AUGUSTA — Stephen Bowen grew up on a farm in the town of Penobscot, where his father first raised chickens, then switched to cows when the poultry industry collapsed.

It’s one of the experiences that informs Bowen’s effort to bring change to Maine schools as the state’s new education commissioner.

When Bowen wasn’t in school, he worked beside his father, Paul, milking cows and hefting hay bales. When Maine’s dairy industry faltered, his father, a former Methodist minister, bought an auto repair shop in Verona and fixed cars, doing what he could to put two kids through college.

Through it all, Bowen developed an appreciation for his father’s work ethic, self-reliance and willingness to shift gears to benefit his family.

“He had an ability to adapt,” Bowen said. “You have to.”

Maine schools need to adapt, too, Bowen said, if the state’s young people are going to thrive.

For Bowen, a former teacher, that means rebuilding the public school system so it no longer tracks students along rigid paths that limit their options and their success. It also means allowing school choice and charter schools, or increasing the number of magnet schools.

“We need to break the system open and try different things,” Bowen said. “I believe in public education. But we need to build some flexibility into the system. I think we need lots of different options.”

Republican Gov. Paul LePage tapped Bowen to head the Maine Department of Education while Bowen was serving as senior education policy adviser early in LePage’s administration.

Bowen had been working as director of the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, an organization that promotes conservative policies. In that role, Bowen wrote numerous reports pointing out problems in Maine schools and the state and federal agencies that oversee them.

Now, Bowen, 41, finds himself in a position to work for the changes that he sought. He acknowledges that the stakes are high for all Maine children, including his two daughters, Emily, 11, and Katherine, 8, who attend Camden-Rockport public schools.

Those who know Bowen say he just might be able to bring significant, positive change to Maine schools, regardless of his politics.

“He’s a conservative, but he was always about doing what’s best for kids and holding them accountable,” said Sandy Nevens, principal of Warsaw Middle School in Pittsfield.

A self-described liberal, Nevens is president of the Maine Association of Middle Level Education, and he was principal of Camden-Rockport Middle School when Bowen taught eighth-grade social studies there from 2000 to 2007.

During that time, Nevens observed and evaluated Bowen in the classroom. He described Bowen as a bright, effective teacher who knew how to keep kids interested in ancient-history lessons. Bowen emphasized language arts skills and modern-day connections with an interdisciplinary approach to learning, Nevens said.

Bowen worked as a teacher leader and was a “good advocate” for both students and staff members, Nevens said. He found Bowen to be an articulate, thoughtful man of integrity who didn’t let his political views influence his teaching, even when he was serving as a Republican in the Maine House of Representatives from 2002 to 2006.

“I’m hopeful that he will bring the perspective of having been a teacher to his job as commissioner,” said Nevens. “We don’t always agree, but I know that whatever he does, he does with commitment and he does his homework.”

Bowen’s ability to organize, plan and execute are characteristics that the Maine Department of Education needs, said Peter Geiger, executive vice president of Geiger Group in Lewiston and editor of the Farmers’ Almanac.

Geiger is a member of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education and a former member of the Maine State Board of Education. An unenrolled, independent voter, Geiger served on LePage’s transition team for the education department.

After years of “waffling” from one educational initiative to the next, Maine needs a schools chief who can execute a plan, Geiger said. Geiger believes Bowen can do the job, though he has little administrative experience.

“Stephen Bowen seems to be a strategic thinker,” Geiger said. “He’s a smart young guy who is knowledgeable about the issues. And he’s a good listener. To be a good leader, you need to be a good listener. I think he’s going to lay out a plan that gets us where we need to be.”

Geiger said he hopes Bowen doesn’t get bogged down fighting political battles over hot-button issues such as charter schools.

“We need to focus on things that help students learn, improve training for teachers and better engage parents in the whole process,” Geiger said.

Bowen said that’s exactly where his focus will be. It has been for a while. His eye for education reform developed soon after he started teaching in 1997 in Fairfax County, Va., where he met his wife, Heather, then a first-grade teacher. Now, she teaches at a Camden preschool.

Bowen believes that most teachers spend a lot of time thinking about how “the business of education” could be done differently.

“You’re not in the building very long before you begin to wonder, ‘Why do we do it like this?’ ” Bowen said. “You spend any time with veteran teachers and you get a sense of their frustration with a system that is very bureaucratic and doesn’t seem to respond to the needs of kids very well.”

Teachers also have to deal with widespread scrutiny from people who think they know exactly what’s wrong with the educational system and how to fix it, Bowen said. There are some teachers who should “find a different line of work,” he said, but most work hard and deserve more support so they can be more effective in the classroom.

“Everybody thinks they’re an expert (because) everybody’s gone to school,” Bowen said. “You don’t go in and tell a dentist how to do his job, but everybody feels comfortable telling teachers how to do their job.”

Bowen’s call to public office came early, when he served as senior class president at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, the town where his mother, Margie, managed a law office.

Bowen said he decided to become a teacher because he loved history and social studies and he wanted to share that with students. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Drew University in Madison, N.J., then got a master’s degree in education from George Mason University in Washington, D.C. Despite his accomplishments, Bowen said his sister, Jennifer, a marine biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is the “brains” of the family.

It was in college that Bowen honed his conservative viewpoint. He read “Losing Ground,” by Charles Murray, which argued that social programs of the 1960s and 1970s had hurt poor and minority communities.

“That’s when I came to understand that government has limits,” Bowen said. “It can’t be about good intentions all the time.”

While Bowen espouses the limits of government, he also talks about its fundamental role in forging change. He has assumed the top office in a state educational system where he wants to increase regionalization, streamline administration and improve teacher training and evaluation. He also wants to reshape schools that struggle to adequately prepare students for college or careers in the shadow of closed mills and other fading industries.

He has set his sights on Washington, where he hopes to wrestle greater control over federal education funding to states. He said half of about 150 people working at the Maine Department of Education spend their days monitoring federal programs and writing reports.

He’d like to spend less time and money doing paperwork and refocus the department’s efforts on improving instruction and better preparing students for the challenges that lie ahead.

“A lot of what we do is at the behest of Washington,” Bowen said. “We need some big changes to No Child Left Behind. Because the system, as it presently functions, (isn’t) capable of doing what we want it to do, which is meet the needs of every one of these kids.”

Whether or not Bowen is successful as commissioner depends greatly on his ability to inspire others, across party lines, to adapt to a changing landscape as his father did. At the heart of his effort is a fundamental belief that all students can learn.

“You have to build a system that can do that to the best of its ability,” Bowen said. “Part of that is a recognition that a school gets a kid for six and a half hours a day, 175 days a year. There are limits to what schools can do. There are limits even to what the most effective teachers can do. So, you have to acknowledge that, I think. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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