By Stephanie Harp
“We either care about all students or we don’t” is a guiding principle for new Bangor School Department Superintendent Jim Tager, who began July 1. He’s especially interested in issues of racism at Bangor High, described in the Bangor Daily News, June 23, 2020. To educate himself about the equity concerns, he is meeting with members of the Bangor School Committee and with Dana Carver-Bialer, the department’s Title IX and affirmative action coordinator, who was hired during the 2020-21 school year. This fall, the school department will conduct an equity survey, developed by Johns Hopkins University, to gather feedback from all Bangor High students, faculty, and staff. “I think it will give us a lot of information about what are the experiences, what are the concerns, what are the next steps,” Tager said. If the survey data proves to be as useful and informative as he expects, the department will survey the city’s two middle schools in the spring or fall of 2022.
One of his previous jobs was as superintendent at Flagler Schools, among Florida’s most diverse districts. Tager is proud of the mentoring program he set up there, which he plans to replicate in Bangor, with a goal of at least 500 mentors in 2021-22. His Florida program paired African American men in the community with African American male high school students who were at risk of not graduating; the program soon expanded to include adults and students of all genders and backgrounds. In three years, 1,500 mentors were in place for 13,000 students. Bangor, with 3,500 students, is hiring a mentoring coordinator to manage the efforts. Tager hopes to begin with teachers, administrators, and other school department employees as mentors.
“We want to mentor any student who needs a role model to talk to,” he said, adding that effective mentors aren’t exclusively adults in high-level positions. “When you match, you look at everybody in the building. I don’t think anybody’s more important than anybody else. We’re all significant adults. We tell them, ‘I want you to make a difference for a student.’ It might be that the custodian in the building is the best mentor because that person has a relationship with an otherwise invisible student.”
During Tager’s two years as principal of Atlantic High School in Volusia County, near Daytona Beach, the graduation rate jumped from 69% to 83%, for which he credits his mentoring program. At Flagler, the rate moved from 81% to 92% in three years. “As long as the students who were college bound were going to graduate, everybody was fairly OK with the rate,” he said. But he wasn’t satisfied. “It always puzzles me when I come to different places because [the percentage] is OK because the majority of the society are OK with it. But to me, when I look at those kinds of numbers, I’m not OK with it. … It’s something I’m passionate about raising, and my connection to that is mentoring.” Bangor’s current graduation rate is 84%; his goal is 90%.
Increasing the graduation rate is not Tager’s sole purpose in establishing a mentoring program. “I don’t see this as ‘Oh, gosh, this is for students that are needy.’ … I look at mentoring as who that student wants to be.” He would like to recruit local community members and professionals. “After 17 months of COVID, in many cases [students] just need someone to talk to,” he said.
Tager sees mentoring and the equity survey as his first steps in addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion concerns, but only the beginning. “It’s a good time in this country to have these conversations, and they’re not easy conversations,” he said. He already has received emails about critical race theory. “There’s a lot of misunderstandings, and I don’t want to sidestep anything, but I think nothing gets better without a conversation.”
Deep conversations have to happen, Tager said. Calling them “Take 10 meetings,” he is eager to talk with anyone who works with Bangor schools, and will consider what he hears when he evaluates the information he’ll receive from the survey. “I anticipate we’ll probably be very proud of some things, and some we won’t be. But you can’t just sit on your hands and say, ‘That happened and now we’re moving forward.’ ”
In the midst of a resurgent virus, a polarized national atmosphere, and local concerns, Tager knows he has his work cut out for him. Another of his guiding principles is gratitude – every day, and for every experience. In mid-July, he released an introductory letter to the Bangor community, signing it, “Enthusiastically yours,” capturing his upbeat approach to education and to his new role.