SchoolCEO Conversations: Can partnering with businesses meet student needs?

Tim Doak, leader of two rural districts in Maine, explains how community partnerships with local businesses can help support student needs.

By Corey Whaley Last Updated: December 10, 2019

Tim Doak, Maine’s 2018 Superintendent of the Year, is leading two rural districts to success through community connection and partnership. RSU 39 and MSAD 20 are neighboring districts just next to the Canadian border that reached an agreement four years ago to share Doak as superintendent.

“I think rural Maine is going to have to go this route eventually...or they’ll lose their school systems and they’ll go to neighboring towns,” says Doak. He also notes that other districts in the region have started similar shared-service approaches.

We don’t have to tell you that being responsible for two separate school districts, big or small, is a lot of work. But Doak, having served as superintendent for two other districts prior to his current ones, says he’s had “a variety of experiences and has learned a lot from how each district is slightly different.”

Serve student needs and the needs of community businesses.

When it comes to marketing, Doak is a fierce advocate. “I truly believe in the whole concept of marketing your school,” he tells us. Doak was also one of the first superintendents in his county to partner his schools with local businesses. “I truly believe that businesses and schools need to work together. We’re the place where the future workers of those businesses are and we’ve got to work together to make sure we’re actually servicing the needs of the businesses.”

Doak says that getting notoriety like the Superintendent of the Year honor is partly because his county, Aroostook, is doing “progressive things with education” for rural Maine. Doak says this impresses educators because his districts “don’t have the lucrative resources that some of the other communities marketing your school in a small area is big because it’s one of the only true resources that small towns in Maine have.”

Can you form effective partnerships in a rural community with limited resources?

Marketing in a rural area, however, also presents unique challenges. Doak says the big challenge is making connections with other leaders because “when you’re in a small, rural community, there’s very few of those.” So, he has to seek out “the ones that are there that own businesses, that are CEOs of hospitals and the like.”

Doak was inspired to study and work on making connections with community business leaders because their jobs are so similar to his. He adds that there hasn’t been much communication between businesses and schools in the community for quite some time. “I kind of did a little learning experience myself and started meeting with other CEOs of other companies and organizations around my schools,” he tells us. At first, these meetings were more about informational sharing, like discussing self-care as a CEO. Then, Doak knew he needed “to sit down and see how they handle their visionary process, how they’re being innovative, and where the big ideas come from in their companies.”

The impact, Doak tells us, was a two-way street. “They were learning more about the schools than they ever thought they’d know,” he adds. “Rural Maine is really unique in a way that we don’t have that variety of clientele that we can work with where in a bigger city like Bangor or Portland it happens all the time.”

Doak has also found that in rural Maine a superintendent is “really depended upon for everything that deals with schools. From being at the basketball game to being at public functions to always addressing the media...they really want you there.” So, finding time to connect to other leaders sometimes means being creative. “One of the best things I ever did,” he adds, “was I worked out at lunch with five or six other business owners.” Doak says the camaraderie and exchange of knowledge were wonderful. “It’s a subtle way of marketing your school.”

Keep student success and district accolades at the forefront of your marketing. Share all your good stories.

Another good way to market his districts, Doak tells us, is by “promoting what kids are doing in a rural school.” He goes on to list some achievements earned by his districts’ schools: “We were state basketball champs last year, we were state track champs, state tennis champs...our scores, the programs we have, our Career and Technology Center and what it offers—everything I do as a superintendent relates back to marketing my schools, branding what we do, and making sure people understand.”

When asked what programs have been created from his business partnerships, Doak shares an experience from his time in a previous district even farther north (MSAD 27). “The first one that really ended up being a success...was I started a dental program right in our schools.” Working with the CEO of Fish River Rural Health, Doak sought to tackle the effects of excessive sugary soda drinking in their area— “There was very little attention paid to dental upkeep and when you have dental issues at a young age, it’s a lifelong crisis that you’re going to deal with.” Doak met with the CEO and discussed their backgrounds, training, self-care routines, and eventually got to the issue of kids’ dental health and the soda problem in their area. This, Doak says, led to the question: What can we do together? That’s when the program was born.

“So we started writing grants and getting people into schools,” he tells us. “Every classroom had a person go in a check [students’] teeth. Fluoride rinses, sealants...we looked at running a grant to get a mobile van with a dental chair.” He says this program came directly from reaching out to a local leader. “It made a relationship; it made a connection.”

Bringing community onto campus strengthens connections.

This connection, for Doak, also goes beyond whatever programs can be created. It’s about opening up the campus to its community. “I was always big on trying to get these people into our classrooms because I want them to leave everyday thinking they’re part of what we’re doing in our schools,” he adds. “So now we have guest speakers, people being connected, and job shadows…it just makes the whole connection of marketing your schools and marketing your community even better.”


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