$100K on the line, online, for Portland school principal

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PORTLAND — A city high school principal has a one-in-six chance of landing his school $100,000.

Derek Pierce, who has been principal at Casco Bay High School since it was founded nine years ago, has been nominated for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation’s Larry O’Toole Award, which gives a grant to a New England school, community organization or school district every year to “to advance student-centered approaches to learning for all students.”

“It’s super fortunate, for sure,” Pierce said. “I’m not a huge fan of online voting processes, but it’s been very exciting to see how much support the school has gotten from all sorts of quarters.”

As of Monday, Pierce was still in the lead in terms of votes cast, but he said “it’s a long way to go.” He said that states with larger populations, like Massachusetts and Connecticut, could make things tricky if it comes down to a state pride issue.

“So far it’s been very encouraging to see people being so supportive from all over the place,” Pierce said. 

No Maine school or organization has ever won the award, which is now in its third year. This is also the first year social media will play a role in the decision.

Six other candidates were nominated this year, one from each state in New England. Voting is open to the public through Sept. 30 on the Foundation’s website.

Pierce said he wasn’t sure why he specifically was chosen, but said the foundation had supported Portland Public Schools in the past. He said he found out about the nomination in late August, and “it was a total shock.”

“We want to do it in a way that builds community at our school and have some fun while not getting too obsessed, since money can make people do wacky things,” Pierce said. “Work ethically is one of our paramount pathways to success, so we want to make sure we’re not losing perspective.”

Pierce said if he wins, $50,000 will go towards funding projects like the four-day, three-night trips first-year students and seniors take in the fall to Cow Island, and the out-of-state service projects required of juniors. These are knows as the Freshmen Quest, the Junior Journey and the Senior Quest.

“Those experiences we try to do every year for every kid,” Pierce said. “It takes a lot of money, and it’s not in the regular school budget. So typically I’m writing grants to try and make that happen, and parents contribute what they can. But as we grow it’s tricky to sustain that, but it’s so at the essence of what we do because these experiences tend to be so transformative for the kids.”

Another $25,000 will go towards advancing the school’s STEM program, which Pierce said usually revolves around social justice issues. And the rest of the money would go towards facilitating funding for out-of-country visitors to come see and learn about the school.

“The bottom line is that we would be thrilled to have those funds to put towards furthering our vision for student-centered learning, because there’s plenty to do,” he said. “There’s never enough resources for all the good stuff that we want to do with kids.”

Pierce also said a few students are leading a competition to make short videos to promote voting, called “100,000 Reasons We Love Casco Bay.” Pierce said they will show the videos each week at a school-wide meeting. He said the students are trying to get alumni and parents to make videos, too.

“Whatever happens, because five people lose this competition, we can at least deepen our sense of community and stay true to our core values through the process, even though there’s a big money sign dangling over our head,” Pierce said. “It’s a great opportunity to celebrate how far we’ve come.”

Pierce said this is also a great opportunity to celebrate CBHS’s 10th anniversary and “how far we’ve come since we’ve opened.”

“If we don’t win,” he said, “we’ll still feel like we’ve built a lot of community over a couple of weeks.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Sidebar Elements

Derek Pierce, principal at Casco Bay High School in Portland, is one of six candidates for a $100,000 grant.

CBHS students to keynote Boston conference

PORTLAND — Casco Bay High School has been selected to provide the keynote speech at the Expeditionary Learning 2014 National Conference, which will be held in Boston in December. CBHS Principal Derek Pierce said four students will be selected over the next month and prepped to speak in front of the crowd.

Pierce also said the school will reach its capacity of nearly 400 students next year. There are approximately 100 students in each of the lower grades now, and around 70 in the senior class. Next year each class will have just under 100 students.

— Colin Ellis

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.