Superintendent's Notebook: When losing means winning

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I’ve learned over the years that life doesn’t always turn out the way we expect or hope. But sometimes, failure leads to success. We fall short in achieving a big goal, but an even better opportunity awaits us around the corner.

That is the case with a $200,000 grant recently awarded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to the Portland Public Schools and two partner organizations. I want to tell you about how the grant will launch a major effort to change our district’s high schools so that they do a better job of reaching all students and helping them achieve their potential. This initial grant could lead to a much larger one in future years.

But first, let me fill you in on the back story.

Last year, teachers from Portland High School worked with their colleagues at Casco Bay High School and the staff of the Portland nonprofit, LearningWorks, to write an ambitious federal grant application under the I3 Validation grant program. The grant would have provided several million dollars to completely overhaul Portland High, creating smaller learning communities, career pathways and many other changes.

The grant was not approved. But another nonprofit, Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, understood the student-centered concepts we put forth in the I3 grant and believed there was another funding opportunity through the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Based in Quincy, Mass., the foundation is the largest charitable organization in New England that focuses exclusively on education.

The revised grant is even more far-reaching than the original one. It involves all four of our high schools – Deering, Portland, Casco Bay and Portland Arts and Technology High School – plus both JMG and LearningWorks. We already have successful partnerships with both of those nonprofits. JMG partners with public schools throughout Maine to help students reach their full potential. LearningWorks focuses its efforts on youth, the immigrant community and low-income families.

Our recently approved $200,000 grant was one of three awarded in Maine. The “Student-Centered Learning” grant will launch an intensive, year-long planning effort. We will design innovative strategies for meeting the needs of all learners.

The grant will encompass education taking place in and out of the classroom and involving a wide variety of adults. Mastery of skills and content will be measured using a combination of traditional testing and demonstration in settings such as learning exhibitions. We will create a model for personalized learning that can benefit all students in the Portland Public Schools.

We will be seeking input from students, parents, staff and community members. Check the Portland Public Schools website for updates.

After a year of planning, we will be able to apply to Nellie Mae for implementation funding. The foundation anticipates awarding multi-year implementation grants to up to six of its planning grant recipients. The implementation grants are expected to total $800,000 to $1.5 million per year for up to five years. So, the Portland Public Schools potentially could receive millions of dollars to revamp our high schools.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. But we also have an incredible opportunity, thanks to those who wrote the unsuccessful federal grant last spring.

Sometimes losing out on an opportunity means winning in the long run.

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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