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Inspired by His Aspirations

by Francesca Duffy

Mark Eastman had a vision when he arrived in Oxford, Maine, in 1995 as the new superintendent and the project coordinator of the then-unfinished comprehensive high school. That vision entailed raising student aspirations, a goal to be measured by postsecondary enrollment.

He was intrigued by the prospect of offering an academic and technical experience that would provide 1,100 students with opportunities to experience real-life choices.

Being fascinated by ideas that promise to better the development of students is a constant for Eastman, a former Maine Superintendent of the Year. As school board parent representative Mary Pietroski puts it, “His willingness to take on and implement innovative projects comes from his determination to support student learning in imaginative ways.”

The largest construction project in the history of Maine at the time, the $29 million Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, which opened 10 years ago, is described by the superintendent as a “seamless” school that allows students to experience a full range of course offerings without artificial barriers and categories. No one is labeled a technical or vocational student.

“We see ourselves very differently than those secondary schools that have a vocational center attached because we still offer five languages and 14 AP courses,” the superintendent says.

Eastman took over the 3,500-student school district at a point when fewer than 32 percent were continuing their studies following graduation. He set out to raise that important statistic to 80 percent by 2005 through various projects, all under the district’s “Aspire Higher” initiative.

As a member of the advisory board for the Western Maine University and Community College Center, Eastman helped to bring a postsecondary satellite campus to the district. Collaborating with community members and key legislators, Eastman converted the facility adjacent to the comprehensive high school into a university center to give students a taste of college.

“It’s all about accessibility,” he says. “We’re in a rural area, and because of that we need to expose them to as much as possible.”

The school district took a global turn, too, forging a relationship with the Zhejiang Normal University Middle School in Jinhua, China. Eastman jumped on an Oxford teacher’s idea for the partnership by lining up support from the Freeman Foundation and spent two weeks in China to finalize arrangements. Last fall, Oxford Hills became the first school district in Maine to establish a formal teacher exchange program with a school in China.

“Some of our kids have never even traveled outside of New England,” says Eastman, a native of southern Maine. “To learn the language and culture in their very own classroom is an eye-opening experience for them.”

If Eastman senses a unique opportunity for his students, he doesn’t hesitate to act. He forges ahead. Ron Kugell, chair of the school board, calls him “a calculated risk taker because he’s thorough enough that he has a good sense of what’s going to transpire.”

Eastman came well prepared to serve the district of Oxford Hills, having led a 600-student district in Mars Hill and Blaine, Maine, for 10 years previously.

“When I came to Oxford Hills, there wasn’t anything I hadn’t faced,” Eastman says. “I was fortunate to have had that practical experience in a smaller system. I knew who I was in terms of my own style.”

Evidently, Eastman’s open-mindedness and fearless attitude, combined with his ability to implement innovative concepts, are playing a key role in raising student aspirations. In 2005, the school district met its goal as postsecondary enrollment reached 80 percent, a level it has maintained.

The Oxford Hills motto states, “Dare to accept the challenge.” “This motto is the common thread throughout our schools,” explains Eastman, who talks to each of the 600-plus staff members about the meaning of the phrase, aspiring to embed it into the work ethic of everyone. The motto is what he lives by, and he refuses to take no for an answer.

Francesca Duffy is senior editorial assistant of The School Administrator. E-mail: fduffy@aasa.org

BIO STATS: MARK EASTMAN

Currently: superintendent, Oxford Hills, Maine

Previously: superintendent, Mars Hill and Blaine, Maine

Age: 63

Greatest influence on career: My first principal, Paul Brunnelle, inspired me to consider school administration. He and I shared a passion for leadership, the law and organizational dynamics.

Best professional day: The day I received a call saying our school district had received a $1 million donation to our district scholarship foundation. It has happened now three times, twice anonymously.

Books at bedside: L.L. Bean by Leon Gorman; Educating Oppositional and Defiant Children by Philip S. Hall and Nancy D. Hall; Yeh Yeh’s House by Evelina Chao

Biggest blooper: I once scratched my signature on an annual report that was mailed to the entire community. I was chastised by a retired penmanship teacher for my poor modeling of appropriate handwriting! Now I always take great care when I sign my name.
Why I’m an AASA member: I enjoy being part of a strong advocacy group for children and public education.

Why I’m an AASA member: I enjoy being part of a strong advocacy group for children and public education.