WINTHROP — Matthew Shea is a Kennebec County father who has seen four girls through school.

While one of his four daughters, Paige, almost dropped out, she is now a graduate student studying to be a medical researcher. So, Shea has some personal experience helping students find their way along their educational path.

That will serve him well as he embarks on his new role as director of teaching and learning for Winthrop Public Schools, a new position created by the district for this school year. In this capacity, Shea, will guide teachers and administrators in developing and implementing curriculum and instructional programs.

“I will help learners by supporting their teachers,” he said.

Prior to his new gig, the Gardiner native served as coordinator of student achievement for Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2 for the past seven years.

Winthrop Public Schools Superintendent Cornelia Brown said the “badly needed” position is “long overdue.” 

“We do not have a coordinated pre-K through 12 curriculum in any subject, certainly one that would be aligned with the system of learning results as required to the state,” she said. “I think he will move us much, much closer to that goal.”

Curriculum had previously been the responsibility of the superintendent and the principals of the schools. 

When Brown told Winthrop councilors about the school district’s plan to create the new position during an April budget workshop, she said curriculum had been neglected. As superintendent, she said she acts as the business manager, drop-out preventer, integrated test manager and more, and her concentration on her doctorate was labor relations.

Shea has a one-year contract with the district, and his salary will be $87,000. Of that, $32,000 will be paid for by the district; the rest will be paid for with funds from the regional services collaborative and two federal grants.

While principals do provide instructional support, Shea said their primary responsibility is to manage their buildings and keep their students safe. 

Shea is in getting-to-know-you mode, visiting the district’s schools. He said he wants to get a feel for the schools’ culture and hear what educators have to say before he makes any kind of adjustments.

Long term, Shea would like to organize the curriculum with progression so that the three schools in the district become a cohesive unit. Students face apprehensions as they transition between schools, he explained, but uncertainties about the academics should not be part of that. 

“Academics need to be as free flowing as possible,” Shea said, “so that it is open and transparent for (students) and for their parents so they know what the expectations are.” 

He wants to make sure students have an education that prepares them for when they leave the district.

Shea intends to involve the community more, including by holding meetings with businesses and community service organizations, and ask the questions, “What do we want Winthrop kids to do?” and “How can we get there?”

He wants students to be treated as they are — not like they were the month before or the day before or sibling before — and for the school to help them become better people. It should not only be about them scoring well on tests, he explained, it should be about making the student more successful in whatever they do after school. 

“If we prepare them with the skills and the education for that, they are going to be successful,” Shea said. “What are we doing in these 13 years to help them become that person?” 

His secondary responsibilities include serving as a federal grant coordinator, coordinating the implementation of the Teacher Professional Development Plan and working with administrators to develop a data-driven instructional program.

“His depth of knowledge and background on data and analysis really distinguished him from other candidates,” said Brown. 

She said the district’s comprehensive needs assessment that was submitted to Maine Department of Education showed a need for data analysis. 

“It was clear we needed somebody who could interpret data, analyze it and help make sense of it to teachers and use it to improve student achievement,” said Brown, “and Matt’s done a lot of work like that.”

Now that Shea’s four daughters are in their 20s and grown, he is reflecting on what was important in their education — and it was not how they scored on an eighth grade math test. 

Shea said he wants to help every kid — and then he chuckled, leaning back in his seat at a table in his office: “That sounds obvious right?”

But every district in the world has this problem, he said, where students drop out of school because traditional learning did not work for them, and neither did alternative education or adult education.

Shea said Paige did not fit in, having drug, addiction and boyfriend issues. 

“RSU 2 worked with her to help her out,” he said. “(Educators) need to find ways to meet those kids that drop out.” 

Shea said helping the student may mean helping the parent. 

“That was my kid that we were losing — but as an educator, I had experience knowing what to do,” he said. 

Shea will be a resource for teachers in their professional development and connect them with training opportunities.

He recalled an experience he had as a high school teacher, connecting with elementary school counterparts to share teaching styles. At first, Shea said, he didn’t see how teaching younger students could relate to teaching older ones. But the station rotation group work he tried gave his high schoolers a break from lecture and, in the long run, improved his connection with them.

“Schools do not know what’s going on with each other,” Shea explained, adding that if one school is having a workshop, it might be an opportunity for teachers at other schools in the district to participate. 

Shea, 50, studied secondary education at the University of Maine, and after a stint running bookstores and music stores along the East Coast, he returned to Gardiner — and education — 15 years ago. He worked for three years at Lisbon High School as a math teacher, and then four years at Hall Dale High School.

President-elect of the Maine Curriculum Leaders Association, who named him the Curriculum Leader of the Year in 2018, Shea also hosts the education-related podcast Personalized Learning with Matt & Courtney with Courtney Belolan, who is the executive director of MCLA.

Shea and his wife, Holly, live in Gardiner.

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