, includes Belgrade, China, Rome and Sidney.

To Lennie Goff, transportation director in Oakland for 25 years, Pullen wasn’t just his bus driver or just his peer when he drove for the district. She’s been a protector and proponent for him.

“When I came on as director in 1989, I had five drivers, Donna being one, that had drove me in high school,” Goff said. “It was a challenge being that young and having to be authority over them. She took me under her wing and basically deflected a lot of what could have been criticism.”

“It goes beyond just transportation with her,” added Goff, who nominated Pullen for the award. “She’s more than just a bus driver.”

Pullen and her husband, Charles Pullen, a longtime Oakland fire chief, raised six children in the town and she has grandchildren in the district.

“Ninety-nine percent of the children are wonderful, and you just have to make some sort of connection with that other one percent,” Pullen said. “If a kid gets on the bus in the morning and asks, ‘Do you know if we’re having breakfast?’ — you have to put your heart out a little bit to those kids.”

— Jesse Scardina

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