Portland gets $200K to plan high school education reforms

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PORTLAND — The School Department will soon begin planning a new education model for all four of the city’s high schools.

The goal is find ways to better engage students who are at risk of dropping out, while inspiring others to perform better by increasing the relevance of their lessons.

The effort is being made possible by a $200,000 planning grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, New England’s largest education charity.

The grants will first be awarded as part of the foundation’s District Level Systems Change, a three-pronged approach to reform focusing on educational practice, policy and public understanding/demand.

Portland schools were one of three districts in the state and seven in New England to receive the award. Other Maine grants went to School Administrative District 60 in North Berwick and the Sanford School Department.

Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. said he plans to include staff and community organizations in a conversation about ways to increase student engagement, which he hopes will, in turn, reduce the high school drop-out rate.

“What we traditionally have is a sit-and-get tradition of public education and part of that is leading is to the number of kids who are not finishing high school,” Morse said.

Morse noted the success of Casco Bay High School, which uses an expeditionary education model that focuses on hands-on, interdisciplinary learning in the community.

“The learning isn’t all happening inside a classroom,” Morse said.

The project will also emphasize community partnerships, something Morse said he has been advocating for since he took his job nearly two years ago.

The district will partner with LearningWorks and Jobs for Maine Graduates, two community programs that focus on helping low-income and immigrant kids who are at-risk of dropping out.

“It really emphasizes a public school system doesn’t stand by itself,” Morse said. “It stands strong in relation to partnerships with others.”

At the end of the year-long planning study, the district will be able to apply for additional funding to implement its new, “Student-Centered Learning Plan.”

The foundation defines Student-Centered learning as “education that takes place both in and out of the classroom; focuses on the needs and interests of learners; finds innovative uses of time; includes a wider variety of adults in all aspects of learning; and measures skills and mastery of content using a combination of demonstration and traditional testing.”

According to a press release from the Nellie Mae Foundation, each district could receive multi-year grants of between $800,000 and $1.5 million. 

“These grants represent a significant step for education reform and, ultimately, the well-being of our region,” Nellie May Vice President Mary Sylvia Hanson said in a written statement.

Morse said Portland will possibly implement changes in high school classrooms by the 2012-2013 school year.

“I think change is inevitable,” Morse said. “Without additional resources it just takes a lot longer.”

This is the second stab at major change in Portland’s high schools. Last year, the department applied unsuccessfully for an $11 million federal grant to implement a Talent Development High School and to move CBHS into the PHS building.

Although the district didn’t get that grant, Morse said much of that application was valuable in receiving this planning grant, which will also focus on reforms at all four city high schools: PHS, CBHS, Deering High School and the Portland Arts and Technology High School.

“I think this allows in the district to engage community partners as well as our own staff in thinking differently about what a high school education might be,” Morse said, “so that more students are challenged and engaged.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]