This is the first of several columns I hope to write about public education in general and Regional School Unit 13 schools in particular. As the new superintendent, I have the privilege of working with many fine educators, support staff, parents, community and board members as we strive to assure successful outcomes for all of our 2,100 students. RSU 13 employs more than 400 staff, all working for the one common purpose of providing 21st century skills to the children and young adults who will inherit the world from us. A daunting task indeed, but one that we’re all fully committed to achieving.

The students in RSU 13, like students all over the country, come to us with an enormously varied set of strengths and needs. Many have grown up in supportive homes where education is valued and work ethics and study habits are promoted by parents and family. Others come to us from families who have struggled to provide even the basic necessities of life, whose parents may be absent, or in the throes of their own addictions. Some children arrive at school traumatized by regular abuse at home and for who school is a safe refuge but attention to academics is more than a casual challenge. Many of our students are inherently self-motivated and have excelled at sports, academics and social interactions. They sit side-by-side with their peers who, but for the luck of the draw, were born into circumstances no child should ever have to face.

How does a school address such a mix of needs, ability and talent? How do our teachers, educational technicians, guidance counselors, nurses, and everyone else involved serve all of the students, all of the time, and with the kind of results that prepare them for the challenges of the 21st century? Obviously it’s not easy! Contrary to what the media, politicians and pundits may want to assert, there is no simple “one-size-fits-all” way to address academic and social achievement. If that were so, schools all over the country would have adopted that kind of quick fix decades ago.

What we can do, and are doing, in RSU 13 is to approach each student individually and to create a uniquely-tailored educational experience based on what we know about them from data, discussion and observation. We are testing student academic skills several times each year and we use that information to inform our instruction. Where are they excelling and where precisely are they falling down? Which skill set has been mastered and which is just emerging? We know that of 20 students in the classroom, the range of student performance runs the gamut from fully proficient to beginning level skill knowledge. It’s not your father’s classroom! The range of intellectual ability in that classroom is just as diverse and the intrinsic motivation levels are all over the place! Some of those 20 students have significant medical needs and disabilities that can adversely affect their education. We deal with it all and strive to provide customized learning to each student from where they are now, not from where we wish they were.

I am extraordinarily proud of the students, volunteers and staff who comprise the schools of RSU 13. Wonderful things are happening in your schools each and every day, students are arriving at Eureka moments and they are learning, painting, singing, practicing, dancing and playing as kids have for thousands of years. Let’s never lose sight of the reason we as a society have chosen to support public schools through our optimism and resources- it’s the only place where we can really see our future and the future is bright.

Lew Collins is the superintendent in Regional School Unit 13.