PARIS — Superintendent Rick Colpitts wants everyone to aspire higher.
As leader of the Oxford Hills School District, he is the standard bearer. This week the Maine School Management Association recognized his accomplishments by naming him Maine Superintendent of the Year.
“I get a shiny plague on my wall and wonderful accolades,” Colpitts chuckled when asked what he “gets” for the award.
In reality, he is humbled by the honor that was conferred by a vote of his colleagues based on his work to support teachers and administrators, help all students achieve and his community outreach to keep taxpayers and businesses engaged in local schools.
“This is an incredibly privileged position,” Colpitts, 56, said Tuesday.
It’s also at times an incredibly difficult and time consuming job overseeing a staff of about 600; a student population of about 3,400; 10 school buildings; a district that spans a 427-square-mile radius and building partnerships with businesses, civic leaders and residents in the district’s eight member towns of Paris, Norway, Oxford, Harrison, Waterford, West Paris, Hebron and Otisfield.
And that’s just part of the job.
Being a superintendent is a round-the-clock job, he said.
Whether it’s getting up at 3:15 a.m. to check the status of a pending snowstorm that might mean school cancellation or reacting to a Christmas holiday school building fuel leak or convincing voters at multiple night meetings that they should support the school’s $38 million-plus budget, the job requires being available.
“I’m on call 24/7,” he said.
Colpitts said that despite the grueling schedule, or perhaps because of it, he has been blessed with a school board that allowed him the luxury of having breakfast and getting his children on the school bus each morning before his work day began.
“I’m never home at night,” he said of his schedule that usually keeps him at work until 7 or 8 at night or even later.
Although the last of his large brood of children left the nest this fall for college, he and his wife, Marilee – who volunteers with His Hands Support Ministries, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting impoverished children around the world – still have the early morning hours to share on their Peru farm where they grow pumpkins. He credits her with much of his success.
Colpitts came to SAD 17 as an assistant superintendent several years before being appointed superintendent to succeed retiring Superintendent Mark Eastman in June 2010.
The June 10, 2010, unanimous board of directors vote came with a standing ovation and a recommendation from the search committee who said Colpitts showed a “real passion for educational leadership” and a commitment to the children of the district.
Colpitts said Tuesday he is motivated every day by the commitment of the staff – from teachers to secretaries and custodians – to make sure every student succeeds.
“When you’re in a school system you see a lot of people working for same outcome. They want every student to succeed. It’s great,” he said.
The district adopted the Latin phrase “Aude Suscipere Ausum” or “Dare to Accept the Challenge” as its motto years ago. As the school district’s leader, Colpitts daily challenges both students and staff to “Aspire Higher.”
He takes pride in the district’s success with connecting students to the business community in hands-on partnerships that range from farming, to banking to race car building.
“Education should be messy – a mixture of theory and practical application. These partnerships enable our students to experience how skills learned in class are applicable to the real world,” he said.
Colpitts strongly supports professional development for his administrators and teachers. He instituted an administrative literacy course for all district leaders so they could better evaluate and support literacy teaching in the classroom.
This year, he developed the Maine Math Coaching Project, in partnership with University of Maine at Farmington, so selected educators across the state can get intense training in teaching math and return to their districts to coach others.
The superintendent’s job can be taxing – particularly when it comes to asking voters who live in a rural area in a slow economy to increase their support to public education while the state’s share diminishes.
“There is a community commitment to local education in rural Maine that is both strong and powerful,” he said. Taxpayers have continuously supported the SAD 17 budget with decisive majorities.
Colpitts started his career working at the Tenacre Country Day School, a small, coeducational, independent school pre-k through sixth grade day school, in Wellesley, Ma. It was founded in 1910 and associated for many years with the prestigious Dana Hall private school.
Colpitts served as Hartford/Sumner Elementary School principal, beginning in 1994, before being appointed superintendent there in 2004. He also served as principal of the Crescent Park School in Bethel and director of elementary education in that district.
It was the current SAD 44 Superintendent David Murphy who nominated Colpitts saying, Colpitts is someone who has earned a “stellar reputation as a leader and an ‘out of the box’ thinker.”
“Maine and the nation would be fortunate to be represented by a Superintendent of Schools like Rick Colpitts,” Murphy said in a statement released by the MSMA.
Colpitts said he is motivated by the success he sees in the SAD 17 student population.
“A lot of it has to do with being in the school,” he said of his daily motivation to go to work. “How can you not be motivated when you see the enthusiasm in students? We have an incredible situation here.”
His staff is top notch, he said.
“It’s hard. They come every day and they do it well,” he said of his fellow teachers and administrators.
Colpitts is a member of the Maine School Superintendents Association Executive Committee and the National Superintendents Association. He is a former member of the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine Principals Association, as well as the National Association of Elementary Principals. He was named Maine’s National Distinguished Elementary Principal of the Year in 2000-01.
Colpitts will be recognized at the National Conference of school administrators in February in Phoenix, Ariz., where he will be introduced along with 49 other state superintendents of the year. His name will then be placed in a pool with the others a for the national superintendent of the year award. He will also be honored at a gathering in Washington, D.C., next November.
Asked for his advise to anyone looking to enter the school administration field, he said, “It’s for anyone who has an interest in making [positive] changes in students’ lives.”
It’s for those, like Colpitts, who accept the challenge to “aspire higher.”