Portland principal's success at King Middle School merits repeat honor

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PORTLAND — When Michael McCarthy became principal at King Middle School in 1988, the Parkside school was not a place where parents wanted to send their children.

“There was a lot of violence and there were low expectations for kids,” McCarthy said. “I knew I had to do something dramatic.”

Several years later, King became one of only nine schools nationally to pilot a new outward-bound learning model called expeditionary learning, a multidisciplinary approach that focuses on field-based, hands-on learning within the community.

The school now exceeds the state average in assessment tests — no small feat considering the school has large numbers of two demographics that typically vex educators. About 56 percent of King students are low-income and 33 percent are English Language Learners.

“It’s not about getting yourself to the top of the mountain,” McCarthy, 56, said of his educationally philosophy. “It’s about getting everyone to the top of the mountain.”

It is that philosophy — and the remarkable turnaround at King — that prompted the Maine Principals’ Association to name McCarthy, of Hollis, the 2010 Middle Level Principal of the Year.

“Mike McCarthy’s outstanding leadership and his unequivocal commitment to excellence in educating all students represent the very best qualities of the effective middle level principal in Maine and in the nation,” MPA Executive Director Richard Durost said in a press release.

McCarthy, who was named the state’s Principal of the Year in 1996, is now a candidate for the 2011 National Middle School Principal of the Year.

The role of technology in expeditionary learning at King and Casco Bay High School will be highlighted this spring by Edutopia, an initiative of the George Lucas Foundation that features public school models that work. The Lucas Foundation spent five days filming interviews with teachers and students in Portland in December.

A feature article will run in the spring edition of Edutopia magazine, which McCarthy said would be the last print edition. Future editions will be posted online at Edutopia.org, where video clips are already available.

But expeditionary learning isn’t the only McCarthy initiative that has grabbed national headlines.

In 2007, his efforts to allow school health services to prescribe birth control to students, with their parents’ permission, prompted a national debate.

While many criticized the school, claiming it wanted to hand out pills to children, McCarthy and his staff held their course on their belief it was best for the students, many of whom relied on the health center at the school as their primary health-care provider. 

“We had a very small number of students who had gotten pregnant the spring before,” he said. “In order to protect them, we felt that the doctors that were there needed the full range of reproductive services to offer.”

The firestorm may have brought an unwelcome national spotlight to King, but McCarthy said it also brought the school community together.

“There was some good that came of that,” he said. “It really solidified that every student matters.”

For his efforts, McCarthy received the Maine Public Health Association’s Access to Health Care Award.

McCarthy has also authored several articles on school reform and his “10 Big Ideas of School Leadership” is the most popular article on the Edutopia Web site.

McCarthy will be honored on April 29 at the MPA’s spring conference and may attend the Principal’s Institute from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2 in Washington, D.C., to honor the 2010 State Principals of the Year.

Although McCarthy plays down his efforts at King, he is proud of the award, if for only one reason.

“I’m proud of the school,” he said. “The school makes me look good.

“I hire really good teachers,” he added, “and then get out of their way.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

Sidebar Elements

Principal Michael McCarthy speaks with students Monday afternoon at King Middle School in Portland. McCarthy was recently named the 2010 Middle Level Principal of the Year by the Maine Principals’ Association, an award he also won in 1996.