LEWISTON — Before going to college, Todd Finn was in the Army and jumped out of planes into war zones.

Before she went to college, Tracy Racicot was a teenage mother.

At age 16, Christina Otuwa immigrated to the United States from Nigeria. “I was married,” she said.

All three went on to achieve careers in education, and all three are finalists to replace Bill Webster, who is retiring, as superintendent of Lewiston Public Schools.

The three met with people in the community this week and were interviewed by a panel of Lewiston High School students: Amber Veilleux, Mackenzie Richard, Jordy Dushime, Hunter Landry, Koos Mohamed, Deko Hassan, Carolyn Adams, Rizzajem Rebooquio and Fazla Harim.

On Monday, students met with Finn, who said he grew up with nine siblings in Massachusetts and has a brother who is principal at Gray-New Gloucester High School. Finn said he’s excited about the prospect of working in Lewiston.

Finn said he sees much potential in Lewiston schools, noting a recent 5 percent jump in the high school’s graduation rates. That kind of increase “doesn’t happen by accident,” he said.

Finn said he has helped struggling schools, including one in Georgia, turn into schools of excellence. “Test scores will come if you excite kids.”

In Lewiston, about 40 percent of the students are minorities, making the schools among the most diverse in Maine.

Mohamed asked Finn how he would improve race relations at Lewiston High School.

Finn said part of the answer is promoting Lewiston as a kind of United Nations. He’d like to see the flags of all the nations represented by the student body in the high school parking lot, so when a student comes to the school, “you’re in the United Nations. You are going to learn how to embrace diversity and culture.” Lewiston High School “is where the world comes together.”

On Tuesday, students met with Racicot from New York, who also was impressed by the student diversity in Lewiston.

“Your strength is your diversity,” Racicot said. Going to school with many students from other cultures “makes you a much stronger and educated person.” Lewiston has economic challenges, but the district’s weaknesses “are overstated,” she said.

A former art teacher, Racicot said her son struggled in school and found success through career and technical education.

Often teachers are overloaded with too many initiatives, Racicot said, adding that as superintendent she’d have a minimum number of initiatives and be clear about goals.

The idea of proficiency-based learning – to have learning be individualized to meet students needs – has validity, but the way it has been implemented is like “building the plane as we fly. That is just a terrible idea,” Raciot said. Districts need to learn how (proficiency-based learning) has impacted students and “slow it down, analyze and move forward.”

On Wednesday, a snow day for students, Otuwa toured several schools and met with faculty before joining the student panel later in the day.

During her tour of the high school, Otuwa said she’s been in education for 26 years and has served as assistant superintendent or deputy superintendent in Pittsburgh, Rochester, New York, and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“I’ve seen all parts of education,” Otuwa said. “I’m really excited to be here today.”

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