DEER ISLE — The new Deer Isle-Stonington High School principal will move to the island in June after having handled discipline for a Nashville, Tenn., middle school of 900-plus students whose families spoke about 40 different languages.
Laura Davis, a Nashville native, starts July 1 and replaces current Principal Dennis Duquette, who is leaving to explore other options.
The city of Nashville between November 2020 and January 2021 was cited as the COVID-19 hotspot of the world, Davis said. The city had stints where 10,000 to 15,000 people a day were testing positive for the coronavirus. So, she’s ready for Maine.
The educator said students just returned to in-person school at the Thurgood Marshall Middle School in late February.
“It’s taken a big toll on our students,” she said.
Much of Davis’s work as dean of students this past year has been getting help, such as meals, to families in the school district.
“The school has a pretty high poverty rate,” she said. “We have about 40 different languages spoken. Getting information to families was huge.”
Internet access or email addresses were not always a given.
“It’s not like we could send out an email and hit all our families,” Davis said. “Some of the translations on some of the languages for the apps we used tended to be gobbledygook.”
In the midst of all this, the job opening at Deer Isle-Stonington came to her attention.
Maine has been in Davis’s mind for several years, having visited Portland and Acadia National Park several times while working as a teacher in Philadelphia.
“I just really fell in love with Maine,” she said. “I’ve been talking about making a move to Maine for many years now. I kind of made a decision after this last year with everything that’s gone on in the world that I was no longer going to put things off.”
It was a bit of serendipity that Davis heard about the opening at the high school. Her sister is a professor of physical therapy in Charlotte, N.C., and had a former student whose mother, Jennifer Mayo, teaches eighth grade math on the island.
The sister reached out to her former student and within a day, Davis was conversing with Mrs. Mayo, who cut and pasted a job link board for Maine schools.
Davis opened it and saw the opening for a high school principal.
“When I opened it, it was kind of crazy. It’s almost as if they took my resume and wrote the job description,” she said. “It was such a match.”
Davis started her career in Washington, D.C., working for the National Archives after graduating from college with an undergraduate degree in history and political science.
After losing her mother to terminal cancer in 1996, Davis took a break from D.C. and taught outdoor education — horseback riding at a camp — and realized she had a calling.
“If you can teach 30 kindergartners to ride ponies in an arena when its 105 degrees out,” you can teach in a classroom, Davis said. “I think outdoor ed is a great precursor to a career in education.”
Tennessee, Davis explained, is strict about issuing teaching certificates, so she had to go back to school.
“If you did not have a degree in education in Tennessee you cannot teach,” she explained. The restrictions have lessened somewhat but only recently.
This past year, the focus was “to keep kids safe, to keep families safe, to get them the help and support they need and then, teach them,” Davis said. “It’s not what the people in the state Legislature wanted to hear, but it’s how we had to do things. We didn’t have a statewide mask mandate here, and I think that really hurt us.”
She wants the community to know she focuses on doing what’s best for kids first and what’s best for the staff second.
“Usually if we’re doing what’s best for kids, we’re doing what’s best for staff,” she said.
“I really believe in public education,” said Davis. “I really enjoy working with communities. I’ve spent a big portion of my career in small schools and small, progressive schools that focus on a whole child approach.”
Such an approach includes “project-based learning and place-based learning and helping kids connect with things they are interested in and passionate about,” Davis said.
“I’m also just personally very open-minded,” she said. “I like meeting with parents and just listening.”
“I’m excited about a new adventure,” she said. “I won’t say ‘ya’ll’ about 8 million times.”