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Grant helps change focus at Portland Public Schools

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Grant helps change focus at Portland Public Schools

PORTLAND — Students may notice a change in the way they are being taught when they head back to city schools on Sept. 6.

A $5.1 million grant from the Nellie Mae Foundation is helping the Portland Public Schools create a new educational model more focused on “student-centered learning.”

The model allows students to maintain focus on high standards, and affords them more opportunities to learn by completing tasks.

Several schools have already implemented pieces of the model:

• Deering High School students have had the opportunity to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity on Fridays, learning math skills while building a home.

• Casco Bay High School, a school founded on “expeditionary learning,” allows students to drive the curriculum by doing research projects and presenting their findings before the school and community.

• Portland Arts and Technology High School places its focus on high job-growth fields in Maine by offering classes in applied arts and technologies.

• And Portland High School allows students to petition for an after-school activity, such as ballet, to count as their mandatory physical education credit, freeing up more time for students to study areas of interest.

“We think that in this day and age, when we want many more learners to achieve much higher and complex skills, that we need to think creatively about how we engage high school students,” said Nick Donohue, president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Foundation. “If you really want a lot more people learning complex skills, you really have to think a little differently than the processes we have had in place in the last century or so. (Student-centered learning) is really to modernize education so that more learners can learn.”

Portland was one of only four school districts across the region to receive grant money from the Nellie Mae Foundation. The $9 million grant given to Maine schools was split between Portland Public Schools and the Sanford School Department.

Portland's past experience with student-centered education models is what led the Nellie Mae Foundation to make the grant.

“We spent a long time looking for communities that have some momentum behind what we would call student-centered learning. ...Portland was an obvious leader when we looked at that group,” Donohue said. “We looked all over New England and they surfaced as a very strong candidate.”

Donohue said that the districts work with organizations such as Jobs for Maine's Graduates and the city's refugee programs, and their community engagement made them an ideal partner for the foundation.

“Having momentum, being focused on really being creative about supporting better student learning and being committed to partnerships were all really important to us,” he said.

While the grant money must be used for advances in the student-centered learning model, Donohue said that the foundation does not dictate exactly where every dollar must go.

“We're open to amending things based on what they learn as they go because we want them to succeed,” he said.

Amber Cronin can be reached at acronin@theforecaster.net or 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter @croninamber.