OAKLAND — Last weekend Paula Callan bumped into one of her Cony High School students from several years ago who told Callan, “I have to thank you for saving my brother’s life.”

“She said, ‘Without you being where you were at the time he was in high school, he never would have graduated from high school,’” Callan said.

“I guess you don’t know the impact in the moment, it’s years down the road when people share with you what they most remember about the work that you’ve done,” she said.

Messalonskee High School Principal Paula Callan has been named Principal of the Year by the Maine Principals’ Association. She is shown at the school in Oakland on Monday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

After 38 years in education, the Messalonskee High School principal believes her dedication and commitment to students is the reason she’s been awarded the Maine Principal of the Year Award by the Maine Principals’ Association. She was honored in a ceremony Tuesday at the Oakland high school.

The award is recognized by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and Callan now is a candidate to become national principal of the year.

Callan won the Maine Assistant Principal of the Year Award in 2016, making her the first educator to receive both awards since the MPA’s founding in 1992, according to Holly Blair, executive director of the association’s professional division. (Callan has been a member of the association’s board of directors since 2017.)

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“It’s validation that you made the right decision,” Callan said of the awards.

She said her work at Messalonskee High School has always been part of a collaborative effort.

“We all should take pride in this recognition because without the students and staff it wouldn’t have been made possible,” she said.

Callan said she’s found a home at Messalonskee High, where the “community support” and “community feel inside the building” have kept her working at the Regional School Unit 18 high school for the past 20 years.

The school has about 750 students and 100 staff members. The Oakland-based district also includes Belgrade, China, Rome and Sidney.

RSU 18 Superintendent Carl Gartley nominated Callan for the recognition and wrote in his nomination letter that the Maine Principals’ Association visiting committee cited many examples of the strong school culture.

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“We frequently heard of examples where teachers, administrators and students worked together to solve problems OR students have a strong voice in their education OR the entire school community is committed to providing our students with a high bar for learning,” Gartley wrote in his letter. “This culture does not happen without strong leadership.”

Callan describes herself as a “true Mainer” who grew up in Bath and graduated from Morse High School.

While in high school, Callan had a summer job tutoring a student in reading and discovered her calling.

“The student was starting to see themselves in a different light and seeing success in an area of education that they hadn’t,” Callan said.

It inspired her to pursue a special education degree at the University of Maine at Farmington. She worked in an elementary school in Augusta at first, then realized she enjoyed working with older students more, mostly because of the extracurricular activities.

Callan was a junior varsity field hockey coach for four years while working at Cony High School, she officiated field hockey and was also a class advisor three times. She arrived at Messalonskee High School in 2002 as assistant principal and became principal in 2016.

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In her 28 years working in school administration, Callan says she has never seen anything as challenging as the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said there was no “resource manual” for dealing with a global pandemic and members of the school’s administration have been functioning as “strategic planners” for the past two years, constantly evaluating and adjusting guidance and policies to try and make the best decisions for students and staff.

“We’ll never go back to the way things were before COVID, nor should we, because we’ve learned much about ourselves as individuals and about ourselves as a school unit,” Callan said.

In contrast to many other area schools, Messalonskee had the option of attending school in-person five days a week during the 2020-21 academic year.

“In many districts across the country education has suffered throughout the pandemic, Ms. Callan has not allowed that to happen,” Gartley wrote in his nomination letter.  “Her leadership and her collaborative nature have been instrumental in the success of not only her school, but our entire district.”


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