Paula Callan remembers tutoring a young boy in reading during the summer when she was in high school in her hometown, Bath.

He had limited skills, she said, but by the end of the summer, he felt more comfortable with reading.

“For me, that was the first inkling that I wanted to teach,” she said.

Since July 1, Callan, 54, has been the principal at Messalonskee High School in Oakland-based Regional School Unit 18. Before that, she was assistant principal at Messalonskee for 14 years, for a total of 22 years as an assistant principal in a number of high schools. The district also includes Belgrade, China, Sidney and Rome.

Sam Dunbar, 32, assistant principal at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington for two years, was hired to fill Callan’s assistant position. He’s worked in education for 10 years.

Last year, Callan won the award for assistant principal of the year in Maine.


“That’s a very humbling experience,” she said. “I share the award with the staff and students here.”

This year, as principal, she is looking to implement a new program that focuses on hands-on community learning and also on creating a new space at the high school.

The Year-End Studies Program, or YES Program, will start this June after three years at the drawing board. For the last two weeks of school, after finals are done, students in ninth through 11th grades will choose from hands-on sessions rather than attending regular classes, while seniors prepare for graduation.

“What can you do to still maintain the interest of the students?” Callan said, describing the point of the program. It’s modeled after a similar project in Burlington High School in Vermont.

The school is looking for ways to bring “community knowledge” to the students. Callan said she hopes to get community members with interests in kayaking, survival camping and other activities involved in teaching students.

Each day of the program also will begin and end with academic assistance for students who may need extra help.


The hands-on experience will increase engagement with core content areas, Callan said.

Callan also is piloting a new space for students. This summer she came up with the idea to create a lounge area for students to gather before and after school, which should be ready next week.

Callan wants to focus on building a community, which “giv(es) teachers and students ‘permission’ to think outside of that proverbial box,” she said. She also wants to let students have more say on what happens in the school, to let them know their opinions are heard.

Her mantra for faculty and students this year is, “Let whatever you do today be enough,” she said.

“I’m looking forward to having her fill that position,” said RSU 18 school board Chairman Jim Isgro. “She’s a great choice.”

Dunbar said he knows he has “big shoes to fill” in his new position. Right now, he’s absorbing everything he can and learning about the school. He said he hopes to leverage the community around the high school more.


Dunbar attended the University of Maine at Farmington for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in education. He taught social studies at Mt. Blue High School in Regional School Unit 9 for eight years before taking on an administrative role.

“As a teacher, I became a leader in the school,” Dunbar said. “I felt I could have a greater impact in administration.”

Dunbar lives in Belgrade with his wife, Laura, who teaches first grade at Belgrade Central School; and two children. He said he was drawn to Messalonskee High School because of its reputation.

“If it’s good enough for me to send my kids to, it’s good enough for me to work for,” he said. After learning more about the school this summer, he said he’s impressed by the interventions in place for students at risk of failing courses or having trouble with academics.

“There are safety nets for kids I wasn’t used to seeing,” he said.

Dunbar can’t pinpoint exactly when he realized he wanted to work in education, he said, but he stays in the profession because he likes working with students and making a difference.


“You can see growth in kids any day and every day,” he said. Dunbar said he has always been “student-centered to a fault.”

Callan, who lives in Oakland, said she first applied for a position at Messalonskee High School because it was well-known for its excellence. She was also drawn to the school because of the supportive community surrounding it, she said. “The community members expect an excellent education.”

She began her career as a special education teacher in Augusta after earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Maine at Farmington. She later received a master’s degree from the University of Maine, in Orono.

After being assistant principal for so long, Callan is afraid to lose a connection with students, she said. When working as a principal, the focus shifts from day-to-day contact to larger-picture items such as curriculum, policies and standards. The position also works more on staff and professional development.

Still, she plans to carve out time in her day for her usual meet-and-greet with students in the morning.

“It’ll take more of a conscious effort, for me,” Callan said, though she will work to maintain close contact with students.


“(Students) teach us something every day,” she said.

“Especially with perspective,” Dunbar added, saying that he is always humbled by students who accomplish great things while in tough situations.

Both are looking forward to the start of the year.

“I want to see this building full of students and teachers,” Dunbar said.

Callan said she feels the way she did when she was younger and had all of her school supplies ready, excited to see what was in store.

“I still have that excitement 33 years later,” she said.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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