To Dianna Gram, the students, educators, parents and others who bring life to Vassalboro Community School each day are part of a big family. She admits the notion is a hokey one, that it’s a cliché, but it’s how the retiring principal feels.

She said the familial feel is evident in how the community comes together for school events. The gymnasium, she said, is packed for class concerts, whether it’s one grade performing or five. For this year’s pre-Kindergarten graduation ceremony, 127 people showed up for 16 children. The eighth-grade graduation attracts so many people that it’s held at the China Lake Conference Center, this year being no different, with 500 people who attended to cheer on the 36 graduates.

But if the school feels like a family, it is in no small part because of the compassion and respect Gram has for her students.

“Dear Mrs. Gram, I think you’re compassionate,” one seventh-grade boy wrote to her. “You understand people’s problems, and you never don’t care when someone has an issue.” It was one letter in a book full of similar messages from students who thanked Gram for the kindness she has shown them.

Gram read some of these letters recently in her office, sitting at a table that used to belong to her grandmother. The table has been a place where she has talked through disagreements between students and doled out discipline.

“I always say, ‘We’re going to sit right here and solve our problems at the kitchen table,'” Gram said.

It was one of Gram’s final days as the school’s principal — a job she’s held for nearly a decade. Her office, not yet packed up in boxes, was still cluttered with gifts from her students, though she said she’d already lugged out three bags full.

Many of these gifts involve bright pink flamingos. Her desk and window sill are decorated with stuffed flamingos, canvas paintings of flamingos, a flamingo-printed glass and a sign that reminds her to “Keep calm and flamingo on.”

Flamingos have always been kind of her “thing,” she said, and the kids have caught on.

Vassalboro Community School Principal Dianna Gram, right, stands with Megan Allen during a solemn portion of a Flag Day celebration on June 14. Gram is retiring after some four decades as an educator and administrator. Allen will become the new principal. Staff photo by David Leaming

“I liked them before they were in vogue,” she said. “I just thought they were beautiful and unique, and when you’re from Maine, you just don’t have anything like that.”

Even the 2017-2018 yearbook is decorated from cover to cover with flamingos in Gram’s honor. One of the pages reads “Always stand tall and be fabulous.”

“That’s a flamingo thing,” she said.

She was also surprised with a canvas bag, which every student signed, at a goodbye assembly. Gram said students have been coming up to her and pointing out where they signed their names as they pass her in the hallway.

Gram, who grew up in Embden and first went to school in a one-room school house, began her education career “many, many years ago” as a tutor working with a girl who had autism in North New Portland. She had received her bachelor’s degree in special education from the University of Maine at Farmington.

“That’s really my roots to education,” Gram said.

From there, she taught special education in Madison for five years before she got into administrative work. She became a special education director for the Madison and North Anson school systems. She did that for 14 years before taking the job as an assistant principal and special education director at Vassalboro, and then eventually principal.

In that time she’s seen several generations of families go through the pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade school.

“I’ve had the aunts, the uncles, the cousins, the kids,” she said. “My babies — as I call them — when they come to Kindergarten registration bringing their little one, I’m like, ‘No, this can’t be!'”

Additionally, as principal, Gram saw through the start of a pre-school program, which she said has been a great success. Next year will be the fourth year in a 4-year federal grant program, and after that it will be a part of the school’s annual budget process.

“It’s like a complete package here,” Gram said of the Vassalboro school. “A great community, outstanding staff, supportive School Board, kids that appreciate their school and where they get to go to school.”

Vassalboro Community School Principal Dianna Gram gives high fives to students as they assemble for a Flag Day celebration on June 14. Gram is retiring after some four decades as an educator and administrator. Staff photo by David Leaming

And that’s what makes it so hard to leave, but after 24 years at Vassalboro, she said it’s time to move on.

“I’m going to be 62 and it’s time. Though I could have died here,” Gram said, laughing. “I work 60 to 70 hours a week and it’s time to not have my mind so full. ”

With all of that free time, Gram said she is going to enjoy activities such as hiking and biking while she still can. She also has a trip to Europe planned with her partner, Steve, who also retired this year from his teaching job at Lawrence High School.

“We wanted to do it together,” she said.

She announced her departure in September, wanting a healthy amount of time for the transition and to allow the students to process the news.

“It’s been very hard on a lot of kids, harder than I expected,” she said. “You never know which kid you’re going to have that impact on … a lot of that has come out in the last months.”

At that time, Gram said she had no idea that her retirement would be just one of the many changes coming to the Vassalboro school this summer.

In November, voters decided to dissolve Alternative Organization Structure 92, of which Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow have been a part since 2009. The dissolution took effect Friday.

Vassalboro will continue to contract services with the other two communities through a three-year interlocal agreement, but it will be a school independent of a district, meaning it will have to hire its own superintendent for one day a week. Eric Haley, who served as AOS 92’s superintendent, will work for the school until they can find a replacement. Gram said the board has interviewed candidates, but she is not sure when they will make an official offer.

“I hope it isn’t perceived that I’m abandoning ship,” she said. “I did decide this before all of that happened. It’s going to be different.”

She said she’s confident that the staff, School Board and her replacement, Megan Allen, will see the school through the transition.

“She’s wonderful,” Gram said of Allen, who has been teaching at Vassalboro since 2008. “She’s very motivated and very, very intelligent. She’s just capable and it’s going to be a great transition for the school.”

Gram did say, however, that the end of the AOS is a loss in some ways.

Vassalboro Community School Principal Dianna Gram gets a hug from student Jaziah Garcia prior to a Flag Day celebration on June 14. Gram is retiring after some four decades as an educator and administrator. Staff photo by David Leaming

“As a school administrator, having the rich experiences of (working with) the administrative team at Waterville and Winslow has made me a better administrator. You can’t get that back,” she said. “Working with (assistant superintendent Peter Thiboutot from Winslow) and (Haley) has been nothing but first class. They’re kid-centered; they fit into what we believe. That’s a loss.”

Now, at the end of her career, Gram said what has been the most memorable moments are the individual successes of students.

She said she remembers a young man with autism who came to the school and was mostly nonverbal, but ended up being successful and using his voice more often.

“Those are the memories that I have. They’re the individual children that are locked up in here,” she said, gesturing to her heart.

Although she won’t be returning in the fall, Gram will continue to leave an impression on the children of Vassalboro, both by the legacy she is leaving and the scholarship that has been created in her name.

The Dianna Gram Legacy Scholarship will be given out each year to an eighth-grader who has been resilient through life’s challenges.

“Now I will always be able to impact kids at Vassalboro,” she said. “I can’t think of a greater honor than that — than spending your life working on behalf of kids.”

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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