Superintendent's Notebook: National recognition for Portland schools

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Leading educators are using King Middle School and Casco Bay High School as models for schools throughout the country.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited King two weeks ago to see how an urban school achieves success. The stars of the show were King teachers, who brought home to a round-table discussion real practices that impressed Duncan and the many state and regional dignitaries present.

King Principal Michael McCarthy hosted the event. He is Maine’s 2010 Middle Level Principal of the Year, and a finalist for the 2011 National Middle Level Principal of the Year award. For 22 years, McCarthy has led King from a “rough and tumble” inner city school to a high-performing school that consistently exceeds state averages on test scores. Edutopia, a magazine dedicated to innovative practices in public education, profiled King earlier this year as a national example of a “school that works.”

McCarthy said more than half of King students live in poverty and nearly a third are English language learners. Duncan wanted to know how the school transformed itself into an academic powerhouse.

The conversation turned to King teachers: Peter Hill, Dave Grant, Ann Young, Wendy Steele, Pat Crowley-Rockwell, Karen MacDonald, Carol Nylen and Mark Gervais. They talked about how every student belongs to an advisory group, called a crew, and every student becomes well known by the teachers on the crew. That personal relationship is the foundation for all academic and social growth. King teachers said the school’s use of “looping” (having students stay with the same teachers for sixth and seventh grades) also builds relationships.

King teachers know that high academic expectations are critical in order to prepare students for high school. King uses the Expeditionary Learning model, where students work for eight to 10 weeks on multi-disciplinary projects such as studying the health of the Presumpscot River or learning about Maine’s civil rights movement.

The teachers concluded their remarks by crediting McCarthy’s leadership and his belief in them as well as his strong advocacy for students. McCarthy says of the school, “Everybody matters and everybody makes it to the top of the mountain.”

This past spring, Edutopia also recognized Casco Bay High School as a public school that works. In addition, the International Center for Leadership in Education recognized CBHS as a “promising school” at the Models School Conference in Orlando, Fla. CBHS staff presented at the conference attended by thousands of educators.

CBHS opened its doors five years ago. The student profile deliberately reflects the demographics of the district as a whole in terms of poverty and the number of English language learners and special needs students.

The characteristics that have made CBHS stand out nationally are similar to those used at King. CBHS builds it academic program by first building strong, effective relationships with each student through advisory groups.

Another similarity is using Expeditionary Learning and authentic projects to reinforce skills and build relevance for students. This year’s junior class expedition will focus on the Gulf oil spill. CBHS juniors will investigate the chemistry, environmental and policy issues resulting from the spill. The class is raising $15,000 for a trip to Biloxi, Miss.

CBHS Principal Derek Pierce says, “We are a great option for any Portland teen because we strive to actualize our profound commitment to our 3R’s: Relationships, Relevance and Rigor. Our goals remain clear, ambitious and essential: a community of learners where the wonderful in each student is known and nurtured, where learning is catalyzed by student inquiry and academic adventure, and where every graduate is prepared for college, work and citizenship.”

King Middle School and Casco Bay High School are schools with a commitment to their students, an excellent teacher-principal relationship and strong community support. Our district is paying close attention to practices that work. We are asking, “What do we need to do to adopt successful strategies in all of our schools to insure that every child graduates ready for college, careers and citizenship?”

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James C. Morse Sr. is Portland’s superintendent of schools. His column runs monthly in The Forecaster and on He can be reached at, and you can follow him @jamesmorsesr on Twitter.