FALMOUTH – Students who walk down the hall at the REAL School can’t miss Principal Pender Makin.
Her desk, complete with a colorful floor light and a bulletin board packed with photos and art, is smack in the middle of the hall.
“This is a job where you have to be super approachable,” said Makin, who has been principal for 10 years at the Regional Education Alternative Learning School, an alternative school for seventh- through 12th-graders with campuses in Windham and on Mackworth Island in Falmouth.
Her personal approach and dedication to making a connection with each student led the Maine Principals’ Association to name Makin high school Principal of the Year.
“She has a reputation for working miracles,” said the association’s assistant executive director, Jeanne Crocker. “I’ve heard her described as a ‘kid whisperer.’“
Leading the REAL School’s 55 students can be particularly difficult. The school is both an alternative high school for at-risk students and a day-treatment program, drawing students from throughout southern Maine. All of the students have tried, and failed, to succeed at other schools.
Makin’s top priority is making sure each student is successful, no matter what it takes.
“She has spent her life advocating and coming up with creative solutions for some of Maine’s most maladjusted students,” said Assistant Principal Martin Mackey. “She doesn’t ‘go to work.’ She’s at work all the time.”
A few years ago, for example, there was a student who had trouble getting to the school. So, once or twice a week, Makin would pick him up at home, take him to Becky’s Diner in Portland for breakfast, go over his homework and assignments, then get him set up for the next few days before repeating the whole thing again.
“She does totally out-of-the-box stuff,” Mackey said. “She has the professional courage to try anything, and with that courage comes tremendous opportunity for success.”
Crocker said Makin’s methods make her stand out among the state’s principals.
“She is all about standards and student learning. But she is also very relationship-based,” said Crocker, who sent a few students to the REAL School when she was principal at South Portland High School.
“I knew they were going to Pender and she would help them,” Crocker said.
Makin said she was flattered and humbled by the honor.
“I am very grateful, but this is really about the kids, and the school,” Makin said. “I hope this can shine a light on what we’re doing here.”
A ceremony honoring Makin will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at the school on Mackworth Island.
Sophomore Moriah Stark said the students are proud that Makin got the award. “She’s great,” Stark said, smiling at Makin.
Before coming to the REAL School, Makin was lead teacher at Wescott Junior High School in Westbrook. In 2001, she received a prestigious Milken Educator Award, and in 2000 she was a finalist for Maine Teacher of the Year.
Makin got her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Southern Maine.
Crocker and others say one thing that has made Makin successful is her ability to enlist and nurture the staff around her.
“She helps her staff become the best they can be,” Crocker said.
“This is a group of people who work shoulder-to-shoulder,” Makin said of the staff, from bus drivers to instructors.
“You can really feel a good vibe when you come into our school,” Mackey said. “There’s a lot of love in our school. We have a lot of kids with fractured home lives, and this is the one stable thing in their lives.”
Makin agreed that the students and staff have “some pretty extreme challenges,” but that just means they have to work extra hard.
“Just look around at these kids,” she said, waving her hand toward the bustling hallway and groups of students in a nearby room. “This is a beautiful place to be.”
Noel Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: