Principal Dianna Gram is retiring from Vassalboro Community School this month with mixed feelings.
She expects to miss people she’s worked with over more than two decades, especially the students.
But she’s totally confident incoming principal Megan Allen is the right person to succeed her. “I have a great sense of relief and pride in her similar values,” Gram said, predicting a smooth transition.
As we talked in the principal’s office one afternoon after classes were over, those shared values kept coming up.
For example, both women prefer the school when it’s full of students, not almost quiet as it was then. “It isn’t a real place,” without students, Gram said, and Allen called it “kind of eerie.”
Both talked about the unusual atmosphere at the school – a real community, to both of them. Whole families go through the grades, and now Gram is seeing the children of former students.
Allen referred to “something different you feel when you walk through the door” – nothing she can define, but an environment and culture she has every intention of preserving.
Students walking through the door in the morning are apt to see Gram first thing, as she habitually meets them in the lobby. If a student looks distressed, Gram is likely to pull him or her aside and see if she can find out what’s wrong and take care of it.
Sometimes, she said, she gets an immediate reaction. Other times, Allen said, the student will come to an adult a few days later to talk about the issue.
Sometimes, too, a bus driver will notice a child acting unhappy and will call ahead to ask Gram to check.
VCS is not perfect. Gram admits there are problems, including bullying. But, she said, school adults try to be proactive, for example by having the school counselor spend time in classrooms. Students are encouraged to speak up if they see something wrong, to an adult or to other students. Discipline is used when necessary.
Students are surveyed every year, Gram said. Typically, 90 percent or more say they feel safe at VCS, and almost every student knows an adult to go to if he or she needs help.
Kindness is one of the values stressed at VCS. At the beginning of each school year, students are encouraged to report acts of kindness; the benefactor’s name is written on a piece of paper and the papers hung on the kindness tree in the rotunda for the year.
Two other positive comments were, from Gram, that teachers feel empowered to suggest and try out new ideas, like the Citizen of the Month program started by a former teacher and still going strong; and from Allen, a Vassalboro resident, that people are friendly and respectful when they meet her off-duty, in the supermarket or at the transfer station.
Residents’ interest in their children’s school is obvious. Gram said this year’s 16 pre-kindergarten students had 127 family members and other guests signed up for their graduation ceremony. The annual eighth-grade graduation is held at the China Lake Conference Center, where attendees’ cars fill every parking space and line both sides of the road for half a mile, because VCS is too small to accommodate the crowd.
Allen has been at VCS since 2008, starting as a third-grade teacher and moving to grades six, seven and eight. Meanwhile she earned a master’s degree from New England College, a doctorate in educational leadership and management from Capella University and has almost earned her principal’s certificate – she will take two more courses this summer to move from provisional to full certification.
Gram has been at the school 24 years, as special education director, assistant principal and principal. She leaves behind two specific items, in addition to the school’s reputation and the pre-kindergarten program she initiated.
One is the pink flamingo in the front garden. Gram’s “thing” is flamingos; so the 2017-18 school yearbook has flamingos from cover to cover, and many of the gifts filling her office are flamingo-themed. A special gift is a bag autographed by every student, presented at an assembly June 13 that was a total surprise; Gram still shakes her head in amazement as she realizes that everyone gathered in the auditorium while she was unsuspecting in her office.
The other souvenir is Gram’s grandmother’s wooden kitchen table, under a tablecloth in front of her desk, where she has resolved innumerable problems “sitting around the kitchen table.” Asked if she was taking it with her, she said “No, it’s staying for Megan.”
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