Chris Hoffman is the new principal of Mt. Ararat High School. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)
Harpswell students will have a new principal when they return to Mt. Ararat High School later this month — one who has a few things in common with them, as a graduate of the school who grew up on Great Island.
Chris Hoffman was born in Brunswick and grew up on Indian Rest Road, just across the bridge from Brunswick to Great Island. He attended Harpswell Islands School — now Harpswell Community School — then Mt. Ararat Middle School and Mt. Ararat High, graduating in 2003.
He has fond memories of his childhood in Harpswell, swimming and riding bikes in the neighborhood, playing baseball and basketball, and later working at Cook’s Lobster House on Bailey Island.
At Mt. Ararat High, Hoffman was active as an athlete and student leader.
He was class president his junior and senior years. He played soccer all four years and ran track for two years before switching to lacrosse for the next two. He competed in the Science Olympiad, where he met his future wife, a schoolmate in the grade ahead of him. They were on the math team and played in the band together, with Hoffman on baritone sax.
He credits his education at Mt. Ararat with giving him a greater appreciation for the world and preparing him for success as a teacher and principal. For example, his study of German at Mt. Ararat would eventually lead to a position teaching English in Austria.
Hoffman graduated from Colby College in 2007. After a year in Austria, he and his wife moved to Brunswick and he started a 12-year run at Greely High School in Cumberland. He taught English and social studies for the first nine years, then served as principal the last three. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in American and New England studies from the University of Southern Maine.
Hoffman’s roots in the community and a shorter commute — a 12-minute bike ride instead of a 35-minute drive — attracted him back to Mt. Ararat. He started July 1.
When Hoffman talks about his philosophy as an educator, he often uses two words: engagement and outcomes.
“I think our most important first step as educators is to make sure that we’re engaging our students in the learning process,” he said.
To engage students, educators need to facilitate experiences — like a biology assignment he remembers from high school.
The summer before his sophomore year, his homework was to pick a tiny plot of land and track the changes there throughout the season. He chose a spot at the high-tide line near his home. The project “helped me develop an appreciation for the natural world and my little slice of it there in Harpswell,” he said.
“We learn best when we can connect words and ideas with the tactile things around us,” Hoffman said.
Of the second word, outcomes, he said that both individuals and institutions make progress when they set targets for progress. “What is the growth that we want to see in ourselves and what is the growth that we want to help our students achieve?” he said.
Hoffman is pursuing a doctorate in public policy with a concentration in educational leadership, and his thesis focuses on the stigma associated with career and technical education.
“I’d like to promote a culture here that empowers students to explore and participate in learning programs that will help them achieve their goals and that encourage them to recognize that all possible pathways toward a meaningful life and career are equally valued here,” he said.
While Hoffman would like to shift his focus to other matters, he sees the COVID-19 pandemic as the biggest challenge at the start of the school year.
“Last year, only half of the students were here at one time,” he said. “We’re excited to have the whole student body here five days a week this coming year.” The school has 750 students, including 120 from Harpswell.
Mt. Ararat has not determined what precautions it will take as far as face coverings and physical distancing.
“We know those things, even in small ways, take away from the educational experience, so that’s a challenge — that’s the biggest one, I think,” Hoffman said. “We’re going to have to continue to keep our kids safe and make sure everyone is comfortable in this environment and ready to learn.”
The “environment” is a year-old, 153,000-square-foot school, the centerpiece of a $60.7 million project. Construction of an athletic complex, the final piece of the project, should wrap in time for the first day of school.
Hoffman called the new building a “technological marvel.” Teachers will incorporate the building’s solar panels and geothermal heating-and-cooling system into their instruction.
The school will celebrate the project’s completion with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 17.
The old school dated to 1973 and “was a dreadful place for learning in a lot of ways,” Hoffman said, built with an open-concept floor plan that proved unworkable. School officials soon added classroom walls.
“You had to go through one room to get to another. Many rooms only had three walls. You could hear everything happening in the two classrooms next to yours, and there were silver linings to that, but overall it was a challenging environment to learn in, I think,” Hoffman said. “So it’s kind of silly, but walls, windows and doors are a massive advantage here.”
Walls or no walls, Mt. Ararat had a profound influence on Hoffman — and that influence has him excited about returning as its leader.
“This place was formative to my development and I’d like to think that I can continue to have a positive influence on the community of students here and make sure the education we offer will provide more opportunities for students moving forward,” Hoffman said.
Away from school, Hoffman likes to spend time with family — he and his wife have two daughters, ages 7 and 5 — and work on his dissertation.