HALLOWELL — After more than two decades in the classroom and administration, Bill Zima said being a superintendent is a “totally different animal.”

Zima actually got his start working with animals, and that experience has helped him throughout his career in education.

Zima was named the head of Regional School Unit 2 in July after having led Topsham’s Mt. Ararat Middle School since 2011. The path to running the school district that serves Hallowell, Farmingdale, Richmond, Dresden and Monmouth was not something Zima had thought about much.

“If you would have asked me a year ago if I wanted to be a superintendent, I probably would have said no,” said Zima, 49. “I was so happy at Mt. Ararat, which is a magnificent place to work.”

Despite spending the better part of the last two decades in education, it was not Zima’s first vocation.

Zima grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in wildlife conservation biology.

“It’s not often you get invited to help open a Disney theme park,” he said.

Zima worked for five years in wildlife conservation at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park, and even became a licensed monorail pilot. But once the park opened, he became bored with the monotony of the work.

“My wife, who’s a teacher, said I should look into becoming one because it’s never the same each day, so I contacted a local principal and met with him,” he said.

The principal took Zima on a tour of the school and offered him a position on the spot. Zima said the principal wanted him to bring the energy and story of his life working for Disney and with NASA to the students, so he started as a middle school science teacher soon afterward.

He continued teaching in the Orlando area before moving to Maine to be near the family of his wife, who is from Falmouth. Years at middle schools around the state led him to choose the leadership track and to his role at RSU 2.

“I like working with kids as they’re struggling with behavior choices and work habits, so I decided administration was the direction I wanted to go,” he said. “I wanted to work with those kids when they got removed from class, and I thought it would be a fun challenge.”

Working for a district in one of Florida’s largest cities is quite different from RSU 2, which has a little more than 200 teachers and an enrollment of about 2,150 students. Zima likes the personal touch he can provide students, faculty and staff members, something that he couldn’t provide if he were working in a bigger district.

“I think there is a lot more personal touch with knowing the schools, knowing the kids,” he said. “The ability to have the direct contact with classrooms is easier when you only have 10 schools.”

Zima said he stopped working in wildlife conservation because he realized he loves to teach and “take things and help people build a better understanding of the way the world works.”

His passion for teaching is apparent, RSU 2 instructional coach Courtney Belolan said in an email. “His ability to inspire voices from all corners of our learning communities to contribute passionately to the future of education will enable us to take great leaps toward a K-12 system that grows the strengths, curiosities and passions of learners into hope and success beyond our schools.”

Zima said he is amazed at the dedication of the staff and faculty in the district. When he visits classrooms, he said, he notices how happy the students are and how engaged they are with what they are learning. Zima said while he loves what he does as a superintendent, he misses being in the classroom.

The district helped pioneer Maine’s proficiency-based learning system, and one of the challenges Zima said he faces is making sure RSU 2 stays ahead “of the wave so we aren’t chasing it.”

“I need to be able to read and see where education is going so we can stay ahead of the curve,” he said. “The biggest challenge I put on my back is figuring out what’s next and how we make sure we are in a position to best support the teachers.”

Steve Lavoie, principal at Richmond Middle/High School, said he finds Zima to be a leader with a clear vision of where he believes the district can go.

“He has a deep understanding of proficiency based learning and what it’s going to take for us to become more student-centered,” Lavoie said. Hall-Dale Elementary principal Susan Lobel echoed that sentiment and said Zima “brings a great vision to the already strong work that RSU 2 has begun with learner centered, proficiency based education.”

Zima “is supportive, willing to listen and open to new ideas,” Lobel said. “He has already taken action steps to move the vision and goals of the (district) forward by providing teachers and administrators with needed resources and professional development.”

Zima said he’s impressed with the teachers’ attitude and desire to improve constantly, which he said only helps the district and the children in it. He is committed to continuing to make the district better.

“If the teachers are in a good spot and feeling supported, then it’s going to go well for the kids,” Zima said. “It’s great to see the commitment to continuous improvement.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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