North Carolina native Dr. Terri Cooper has been chosen to lead RSU 21 as superintendent. She will take up her duties Aug. 3. Courtesy Photo

KENNEBUNK – When Dr. Terri Cooper began researching Regional School Unit 21 as she was exploring superintendent positions, she was struck by a number of attributes.

“My immediate findings were that the district was warm, welcoming and innovative in practices,” she said in an email from her home in North Carolina. “I welcomed the district’s focus on Strong Teaching and Learning; Positive Student Outcomes; Healthy Learning Environments and Unified Schools and Communities and I sought this opportunity to contribute to an exciting/forward-thinking/fast-moving school district.”

Cooper pursued the posting, and last week was named RSU 21 superintendent in a unanimous vote of the school board. She was chosen from a field of 18 applicants, was among seven semifinalists interviewed and was chosen from two finalists, said school board chair Kendra Connor.

“She demonstrated excellent leadership skills, effective communication skills, was an active listener and is passionate about achievement for all students,” said Connor. ” (Cooper) discussed success through equity, expectations and excellence. She will listen, look and learn and will build strong collaborative relationships.”

Board member Maureen King said Cooper displayed quiet confidence and that her honesty shone through all discussions.

“She spoke passionately about the importance of listening and relationship building,” said King.

“She was the most prepared to address the impact of COVID-19 on our students,” said board member Tanya Alsberg.

Cooper has been principal of River Gate Elementary for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina since 2017, joining the district as a principal at another school in 2015. She began her career in education as an elementary school teacher, serving 10 years in Richmond and Union counties in North Carolina. She later served as Union County’s director of employee support and in 2011, was named principal of Sun Valley Elementary School.

Cooper said she brings a background in instructional leadership, talent development, family and community engagement, data driven decision making, shared decision making and equity and inclusion.

“These experiences will certainly be advantageous as I fulfill my responsibilities and duties as superintendent of RSU-21 as outlined by our board,” said Cooper. “However, what is equally important are those attributes not found on my resume. I also bring my passion and commitment to supporting each and every child, supporting each and every team member, supporting the community of RSU 21 and supporting the board’s mission and vision.”

She said her immediate goal is to participate in a “listen and learn” tour with all stakeholders and identify strengths in the district.

RSU 21 Director of Operations, Dr. Stephen Marquis is serving as interim superintendent after the former interim, Dr. Phillip Potenziano,  left to take a superintendent position in Brunswick. An earlier interim, Maryann Perry, resigned shortly after being hired. Former superintendent Katie Hawes departed a year ago following a period of turmoil in the district. An independent investigation faulted the district on the way it handled a racial incident.

Originally from Monroe, North Carolina, Cooper earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree in administration from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Wingate University.

“Growing up, Dr. Cooper recognized that strong family support was critical to her development,” the RSU 21 School Board wrote in a release issued last week. “As she received encouragement from family and community members in the pursuit of academic goals, she has sought opportunities to mentor and support students and educational leaders in their goal attainment.”

The news release went on to describe Cooper as is an authentic leader who understands how to shape culture and “demonstrated her collaborative leadership, approachability, and effective communication and listening skills. ”

The school board began a search for a new superintendent this spring, and conducted a community survey, convened a search committee and an interview committee, among others. The district hired Maine School Management Association and Carney Sandoe & Associates of Boston to assist in the search.

Cooper is married to Kenneth Cooper, a sergeant with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. The couple has two grown sons, Kendall and Kennedy.

She is due to begin her duties at RSU 21 on Aug. 3.

Connor said Cooper is eager to start and has pledged to be available for interviews for new hires as needed and to begin to get acquainted with district staff.

Cooper has a three-year contract with the district. Her salary is set at $145,000.

Board member Mike Mosher said in talks with Cooper, he was struck by “the genuine, straight-forward discussion and answers to our questions.”

Others felt similarly.

“During our time with Dr. Cooper, what I noticed, and what made me say, ‘she’s the one,’ was actually many different things,” said board member Sarah Dore. “I appreciated her thoughtful and inclusive approach to building relationships and her demonstrated commitment to candid, transparent conversations. I believe she is ready to hit the ground learning with open ears, an open heart and an open mind and will be proactive in her commitment to the students, staff and communities of RSU 21.”

“I was immediately impressed with Dr. Cooper’s description of her personal leadership philosophy, her explanation of how her leadership is rooted in integrity and supports her willingness to address challenges, own failure, learn from it and pivot,” said board member Loreta McConnell. “I appreciated her sharing examples of failures and learning, including to hit the ground listening.”

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