Education secretary impressed by expeditionary learning in Portland

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PORTLAND — U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited King Middle School on Tuesday afternoon to get a first-hand look at the school’s expeditionary learning model.

Duncan’s visit to the Deering Avenue school was the final stop on a four-day “Courage in the Classroom” bus tour through eight states and 13 cities, highlighting the work of the nation’s teachers.

Nearly a dozen local, state and federal officials, including U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, state Education Commissioner Angela Flaherty and local School Committee members lined up in the 90-degree heat to greet Duncan when his big blue bus pulled into the bus loop at about 1:45 p.m.

After being presented a golden key to the city by Mayor Nick Mavodones, Duncan was taken on a tour of recent learning expeditions by Principal Michael McCarthy, the state’s 2010 Middle Level Principal of the Year and a finalist for the 2011 National Principal of the Year.

Duncan was first shown the sixth-grade learning exhibition about Four Freedoms, which was vandalized and criticized by a group of Knox County Republicans during the state GOP convention last May for, among other things, including copies of the U.S. Constitution donated by the American Civil Liberties Union. 

However, Duncan spent the most time talking with three, 13-year-old students about a civil rights expedition called Small Acts of Courage.

Keyly Martinez explained how students read about civil rights pioneers like Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man before Rosa Parks.

Joanna Quinn said students conducted 22 interviews with local residents who were involved in the civil rights movement. “There are people in Portland that made a difference, not just the people down south,” Quinn said.

The stories were collected into a binder, two copies of which were given to the secretary.

“Can I keep this?” Duncan asked.

“Yes,” Quinn said. “I’m hoping you can give one to President Barack Obama.”

After the tour, the officials gathered in the school library for a discussion about expeditionary learning and keeping students safe in the classroom.

McCarthy explained that about 56 percent of King’s 550 students are considered low income and 30 percent are foreign-born English Language Learners, mostly from war-torn countries.

When asked about the strategy for making those students feel welcome, McCarthy said the school puts them into regular classrooms as soon as possible, to bond and work with other kids.

Duncan was joined by David Mineta, who was recently appointed the deputy director of demand reduction in the White Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Mineta said his office is working closely with other federal agencies to battle the rise of alcohol and prescription drug abuse in the community and among students.

“We know that Maine is particularly feeling the brunt of this epidemic right now,” he said. “We want to let you know that Washington, D.C., is working very closely on this.”

Throughout the discussion, the school’s focus on building lasting relationships with students was credited with advancing both student achievement and safety.

To ensure that each student develops a meaningful relationship with at least one adult, the school is broken down into smaller communities. Each teacher is given a crew of about 20 students to meet with every morning for a two-year stretch – referred to as looping.

Teachers said that building relationships with students, and by extension their families, not only allows them to help with a student’s homework, but also each student’s home life.

“What I found interesting is that students would come to us and say their friend is having a problem,” teacher Mark Gervais said of the trust built among students. “Once we started hearing those kinds of stories, we knew we were on to something.”

Duncan asked if looping should be pushed for on the national level and McCarthy didn’t hesitate to say it should.

Teachers, meanwhile, meet in groups of four for 90-minute planning sessions every other day, an amount of time Duncan called stunning.

During that time, teachers integrate lesson plans for each eight- to 10-week expedition, and discuss individual student performance and, if needed, intervention strategies.

Teacher Karen MacDonald said that each expedition has a community service component, which integrates students into their neighborhoods. That element shows students the fruits of their work, giving it a real-life context, she said.

“Hopefully the fact that students are busy, are engaged (and) are focused helps to eliminate some of the other stuff that goes on,” MacDonald said.

When McCarthy took over as King’s principal 22 years ago, only a third of parents would attend parent-teacher conferences, he said. Now, school officials estimate that about 97 percent of parents attend.

By the end of the discussion, Duncan was clearly impressed by the expeditionary program implemented by McCarthy to turn around the once-struggling school.

“This school’s reputation and this state’s reputation is known nationally,” Duncan said. “I have yet to go to a great school that doesn’t have great principals. We can’t do enough to spotlight excellence.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or

Sidebar Elements

Student Keyly Martinez explains a student-led oral history project to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during Duncan’s visit to King Middle School in Portland on Tuesday. Awaiting their turns to speak are students Joanna Quinn and Mohamed Nur.

Principal Mike McCarthy welcomes U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at King Middle School in Portland on Tuesday, Aug. 31.