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Throwing Out the Traditional School Model at Piscataquis High

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GUILFORD, ME.--Tucked in a pocket of small towns on the edge of a long stretch of wilderness, this community is an unlikely setting for "break the mold'' schooling. There are no colleges and universities in all of Piscataquis County, which has an area more than three times the size of Rhode Island, and no movie theaters. By most accounts, there are almost as many moose living nearby as there are people.

But educators here at Piscataquis Community High School are in the process of throwing out the traditional model of schooling. They are replacing it with the kind of learning environment advocated in "Maine's Common Core of Learning,'' the official state blueprint for the knowledge, attitudes, and skills students should have when they leave school.

Most schools in Maine are still trying to figure out what the Common Core means to them in practice. But Piscataquis, aided by a sizable private grant, has been busily turning the rhetoric into reality.

"What we have done with our curriculum,'' said Norman Higgins, the school's principal of eight years, "is in essence we threw it away.''

Tracking Eliminated

In the little more than a year and a half since this small regional high school began remaking itself, it has abolished its system of grouping students according to their ability in traditional academic tracks--college preparatory and vocational, general, and business education. Although the school still maintains accelerated classes in mathematics, English, and science, all students read Shakespeare, study algebra, and take computer applications.

The school also has:

  • Formed a steering committee made up of teachers, the principal, and the custodian, to set the direction for reform efforts.
  • Restyled its vocational-, business-, and physical-education programs and eliminated home-economics classes. The school's gym classes could now more accurately be called "wellness'' classes, with an emphasis on health studies as well as physical activities.
  • Established a "mini-grant'' program to encourage teachers to work together on planning interdisciplinary teaching units and work in longer blocks of time.
  • Expanded foreign-language classes and encouraged more students to take them. This year, 85 percent of freshman students are enrolled in such classes.
  • Purchased 90 computers for the school's 284 students and provided every teacher with one. Teachers can communicate with one another electronically, and students also take satellite courses beamed from Maine universities.
  • Begun rewriting the school's entire curriculum to reflect new ideas about content and philosophy.
  • Decided to begin development this spring of a mastery-based testing system so that educators can gauge their pupils' academic progress by how well they have mastered their subject matter, rather than on whether they have completed the requisite number of credits. That system, also emphasized in the Common Core, will be in place by 1993.

"For a very backwoodsy kind of place, I think they have instituted one of the best examples of a restructured school I have observed,'' said Robert Peebles, a Washington-based consultant hired to monitor the school's progress.

Backed by Grant

It helped, of course, that the school has a three-year, $571,000 grant from the RJR Nabisco Foundation's Next Century Schools Program.

In fact, the size of the grant and the attention it has drawn to the school have eclipsed the visible role of the Common Core in Piscataquis' reform efforts. Teachers here tend to refer to their efforts as "Project 2000,'' or simply as "the grant.'' The funds also have helped isolate the school from some of the state school-aid cuts that have impeded the efforts of other schools to implement the Common Core.

"There's no question the money has allowed us to do what I would call an accelerated change process here,'' said Mr. Higgins.

"Are we doing things differently because of the money?'' he continued. "The answer is no.''

"Without the money would we be eliminating tracking and implementing the Common Core of Learning?'' he said. "Absolutely.''

Mr. Higgins, who was a member of the commission that drew up the Common Core, said the experience "sharply focused'' for him a lifetime of educational ideas. As one who grew up poor in Guilford and took the same kinds of vocational-education courses to which children in Piscataquis' lower academic tracks were once consigned, Mr. Higgins said the Common Core's philosophy of high academic standards for everyone hit home.

"Let's say I'm a vocational student and I need to study Shakespeare's 'Macbeth,' '' Mr. Higgins said. "But I'm going to go out in the woods and cut down trees and my reading skills are low, so you tell me what you really should do for me is tell me for the 24th time how to fill out a job application and read the newspaper.''

"What kind of message are you giving to me?'' he continued. "The Common Core says 'Macbeth' is for everyone.''

In this county, providing all students the opportunity to go on to further study may also be an economic necessity. Jobs in forestry or in one of the town's three local industries are becoming more difficult to get for students with no postsecondary training, Mr. Higgins said. The county's unemployment rate is 50 percent higher than that of the rest of the state, and, with only 4.7 people per square mile, prospects for economic growth are dim.

'Painful' Change

But, while the changes at Piscataquis have been swift, they have not come easily. Teachers who had a lifetime invested in more traditional educational practices were apprehensive of the reforms suggested by the Common Core.

