PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Even before Loretta Clark began her career at SAD 1 as an ed tech in 1981, she already considered the district her “home.”
“I was a student here and so were my sons. Now my grandchildren are moving up through the district,” Clark said, just two months before her planned retirement. “My entire life has happened in this district.”
Though people at Pine Street Elementary School know Clark best as the school’s current principal, she has played numerous roles within SAD 1 during her 40-year career.
After a brief stint in Calais as a reading specialist, she returned to Aroostook in 1981 to work as a kindergarten ed tech at Presque Isle’s former Gouldville School, now the home of ACAP’s Head Start program, and Zippel Elementary School. She went on to teach various grade levels at SAD 1’s elementary schools for the next decade.
Some of Clark’s fondest and saddest memories come from the last several years she taught and served as principal for Westfield Elementary School. The former K-5 school closed in 1999 after years of declining enrollment. Clark remembered that in her final year of teaching there, Westfield had only 21 students, with several grades having no students at all.
“It was a sweet little community school. We had a great group of parents who were always helping out,” Clark said, about Westfield.
Amidst the sadness of that school closing, Clark found an opportunity to both teach and help SAD 1 start a new educational chapter. In 1999 she became one of the founding administrators and teachers for the district’s public pre-K program. That program became the first public pre-K option for parents in the district and still operates today.
Four years later, Clark set her sights on mentoring the next generation of elementary school teachers. She became an administrator for the new Early Childhood Education program, now part of Presque Isle High School’s Regional and Technical Career Center.
As part of her role in that program, Clark taught high school juniors and seniors who worked with Head Start children at the school’s Early Childhood center.
Many of those students had been in Clark’s elementary classes during her early years of teaching. Though the students were long past the years of receiving stickers on their papers for a job well done, Clark found that they not only remembered her weekly classroom rewards and praise but loved those experiences as older students.
“I always told them that they were just like my pre-K students but in bigger bodies,” Clark said. “They loved receiving stickers and doing hands-on activities. In fact, if I didn’t put a sticker on their papers, they would ask for one.”
Regardless of what grade levels she has taught, Clark’s most rewarding experiences have involved inspiring students to love reading and exploring their curiosities about the world. Over the years, numerous students have sent her letters and emails, expressing their appreciation for her lively and encouraging classroom environment.
Clark has realized that even the briefest of interactions can have a lifelong impact on students after they leave the district.
“Years ago I had a student who was in foster care and ended up moving away. He sent me the most heartwarming message to let me know how successful he has been and what a positive impact I had on him,” Clark said. “I still get tears of joy when I think about that.”
During her 14 years as Pine Street’s principal, Clark has helped the district navigate many changes, including advances in technology and a decline in district enrollment as the county loses population. She feels grateful that even throughout the most recent challenge — the COVID-19 pandemic — students have attended in-person classes most days and still experienced the wonder of learning in classroom settings.
Clark will soon say goodbye to students and her colleagues when she retires in June at the end of the current school year. She hopes to spend more time with her family, including her five grandchildren, and start arts and craft projects, gardening and other outdoor activities.
“Forty years is a good, round number,” Clark said, about her reasons for retiring. “It was not an easy decision, but I want to enjoy my grandchildren and have more time to do what I want, when I want to do it. I’ve always been a planner, so I know the days will just fly by.”
Clark’s colleagues at SAD 1 praised her professionalism and her love for students and their families. Ben Greenlaw, SAD 1 superintendent, described Clark as an “ideal colleague” who always worked to make the district a welcoming place for students.
“Loretta has been an integral part of the SAD 1 community,” Greenlaw said. “I think people will remember her as someone who treated students at Pine Street as if they were her own.”
As she prepares to end her career, Clark has thought about advice she might give to her successor as well as to any person beginning their career as a school principal.
“Always lead with your heart and mind and make decisions based on what’s best for your students,” Clark said. “Always look for the best in any child and never give up on them no matter what.”