Portland schools leverage grant money for new learning models

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PORTLAND — A $5.1 million grant will allow the School Department to implement student-centered paths to graduation in the city’s four high schools and provide a bridge between students and potential employers.

The grant was one of four awarded to schools in New England by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which supports the promotion and integration of student-centered learning in middle and high schools. The money will be distributed over three years to Portland schools and its partners on the grant, Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, LearningWorks and the city’s Refugee Services Program.

Additionally, a one-year, $130,000 grant was awarded to the city’s Refugee Services Program.

Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. said the money will allow school officials to speed implementation of the district’s comprehensive plan framework, which calls for tailoring teaching to individual student needs.

The student-centered model of education will be implemented at Portland High School, Deering High School, Casco Bay High School and Portland Arts and Technology High School. Also included in the changes will be a shift to proficiency-based diplomas from the current credit-based diplomas.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for our high schools to create new models for personalized learning that will benefit all students,” Morse said.

Morse said that while change is never easy, it is necessary to ensure each student is learning and is prepared for a career or college. Transitioning to a new model could prevent students who don’t find success in a traditional classroom from dropping out of school entirely, he said.

Currently, 20 percent of the city’s 2,200 high school students drop out before graduation. Morse said there has been a 3 percent gain in the high school completion rate in the past couple years, but more work is needed.

Much of that work will be accomplished through partnerships with community organizations, he said.

Jobs for Maine’s Graduates is the lead reform support organization for the initiative and its role is to serve as a bridge between the high schools, employers and community partners.

Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, a statewide nonprofit that collaborates with public schools to help students who face barriers in their education, works with 4,000 students in 64 programs across the state. 

“The Nellie Mae grant will allow us to bridge classroom learning with private-sector, real-life experience and activities in a way that benefits Portland students and teachers,” Jobs for Maine’s Graduates Chief Executive Officer Craig Larrabee said.

Kim Lipp, executive vice president of Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, said the grant will create paths to allow students who are not successful in a traditional classrooms to become engaged in their education. This may take the form of internships, apprenticeships or independent studies with local businesses.

“This is looking to create a system where more students have the opportunity to gain experience outside the traditional classroom,” Lipp said.

The partnership funded by the grant includes LearningWorks, a Portland-based nonprofit that works with at-risk youth, the immigrant community and low-income families.

LearningWorks CEO Ethan Strimling said his organization’s role is to build bridges for the students who are most likely to leave school.

“Once you hit the street it’s much, much harder to get off the street,” he said.

School and city officials said extensive community engagement will be conducted on behalf of the partnership. That collaboration will involve work between the Portland chapter of the NAACP, United Way of Greater Portland and Refugee Services Program to address educational disparities.

“This partnership provides an incredible opportunity to diminish educational disparities by strengthening the community’s trust, understand and access to educational equity,” Regina Phillips, coordinator of refugee services for the city, said in a prepared statement.

Mayor Michael Brennan said equity is the biggest struggle in public education.

“This approach of student-centered learning allows us to address that equity issue in ways we never have before,” he said. “Every kid in Portland will be able to achieve at their highest level.”

Student-centered education

The shift in learning models is consistent with an education plan unveiled last month by Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen to transition to a proficiency-based educational system that is more focused on preparing students for both careers and college.

Bowen’s strategic plan, “Education Evolving: Maine’s Plan for Putting Learners First,” would allow students to play a more active role in organizing their own education through options such as internships, independent study and vocational education.

The Department of Education has been working toward moving to a learner-centered education system, and a proficiency-based diploma, since the state introduced the Learning Results standards in 1997.

“We realize the current system is working for a lot of kids, but it’s not working for every kid,” said Matthew Stone, spokesman for the Department of Education.

Stone said statistics – including that 17 percent of Maine students don’t finish high school in four years – illustrate the need to make changes to properly prepare students for life after school.

“The numbers show we’re just not preparing every kid to succeed in college, career and civic life,” he said.

Stone said Gov. Paul LePage and state education officials feel strongly that schools need to be able to customize education to make sure each student is engaged in learning.

“There are a lot of ways in which we can meet kids’ needs better by building a system that is flexible and meets the needs of the way students learn,” he said.

In order to allow schools to offer proficiency-based diplomas – a key component of Bowen’s plan – the Legislature is considering changes in state law, Stone said. The  Education Committee on Jan. 24 moved forward LD 1422, which would allow proficiency-based diplomas.

Though the bill is currently working its way through the Legislature, Stone said school districts don’t necessarily have to wait for a change in state law to implement proficiency-based diplomas. The state currently requires students pass four years of English, two years of social studies and history, two years of math, two years of science and one year of fine arts to receive a high school diploma.

Starting in Portland

Justin Costa, a Board of Education member, called receipt of the grant “an amazing day for Portland schools,” but said the real work lays ahead.

“We’re very much at the beginning stages here,” he said. “It’s really the beginning of the conversation.”

Morse said a number of student-centered learning models will be considered for the high schools, including the expeditionary learning model already used at Casco Bay High School.

He said school leaders are vetting education models, which will then be voted on by the School Board. Each high school could end up with one or two models, and the same ones don’t necessarily have to be used at each school.

The idea, Morse said, is to make sure school is relevant, challenging and enjoyable and not simply a place where students earn a diploma for “just occupying a chair.” Instead, students will have to show proficiency in certain areas in order to graduate.

“The idea of zeros and Ds becomes antiquated and no longer necessary,” the superintendent said.

After student-centered learning models are vetted and narrowed down by school officials, the district will seek input through a series of parent and community forums. Morse said implementation of the models could begin during summer and fall.

Any changes in policy will be approved by the Board of Education.

Gillian Graham can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or ggraham@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @grahamgillian.

Sidebar Elements

Portland School Board member Justin Costa speaks about a $5.1 million Nellie Mae Education Foundation grant awarded to city schools during a press conference Wednesday, Feb. 15, at City Hall. Superintendent James C. Morse Sr., left, said the grant will be used to implement student-centered learning models at the city’s four high schools.