"There are people who have been here 20 years,'' said Jody Difrederico, an English teacher. "It's hard to change a style of teaching you've been used to doing so many years, and I think it scared some of the veterans.''

"It was really the most painful emotional experience I've seen the school go through in 25 years,'' Mr. Higgins said. "Tracking was ingrained, and it was really questionable whether we were going to be able'' to end the practice.

"There was also a perception that the Common Core's a wonderful document, but that's not the real world, and have you been in a classroom lately,'' he said.

As a tradeoff to the teachers, Mr. Higgins promised to reduce the average class size at the school from 18 to 14. He also agreed to provide resources for new materials and organized in-service workshops through the University of Maine on cooperative learning--a practice in which students are taught in groups of mixed academic ability--and on other education-reform models.

Some of the grant money was also used to pay for a three-day retreat for the entire staff last summer at a resort area a few hours' drive from the school. Aided by professional consultants, teachers and administrators spent the time learning how to work together and charting the school's own vision for education.

Teachers were also paid stipends to meet over the summer and begin rewriting the curriculum.

For parents, the fear was that their children would be used as "guinea pigs,'' according to Mr. Higgins.

The principal credits Rusty Sweeney, who is in his 26th year teaching mathematics at Piscataquis, with having turned the tide of parental opinion. At a parents' meeting, Mr. Sweeney rose to apologize to parents for not having given them the same kinds of educational opportunities the school was trying to put in place now.

"There were 75 or 80 people sitting there and I caught tears in some of their eyes,'' Mr. Higgins recalled. "That gives us unbelievable credibility in the community.''

On a February visit to the school, none of the upheaval that marked the earlier stages of the school's reform efforts was readily apparent.

No More 'Negativism'

"You don't hear the negativism in the teachers' room anymore,'' said Lisa Martell, who teaches algebra.

Over lunch in the teachers' room that day, faculty members discussed their own team-teaching projects. After school that afternoon, eight teachers met to discuss a project to integrate more humanities teaching into several subject areas--a response in part to the school's poor showing in humanities on state standardized tests.

"You will find most teachers here until 4:30, but we can go home at 3,'' observed Sue Stewart, a 9th- and 10th-grade English teacher.

Another teacher showed off what Mr. Higgins calls the "heart and soul'' of the school's reform effort--its new curriculum. Only about one-third of the way complete, the weighty document includes school and departmental statements on educational philosophy for every subject area.

"We took Maine's Common Core and pulled objectives from it to match our subject areas,'' said Donna Vigue, the teacher who led the curriculum-rewriting effort, "but we didn't swallow it whole.''

The document also includes a comprehensive scope-and-sequence guide for three subject areas. In the case of the English department, which Ms. Vigue chairs, the document lists local libraries and bookstores, describes departmental policy on censorship issues, and lays out recommended instructional methodologies. Syllabuses for every subject are also part of the written curriculum.

"If you don't know what it is you're going to teach, how you think it's best taught, and what kind of environment you want to teach it in, you're not going to get very far,'' Ms. Vigue said.

In the past, Ms. Vigue said, teachers took curricula developed for the school and "put them on a shelf and didn't touch them.''

In contrast, she said, the school's new curriculum will be a living document--something around which department meetings can be held or that can be given to parents inquiring about a course. She said new teachers also will be able to use it for guidance, while veteran teachers can refer to it to check whether their own teaching is consistent with school philosophies.

Lasting Impact

Teachers, administrators, and other observers of the changes at Piscataquis say it is still too early to gauge the impact of their efforts. In many ways, more traditional classroom practices are still very much alive at the school. In some of the classrooms, students still sit in neat rows of desks and teachers still lecture from the front of the room--a contrast to the kind of hands-on, group-oriented learning the Common Core advocates.

"Everything has changed, but I'm not sure how much has really changed,'' said Chris Reeks, a 12th-grade student. Most of the changes instituted so far have focused on 9th- and 10th-grade classes. Staff members next year plan to begin including students in their reform efforts.

But Piscataquis' reformers already point to statistics suggesting they are on the right track. The proportion of students going on to postsecondary schools, once among the lowest in the state, is now 65 percent. The school has cut the number of students dropping out by about one-third over the past year, Mr. Higgins said.

And, in an independent survey recently conducted by the University of Maine, 98 percent of the teachers at Piscataquis said they liked their jobs.

"I don't think this is a passing fad,'' said Mr. Sweeney. "I think what we are doing now will be the foundation for our school down the road.''

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