Principal Jennifer McGee at the main entrance Monday to Atwood Primary School in Oakland. She is one of six Maine educators listed in The Boston Globe’s Fenway Bowl Honor Roll of outstanding people in the field of education in New England. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

OAKLAND — Atwood Primary School Principal Jennifer McGee is pretty sure she did not invent the WIN acronym, but the daily 20-minute “What I Need” period is a staple of the Atwood Primary School education.

The WIN period is not strictly academic. It can be used for an intervention to help build skills, a time for social support, behavioral planning or individual therapies.

“The challenge is that you have this amazing level of arrays of skills in every classroom,” McGee said. “It’s what they need, so it’s a perfectly appropriate time for us to put some of those interventions in as well.”

McGee, 56, was recently one of six Maine educators named to The Boston Globe’s Fenway Bowl Honor Roll for her outstanding contributions to her school. In addition to being Atwood’s principal, McGee oversees Regional School Unit 18’s prekindergarten program and is the district’s affirmative action officer.

“The culture when you walk into the Atwood building — it is the cream of the crop when it comes to that area,” RSU 18 Superintendent Carl Gartley said. “Jennifer knows every kid, knows every staff member and knows their families. She takes a kid being happy at school personally.”

In addition to the WIN period, McGee has dedicated herself to increasing the school’s capacity for early childhood intervention and individual learning, introducing prekindergarten and kindergarten jumpstart programs.

“I believe teachers all the time are trying to give students exactly what they need,” McGee said. “Maybe that targeted time built into a schedule is somewhat unique to our school, but being with principals groups all the time, I know that’s always the goal: To give students what they need, with enough of a productive struggle to keep them moving forward.”

McGee has worked in her role for 12 years after three in the same position at Belgrade Central School.

She previously worked for Maine School Administrative District 49. She was Lawrence Junior High’s principal for six years, and before that spent a year as an assistant at the junior high and high school.

Out of college, she was a middle and high school special education and English teacher for 14 years.

“My whole career has been within 10 miles,” McGee said with a laugh, “maybe 15.”

A China resident, McGee credits her husband, Mike McGee, as an inspiration for his nearly four decades at the helm of the Lawrence High School boys’ basketball team. She and her husband share seven children and five grandchildren.

“Leadership takes many forms, and inspirational coaches use so many of the same techniques as educational leaders: communication, excellent instruction, guided practice and motivation,” McGee said.

LESSONS FROM THE PANDEMIC

In McGee’s most recent letter to the community, she wrote about the district’s ability to do hard things, with the administration, teachers, students, parents and community working in unison during an anything-but-normal year.

In the year of the coronavirus pandemic, everything has changed. An early school year “Beep and Greet” and virtual open house replaced face-to-face interactions. Strict mask wearing, physical distancing and other safety protocols are required at schools. New classroom delivery models have been created to keep in line with pandemic protocols.

“What the pandemic has plunged us all into feeling is like we’re first year educators again because nothing really is exactly the same as it was before,” McGee said.

Students learned fully remotely at the pandemic’s outset, but that wasn’t sustainable.

“We believe we weren’t able to give students what they needed in the way they needed it, or definitely not in the same way,” McGee said. “Children got different levels of support, depending on what parents were able to do in their households at the time, and so, when students returned to us this fall, we had to remember that first-graders were really end-of-the-year kindergarteners and second-graders were really end-of-the-year first-graders.”

The WIN period has taken on greater importance, but it took Atwood Primary School staff longer to get the period going with all of the changes.

“It’s all about compassion and empathy and how we take care of one another,” McGee said.

McGee’s RSU 18 peers sense her dedication. China Middle School Principal Lois Bowden said McGee “leads with her heart.”

“She loves to collaborate and share ideas with our administrative team and elementary principals,” said Melanie Smith, principal of Williams Elementary School in Oakland. “I love my summer days spent planning with Jenny for the upcoming school year.”

About half the students at Atwood live in poverty, and when parents are working, students might not have enough support working from home. RSU 18 students have the option every trimester of whether to attend school five days a week or fully remotely. Of Atwood Primary School’s 213 students, more than 90% of students are attending in person five days a week.

“We built up a lot of public trust, so parents felt like if they were returning their students in person, they knew we were doing everything to keep their children safe and learning simultaneously,” McGee said.

“We just wanted parents to feel good about their decision either way, and parents agonized over the decision. We tried to be really transparent about what structures we were putting in place to make sure the children are as safe as can be in the circumstances our world is in right now.”

Principal Jennifer McGee stands Monday near the entryway to Atwood Primary School in Oakland. She is one of six Maine educators listed in The Boston Globe’s Fenway Bowl Honor Roll of outstanding people in the field of education in New England. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

SHIFTING TO ADMINISTRATION 

McGee graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington in 1986 in special education and teaching. While teaching in MSAD 49, she earned a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from the University of Maine.

Ray Glass, one of McGee’s professors at UMF, said he remembered “her interest in forming a learning climate — a community with children — with other teachers that really demonstrated caring and concern for one another.”

At MSAD 49, McGee filled in for Bob Fairbrother, the principal at the time, when he was out of the building.

Even though she “really enjoyed those days,” she had reservations about moving into an administrative role full time.

“I always thought I wanted to stay teaching because I really wanted to be with the kids,” McGee said. “I didn’t want to get separated from the students, but you can very much be a school principal and still remain very hands-on with your students.”

Emile Rodrigue, who teaches in MSAD 49, described McGee as “flat out the best administrator that I’ve ever had.” They taught together on the same team.

“I’ve been a teacher for 36 years, and have worked with Jen for many of those years,” Rodrigue said. “To this day, things she did as an administrator stay with me now, and influence my daily teaching experience.”

McGee hired Maryann White two decades ago as a math teacher at Lawrence Junior High School.

“She understands that a cold or hungry child cannot focus on learning and will do what she can to make each child in her building whole,” White said. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for her for this reason alone. She will go to the ends of the Earth to make sure that her student body and faculty are all safe and have what they need to succeed.”

McGee is an adjunct professor at Thomas College in Waterville and teacher with the Maine Principals Association, working with those who want to become principals.

“Jennifer’s energy and enthusiasm complements her teaching; she brings a wealth of knowledge in the field of educational leadership,” said Pamela Thompson, chair of the Lunder School for Education at Thomas College. “Students often say they love her class because they were able to work with relevant and authentic topics.”

McGee is also a published author, having written “Nine Minutes and Counting: A Journey of Strength and Resilience,” which was released in September 2017. The novel is about a middle school girl finding strength in the wake of tragedy.

When McGee took over at Atwood nearly a decade ago, she read an article on Ralph Atwood, for whom the school is named.

One of Atwood’s quotes — “Insist your school is a happy place.” — has stuck with McGee. When she read those words, she said, she made them a vision and mission statement, of sorts.

“I feel the burden of those words very heavily, that this is the beginning of children’s educational journey,” McGee said. “This should be the most joyful part of their journey, just entering education. You are continuously pulling children into education. You’re pulling them in because it’s joyful, it’s a place they want to be.”

Every Friday, McGee leaves school staff members with a simple-yet-poignant message.

“What have you done today to make sure all of your children want to return tomorrow?” McGee asks.

“If every student isn’t happy every day,” Gartley said, “then Jennifer sees room for improvement.”

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