New Appleton principal has been there before
Appleton — When she takes over as Appleton Village School's new principal Aug. 1, Susan Stilwell will be returning to familiar territory.
From 2000 to 2006, she was the technology teacher for Appleton and for Hope Elementary School, and helped implement former Gov. Angus King's original Maine Learning Technology Initiative there.
She came to Maine 30 years ago, and has lived in Jefferson with her husband, Bob, for 23 years. They have three grown sons, the youngest of whom is now in college. Stilwell was born and raised in Canada. After attending college in Newfoundland to earn a bachelor's degree in marine biology, she went to work for the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center in Walpole.
There, she met the wife of a coworker, who was a teacher; the woman persuaded Stilwell to go back to school at the University of Maine and get certified as a science teacher.
She first taught science and social studies in the Bremen school system, then went to Hope as a fifth-grade teacher. During this stint at Hope, she participated in a social studies curriculum committee that developed a common curriculum for the towns that form the Five Town Community School District (CSD).
While she was technology teacher in Hope and Appleton, she earned a master's degree in computer technology in education from Thomas College in 2003. In 2008, she went on to get a certificate of advanced study in school administration and supervision from Johns Hopkins University School of Education.
She went to Maine School Administrative District 5 -- know known as Regional School Unit 13 -- as technology director for the district in 2005 and in 2009 became first interim assistant principal and then assistant principal at Rockland District Middle School. When she started working as an administrator she felt she had found her niche, Stilwell said, and the place she could have the most impact.
“I really enjoy working with the students and the staff and being able to make an impact on both their lives,” she said.
She also likes the variety of problems that come her way. “Being in education, you're never bored.”
She became interim principal of Thomaston Grammar School in November 2010, and has been principal of both Thomaston Grammar and Owls Head Central schools since August 2011.
Stilwell values integrated, hands-on learning like the fifth-grade garden project, where students grow vegetables for use in the cafeteria at Thomaston Grammar School.
About returning to Appleton, she said she thinks K-8 schools are important because they allow the staff to build relationships with students and their families over a long period of time. She feels the school has a lot of strengths.
“For a small school they're doing some amazing things,” she said. For example, the school has a fully implemented Positive Intervention Behavior Support program, which fosters a healthy school culture. It also uses a team structure for planning school activities that is similar to the one used in RSU 13.
She does not plan many immediate changes. “For the short term, I just want to continue the good work they're doing,” Stilwell said.
Later, she hopes to implement more integrated learning opportunities, for example, student-led conferences like those that have taken place at Thomaston Grammar. She also plans to build on Appleton's garden program, possibly having some students visit the program at Thomaston Grammar to pick up ideas.
Stilwell said she was concerned about the fact that Appleton voters turned down both the local school budget and the CSD budget June 10. But she added that the needs of the school and the needs of taxpayers must be balanced. In a town like Appleton with no industry to offset educational costs, “trying to find that balance is incredibly hard,” she said.
She said it is challenging for towns like Appleton to prepare their students to attend the same high school as their peers from Camden and Rockport, which have much larger business tax bases. When the next school budget vote comes up, she plans to call people she knows in town who care about education and remind them to vote.
“You've got to have the people who care involved.”
As for her educational priorities, Stilwell said she wants students to grow, to be engaged in active learning and to have a school that celebrates learning.
“I really want all my kids to become productive citizens,” she said.